In August 2001, at my dad's funeral in Upstate New York, a cousin recounted her last conversation with him, on his last trip to the family farm in western Pennsylvania. "How are you doing?" my cousin asked.
Dad gave no small-talk answer: "Sometimes when you feel like everything's going to overwhelm you, you've just got to get back home."
Hearing this at Dad's casket, I squeezed my cousin's waist and walked away. Grieving, I wasn't ready to mourn the haven that would shelter me for at least this night and a few more before closing. I knew we would sell Dad's house. Yes, I could buy my siblings out. But I didn't want to live there; I just wanted to be able to escape there.
That July, during an intense sibling discussion about Dad's move out of his house and into my sister's, I had staked a claim: "I want a house key." It didn't matter that I lived 300 miles away -- three miles from the Pentagon -- and wasn't about to just drop in to the vacated but still furnished and stocked homestead. Near-in sisters had keys. I wanted one, too.
"Why?" a brother challenged. I stared at the self-appointed doorman. My sisters cut in. "You can have a key." Request granted. Subject dropped. Later I e-mailed my siblings, giving an almost reasonable reason: "If the communists bomb the Pentagon, I want a place to run to." In the early 1960s, when Khrushchev pounded and Castro pointed, we schoolchildren -- in a Rochester suburb -- crawled under our desks, protecting our vitals. Hands over skulls, we drilled for the day when disaster would fall from the sky.
In the most tense crisis, I asked my teacher: If a war started, if the alarm wasn't a drill, could she let me leave school, cut through the back field and get to the safety of home and the known? Mom, Dad, the carrots and canned goods in the cold room, the honey from Dad's hives, stored in the basement.
I interpreted the teacher's "we'll see" as implied permission to bolt if chance allowed.
Kennedy and Khrushchev worked something out, thank God. The fire did not fall in these states. I made it to puberty and even menopause. Mom and Dad died of natural causes in their eighties.
The weekend after Dad's funeral, I was the last to leave the house. I lined my trunk with canned goods and honey and then unemotionally locked Dad's back door. I would return, but only to dismantle, cart off, and clean the empty shell.
Late afternoon I arrived at my rental townhouse. A friend greeted me warmly: "How's it feel to be home?"
Startled by constricted definitions, I blinked back tears. Say it isn't so. One home and only one, and this is it.
And that's where I was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 -- at home in my living room, the storm door open, the screen latched. The phone rang. It was my sister, watching the TV coverage of the second tower struck in Manhattan.
"Hear that?" I asked. A plane -- too loud, too low. Yes.
"Must be military. Precautionary." No.
So it wasn't the communists. It wasn't a bomb, but disaster dropped from the sky, and just down the street. Rattled by the attack, I drove to the gas station to fill up and to the bank to withdraw cash.
I was ready to run north -- to that empty but not-yet-sold house. But I didn't bolt. Not today. With war in the air, I remembered Dad's reaction to Pearl Harbor. He lived a mile from the Corning Glass factory, but he didn't take his family away from the city, to the Pennsylvania farm. He went to the hardware store and bought a floor-model electric refrigerator to replace the inadequate ice box. If we're at war, he rightly figured, there'll be shortages. Back orders till it's over. The memory of this tale spurred me to upgrade; I replaced my troublesome computer with a reliable portable. I kept working and got through the week.
I remembered Dad's response to fellow church members' stockpiling against the great ordeal called Y2K. He set aside a few gallons of water, extra matches and candles. We bought him a new manual can opener. Otherwise he kept his stride. Wasn't his basement already full of home-canned goods and cold-room carrots? Hadn't he grown up without electricity or a car? Hadn't most of mankind lived -- even still -- hand to mouth?
I didn't run. Not that week. I filled some jugs with water. Counted my canned goods. Bought 10 but not 20 pounds of potatoes. I got through the month.
I thought of a third story of Dad's: In the Cold War he opposed a church's building plans for a congregational bomb shelter. No one could answer a key question: "Once the sanctuary is full, which among you will shut the door from the inside and turn a neighbor away?"
If I bolted for the sole purpose of self-protection, what would I say to my older, frailer, unfamilied neighbor? Left behind. She who saves her life will lose it.
That October I postponed bringing south a vanload of Dad's furniture -- until January, when a sister informed me that she intended to deliver the goods to my door: a treadle sewing machine, a church pew, the bed my parents slept in.
The next spring, and since, I've planted more herbs and edibles in my porch boxes and border garden. A young family has bought my folks' house. I've lost claim to its sanctuary. I'm living with that reality. But I like to think that, should I ever be desperate for homestead security, the key is still dangling on my ring.