[sounds of airplane landing, bustling airport crowds, muffled emotional greetings, and then, cell phone dialing, ringing]
Mom? I’m at the airport. I wonder if Dad’s coming?
He should be there. He left an hour ago.
I haven’t seen him.
Are you on your cell phone? I can barely hear you.
[yelling] I thought Dad was meeting me at baggage claim!
Dad? No, he didn’t want to park.
[outside the airport: sounds of traffic, whistles, taxi dispatcher yelling]
Narrator: In his 1986 Volvo station wagon, my father prefers to circle the airport rather than pay airport parking fees. It’s been a long time since my last visit home and I’d forgotten about this.
Dad! Here! Over here!
Hi! Good flight?
Not too bad.
The seatbelt doesn’t work, I’m afraid. Mind sitting in back? [door opening, closing]
Narrator: We take I-94 from Detroit Metro to Ann Arbor, a drive of approximately 30 minutes. The land here is completely flat and there are still very few signs of spring. It is a freezing April 1st, patches of forsythia bloom here and there against highway sound barriers, but otherwise everything is brown. A large billboard just before our exit announces a new Wood Grill Buffet opening near the mall.
[moaning] Where’d that go in? The old field by the pond?
Yes, but it’s good, actually. Your mother and I have been a couple of times.
Narrator: I try to picture my parents eating there, parents who at one time refused to go to any chain restaurant. I notice my father has put on a little weight.
[car tires rolling onto gravel driveway, doors slamming]
Hi, Mom. How are you?
Oh, I’m fine. You cut your hair.
I did. What do you think?
It’s different. I don’t know. I like it.
[screen door slamming, cats mewing]
Oh, you have more cats.
Daisy, Cindy, meet my daughter.
Ouch! Um, their claws need clipping, Mom.
No, they hate it. Just be careful.
[sound of a gas burner clicking, the flame popping up, a cigarette being lit, a long drag with paper crackling]
The house looks nice.
Do you remember the Fords?
Of course I remember the Fords. They live next door.
Well, they have a floodlight in their backyard now. It shines right into your bedroom. I wanted to warn you.
OK. Um, I thought you quit smoking, Mom.
And if I didn’t have crazy neighbors who set my nerves on edge, I might not have started again.
Let’s not argue the first night, OK?
Fine with me.
Narrator: On Saturday morning, I take a walk. My parents have lived in the same house for 30 years and the neighborhood has changed a lot since I was a child. Almost every house has an addition, a landscaped yard, an SUV parked in the driveway. Near the park, in front of an astonishingly well-restored Arts and Crafts bungalow painted in hues of mauve, evergreen, and cappuccino, I spot a man, a young father, getting his newspaper.
[sound of children playing]
Wow. This house was, like, all run down when I was growing up here. The girls thought it was haunted and the boys used to pee in the basement window wells.
You’ve done a lot of work on it.
Do it yourself?
No, no. Hired a contractor.
[lawnmower starting up in the distance]
Oh. My dad did everything himself when I was growing up. Cost a lot of money?
Did it cost a lot of money to fix it up like this, I mean, with these colorshistorically correct, I assumeand this bluestone path and that enormous addition on the back? Not to mention, is that an apartment over the garage?
We’ve done everything in stages.
Over three years.
Pretty short stages.
Narrator: By mid-afternoon, the lethargy that plagues my visits home sets in. I nap from two to five and wake up groggy and covered in cat fur. Downstairs I hear the sound of coffee grinding.
A cup of coffee sounds great, Mom. Thanks.
This is for after dinner.
Could I have a cup now?
I set it up now for after dinner. That’s the way your father likes it.
Well, could I brew this pot now and then make him another pot after dinner?
[sound of coffee percolating]
You always did have to do everything your way.
Mom, sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything without arguing. Do you feel that way?
It’s been that way for years.
I don’t think it’s that bad.
Well, you asked how I felt.
It’s true. I did.
You and your little tape recorder.
[living room clock chimes the quarter hour]
Narrator: My mother was right about the floodlight. The Fords have transformed their suburban backyard into a cobblestone piazza, the whole area lit at night by a large security lamp mounted on the back corner of their house. The mini-blinds in my bedroom only break the permanent daylight into bars. After two sleepless nights, I suggest Sunday brunch at a restaurant my parents used to like, but they tell me it’s gone out of business. They propose the Wood Grill Buffet. I agree, but when we arrive, the wait is 90 minutes. My mother says she’s not hungry anyway, so we drive home. I take a piece of toast and the newspaper into the backyard.
[sound of paper rustling, then a small thud]
Narrator: A blue jay has just fallen out of the sky and landed on the grass about 10 feet away from me. It moved its head once, but now I think it’s dead. [silence, breathing] I’m not sure what to do. This is kind of a weird thing to happen when you’re home. My mother is napping, and I’m not sure where my father is. Maybe I’ll call my old violin teacher, who still lives down the street and is a volunteer at the Ann Arbor animal shelter.
[sound of people walking on gravel]
So, there it is. Does this kind of thing happen often? It really freaked me out.
Probably more than people realize. Looks like this little guy snapped his neck on your parents’ cable wire.
[sound of paper bag being handled]
I’ll cremate him at the shelter tomorrow.
Thanks. I appreciate your help.
You know what you can do in return? [a long silence] Pick up your violin.
Are you still playing?
No, not really.
What a shame. Well, pick it up. It’s never too late.
Narrator: At three that afternoon, my father drops me off at the airport, then circles around and drives out of sight. My flight is not until seven, but I long ago learned to conceal my return-flight information. After checking my bag, I steer in to the first bar I see and order a martini. The bar has a white linoleum floor and shares its space with a Chinese buffet, but I feel like I’m already home. [bar noise, fade out]
Host: Back in Charlottesville, our correspondent decides that, despite the difficulties, she will return to Ann Arbor in June for her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Join us for the next expedition, when she is accompanied by a parent-child translator and endures record summer temperatures in a house without air-conditioning.