When my father picked me up at the airport in 2004, the sum total of my personal belongings was a faded dark green duffel bag containing most of Theas and my clothing; an oversize backpack containing a decades worth of journals; and a suitcase filled with a few of Theas favorite toys, along with photographs, letters, and other odds and ends. My father insisted on carrying all of the luggage while I carried Thea on my hip, her arms clasped around my neck. Shed picked up on my anxious mood and was withdrawn, surveying the strange surroundings as she had all day but not asking her usual piping round of Why? questions in response to my ongoing monologue about airplanes and airports.
This is your Papa Les, remember him? I said as we trailed my father on the moving sidewalk through the glittering corridor toward the main parking garage. Were going to his house.
As soon as I strapped Thea into the toddlers car seat that my parentsin the day and a half since Id called to say I was cominghad already purchased and prepared, she began to drift off. She was fast asleep by the time my father slid the car into gear.
We have food, he said, keeping his voice hushed as we drove through the days gray drizzle. Your mother stopped at Whole Foods. Milk, eggs, bananas, vegetables. He meant the organic versions; my parents never bothered with organic for themselves, but since Id joined the commune Id been vocal about eating only organically. We can stop on the way, though, if theres anything else you need. I shook my head; my parents lived just thirty minutes north of the airport, and after my hectic departure from Asheville, North Carolina, that morning and the numbing buzz of travel, I was eager for someplace, anyplace, to sit still.
We have a crib set up for Thea, he continued. We can put it in whichever room you want. And your mom got a head start on making dinner. I was relieved that he wasnt asking any of the questions I knew were on his mindwhy had I left the commune after all this time, why hadnt I given them more noticeuntil I realized, from his quick sidelong glances, that he was determined not to say anything that might upset me and prompt me to leave again. What he didnt knowwhat he had no way of knowingwas that I had no intention of leaving, because I had nowhere else to go.
Wed lapsed into silence by the time we turned into my parents neighborhood, a narrow, curving stretch of widely spaced Colonials, Georgians, and Tudors sheltered by just-budding maple, dogwood, and cherry trees. I reflexively pulled down the visor to check myself in the lighted overhead mirror, suddenly self-conscious at the thought of greeting my waiting mother. My hair was frizzy, unevenly flattened on one side from the airplane headrest; my fingers got tangled in my bangs when I tried to smooth them out. My clothes hung too loosely; Id shed almost fifteen pounds in the past few months. My eyes had dark circles under themcircles so pronounced they startled meand my face was angular, gaunt. A strangers face.
The final turn on the way to my parents house took us alongside the Indian Hill golf courseone of the most upscale areas in Winnetkaa vast, rolling expanse of green dotted with the occasional beige of sand traps. Up ahead, through the half acre of trees that provided calm and privacy, I glimpsed the high Jeffersonian brick front of the house. My father slowed the car and glanced across at me, stopping a moment as though giving me a chance to collect myself before turning into the driveway. The tires crunched on the wide stretch of pebbles that served as my parents front yard. Other than the woods in front, there was no grass or landscaping, just those small stones, making the house itself, with its oversize entrance door and wide portico, appear even more imposing.
Since Id left home in 1987, Id visited numerous times, but on those trips Id always felt myself to be at a remove, sealed inside the protective bubble of the real life I believed lay back at the commune. There, Id lived in cabins and in shared rooms in old rehabbed farmhouses surrounded by acres of fields and wilderness. Id viewed everything at that time in terms of stark opposition: real versus phony, authentic versus false and materialistic; Id dismissed the relatively grand scale of the materialism of my parents lifestyle out of hand. Now that I had nowhere else to go, I found this houseand everything about their way of lifenewly overwhelming.
My mother appeared so quickly on the front steps that I knew she must have been watching by the door. She was trim and elegant as always, in a pair of loafers, pressed khakis, a button-down blouse, and cream-colored cardigan. Her welcoming smile froze for just a moment too long as I stepped out of the carI wondered if I looked even worse than Id thoughtbut she hugged me tightly, enveloping me with a whiff of the perfume Id known all my life, then turned toward Thea.
Maybe we should let her sleep. . . . I started to say. But my mom was already unbuckling her, picking her up with a fluid, practiced motion, kissing the top of her head, smoothing out her hair, and quietly hushing Theas vaguely murmured protests as she carried her inside.
Theas mouth gaped when my mom gently set her down in the entrance hallas she took in the vaulted ceilings, the elegant wallpaper, the gleaming polished floors, and the thickly carpeted stairs. She had been off the commune only rarely since her birth, and had never experienced anything like these lavish surroundings. Rather than finding this environment claustrophobic, as I had when Id left home, I now found its orderliness and deep-pile softness comforting. Id left civilization in 1987 feeling betrayed by suburbia, but now I was returning feeling betrayed by wilderness. I tried to fill in the gaps between these two extremes for Thea. This is Grandma Dino, remember her? She stared up at my mother. Though it had been some time since shed seen my parents, on their last visit to the commune, Id shown her pictures as I packed up, in an effort to ease the transition. This is the dining room where were going to eat, I said as I took Theas hand and led her through the house, which was filling with the smell of the cottage-fried potatoes my mom was making on the stove, a childhood favorite of mine. This is the kitchen where were going to cook, thats the backyard where you can play. . . .
This is home. For now, I finished as we entered the upstairs bedroom where we were staying. Though I managed to keep my tone bright, I was thinking, How can I possibly make this work? On my own, I would have curled up in a fetal position on the bed, shell-shocked and disoriented, but Thea was watching me, looking for cues. I also could not bear to disappoint my parents after the obvious care they had taken to make Thea and me feel comfortable and cared for.
There was enough time for me to give Thea a bath before dinner. Though she looked around wide-eyed at the gleaming white bathroom, she relaxed in the tub. Wed had running water on the commune, but we were also sticklers for conservation and would share bathwater. By the time it was your turn to bathe, the water was generally somewhere between lukewarm and cool, depending on where in the order of things your bath fell. Thea looked around in wonder at the clouds of steam rising around her, and when I splashed her, she giggledthe first smile Id seen from her all day.
I struggled to find an outfit for her in the bags my father had carried upstairs. Every six months or so, my mother had mailed large care packages of Gap Kids clothing for Thea, who would insist on trying on everything at once, layering three shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks (she was a tomboy, and my mother knew enough not to try sending skirts or dresses). But the last round of clothes had gotten stained and torn from the largely outdoor life we lived at the farm, where the dirt constantly blew in from the fields. I settled on the least stained pair of jeans I could find and a long-sleeved top with two buttons at the front. I told Thea, as I rubbed her blond shoulder-length hair dry with the towel, Grandma Dinos made a special dinner for you. Id asked my mom, before we came upstairs, to make Theas favorite comfort food, poached eggs and brown ricenormally a breakfast food, but I wanted her to experience at least one familiar thing today.
As she followed me through the downstairs hall to the kitchen, Thea looked around inquisitively. Hi, Thea! my mother said. Thea looked past her toward the kitchen and then at the empty den, summing up all the questions that must have been running through her mind all day with one so focused and observant it stunned me: Where are all the people?
After dinner, I worried that Thea might have trouble falling asleep in the new place, but she dropped off almost instantly when I clicked off the light. I pulled the white quilt up to her chin and settled quietly into the bed beside her. I was exhausted, too, but my mind was racing. The question that kept recurring, what I couldnt understand, was how the hell I had reached this point in timehow Id fallen so far from my initial, idealistic hopes for a better life.
In September 1987, in a moment that was in almost every way the opposite of my homecoming experience, my father had walked me to the gate at OHare for my departure to California and the commune, known at that time as Zendik Farm Arts Cooperative. Id worn a tank top, a long cotton Indian-print skirt, and Birkenstocks with two different-colored kneesocks, and I had winnowed the contents of my life down to the bare essentials (Simplify!): my cat, Louie; sixteen books, including Thoreaus Walden, Carlos Castanedas The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, and J. D. Salingers The Catcher in the Rye; a toothbrush; and a backpack full of clothes. My dad had hugged me at OHare with tears in his eyesmy mom had been too upset to go to the airportand I knew he was scared for me. But as Id walked through the departure gate I wasnt scared: I was breaking from everything I knew, parting with the past, exhilarated by what I thought lay ahead. It wasnt until I got to Zendik Farm that I felt some trepidation.
Looking out the window of the cab from the airport as Id first approached the farm in the high desert seventy miles east of San DiegoLouie, travel-weary and disgruntled, perched in my lapI scanned the arid landscape uneasily: Surely nothing could grow here, least of all organically. The surroundings were starkly beautifulhigh boulders, sparse scrub, the looming shape of the aptly named Rattlesnake Mountain rising in the near distance (rattlesnakes, I would soon learn, had infested the farmhouse before it was rehabbed). The landscape looked like a scene from a John Ford Western. But then I spotted the acres of cultivated vegetable gardens at the edge of the propertylushly, lavishly green with late summer and early fall crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, kale, and chard, most of them growing in three-foot-wide rows.
Soon after I arrived, when Id finished settling my bags in the brightly painted Quonset hut that Id be sharing with three other women, I was handed a dog-eared copy of Rodales Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Id mentioned my interest in learning to grow organic food when Id first called after reading the communes ad in a local Chicago newspaperthis was, in fact, one of the main reasons Id wanted to joinand I was almost immediately led out into the fields for a tour and to harvest sugar snap peas. We like to learn by doing here, Arol, the fit, charismatic cofounder and leader of the commune told me, fixing me with her intense blue eyes. (Exactly the kind of person Ive been looking for, was my first impression as I noted her handmade ankle-length denim skirt and fossilized shark tooth necklace. Exactly the kind of person I want to be.)
This was, I thought, exactly what Id been searching for in life and had started doubting Id find. A short distance away from where I stood with Arol, down the drive that led to the farmhouse, I could glimpse the arched entrance gate where a hand-painted sign contained a play on the motto inscribed on the entrance to Dantes Inferno: ye who leave here, abandon all hope.
On our first morning at my parents house, Thea woke just before sunrise, startling me with a warm hand placed on my cheek. I reflexively reached to smooth her hair and swung my legs over the edge of the bed, murmuring a string of words that I hoped would help her locate herself and adjust. Were in Dino and Papas house, remember? We flew here in an airplane yesterday. You took a hot hot bath, . . .
Downstairs, I sat at the kitchen table and pulled Thea into my lap, looking out across the terrace to the tree-enclosed backyard. I was comforted to see a few pressed grooves in the newly growing grass where several deer had spent the night, and pointed this out to Thea. Though my parents lived in a decidedly suburban, cultivated area, there was still enough wildlife arounddeer, birds, rabbits, even an occasional coyote (sheltered in part by the nearby golf course)for me to hope that Thea would feel some connection and kinship to the rural landscape in which shed spent all of her nearly three years. I pulled a blanket I had grabbed from the den over her shoulders and carried her out into the yard so that she could hear the birds just wakingrobins, cardinals, redwing blackbirds, and a few mourning doves clumsily hop-stepping around the overflow of seed from my mothers standing feeder.
All throughout that first morning and afternoonin between meals and getting dressedI kept returning to the backyard with Thea, wanting something familiar for her and for me. My mother noted this and over lunchgrilled cheese for Theashe asked if I might like her to find a jogging stroller so that I could take Thea for walks along the golf course and in the nearby area parks where, before Thea was born, Id walked alone for hours. I told her yes and thanked her for the suggestion.
Excerpted from From the Ground Up by Jeanne Nolan. Copyright © 2013 by Jeanne Nolan. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.