John A. Teske
25 December 2023
I lived in Pennsylvania for 42 years, but never really thought of myself as a “Pennsylvanian” until I spent a year living in Delaware. So, I think, does my 7-year-old son, who spent that year feeling like he really didn’t have a home. I was renting out the Mount Joy home he grew up in, and he knows that Nana’s house, where he is with his mom, is “not really mommy’s.”
Yes, it is Christmas Day 2023, at the end of my 70th year, and I am back home. It is the first Christmas in a few years that I was together with my two sons for a gift exchange. We burned a Yule Log on Christmas Eve, in the home I moved into on Labor Day 2001, just before I watched live on TV, as the second of the twin towers in New York City was hit by a jet airliner, and we knew it wasn’t an accident. Our lives are lived around the events of history, and the cultural changes they portend.
This year, hearing Bing Crosby’s iconic voice singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” always reminds me of the music we accumulate for this holiday, some of it from a generation or more ago. It struck me that this song might better relate to the lives of young adults, longing to return to the family home, the home of our origins, and of the now aging parents, and family whose love we always carry with us. I do not think I carry much of that longing, as this is my home, however I may long for the return of my own children, or even of the warmth of a spouse who no longer lives here. I wondered how old Bing Crosby was when he sang:
I'll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
Christmas Eve'll find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
Crosby was hardly a young adult at the age of 42, which once marked the onset of middle age, but this was recorded in December 1945, when many young adults, men in particular, might have been especially happy to be anticipating coming home, whether to parents, or even to wives and children, for the first Christmas after the end of WW II. My own father was still 19 when the Germans surrendered in May, having been part of the Battle of the Bulge and its aftermath. After we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year, the Japanese also surrendered unconditionally in September, just a few months short of the 4th anniversary of their attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Many Americans who fought in that war would not be home for Christmas ever again, but those who could be might well long to be “Home for Christmas,” even, as circumstances dictated, “if only in their dreams.” We can all still long for a return to “where the love light gleams” or at least where it once gleamed in a remembered holiday past, but we might also be part of that “love light gleaming” in what we feel for long-deceased parents, grown children and grandchildren, and even for lost loves whose love light has dimmed. Yes, part of the ritual of our annual holiday celebrations is an accumulation of memories, including the loving memories of those now long gone, or those more recently lost, so there can be much that is bittersweet, however much we value the making of such memories.
It is also such a nidus of memories which form the very meaning of “home,” and the warming hearth, and the hearts that it represents, even when they are gone. I think of Robert Johnson’s blues and Sweet Home Chicago. We still carry all these people and our memories of them as significant, even signal parts of our lives. Who are we, and where are we “from.” Home is what we carry with a familiarity rivaling the feeling of our bodies.
I am not really “from” Pennsylvania in most of the meanings of that term. I was born in Minneapolis, mainly “grew up” in Madison, Wisconsin, and went to both High School and College in Indiana. I have lived in Chicago, in Los Angeles, and went to graduate school in Worcester, Massachusetts. I was still a very young man when I came to Central Pennsylvania as a “newly minted” PhD and began my academic career teaching statistics and psychology at The Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. I was lucky to get a “tenure track” academic position in an era that was very much a buyer’s market as competition for such jobs was sufficiently heated that I was the only one in my doctoral cohort to land such a job. To what extent the internal contradictions of the job, or the Byzantine politics of the Penn State made tenure an impossible quest I do not know, but I don’t think anyone had ever gotten tenure in that position before me, nor would they for a decade or more after I left. I came close. I made it through half a dozen levels of evaluation, and even got a Provost’s recommendation, which had previously always resulted in the awarding of tenure. Was it the first female provost getting slapped down by the university administration? As my then wife was about to give birth, this was a big transition, both professionally and personally, and I started keeping a journal, the volumes now filling two bookshelves.
I would have had another year to look for a job, but I had already been interviewing, and got a lateral offer from Elizabethtown College, in Lancaster County, the edge of Amish country, resulting in my taking a quite different position there. I would no longer have to teach statistics, could teach classes far closer to my research interests, and even had the freedom to teach research courses, specialty courses of my own design, and ultimately a wide range of multidisciplinary courses which became increasingly important as my interests shifted from empirical research to the scholarship of “Science-and-Religion.” This was the intellectual inheritance of my father’s work as a Lutheran Campus Pastor, especially after his death at age 67 in 1992. This was even with the support of my department chair who had regularly argued that the levels of institutional support for empirical research were like making “bricks without straw.” There I thrived for over 30 years, got tenure, promotions, and even several “senior merit awards,” became president of my primary identity organization, published ever more productively, ran a few conferences, continued to develop innovative and often multi-disciplinary courses, and finally earned fellowships in several international scholarly societies.
I had a reputation for pushing students outside their “comfort zones” and “teaching really interesting classes,” until a new generation of students began to complain to administrators that I made too many of them “uncomfortable.” As things were likely to get worse rather than better, and my feeling of being at my métier in front of a class had begun to erode, I took a “Voluntary Retirement Initiative Program” and decided, for the sake of a second much younger wife and a new baby, to retire at age 63.
I had long thought that the college at which I taught happily for 30 years as my Ithaca, to which I would return again and again, after a conference in Europe, or an invited address in Copenhagen, in Loccum, Germany, and even in New Delhi. At the German conference, after I was asked to fill in both for a missing philosopher, and present the burgeoning research on embodied cognition, I would chuck 40 pages of annotated text under the podium, and just speak to my slides. An admired scholar from Heidelberg, who I’d heard at the first of the European conferences I ever went to, in Munich, twenty years before, said that my presentation was the sine qua non of the conference. When I returned to my Ithaca, I wondered whether the kudos was worth the 7-8 months of work, the long hours, sneaking off to a nearby university library during a family vacation, and the stress of preparing to give a talk at a scholarly society begun by my biggest nemesis in the field, I thought, finally, that I got more from feeling my métier in front of a class full of students rapt with attention.
While my wife and I had been together for over ten years, my retirement produced increasing tensions, and my expectation that her self-publishing business would eventually provide more income never came to fruition. She’d also developed pre-eclampsia late in her pregnancy, resulting in our son being born by emergency C-section six weeks prematurely. This traumatized us both, and despite my nursing my new family back to health, and running an international conference the following summer, I took the parental leave to which I was entitled in the Fall, and retired at the end of the spring semester, grading the final papers of my career at my mother’s death bed in Indiana. Then, three years after my retirement, it became clear that my wife would not feel her life fulfilled without more children, and, despite my being a “good deal” when we married, I was “past my expiration date.” This was really the “elephant in the room,” after several months of couple’s therapy, which I pointed out the day our therapist said “You’ve got good communication skills. You are good problem solvers, and you obviously care about each other’s welfare.” She moved out the next week, several months into a world-wide pandemic which would last for several years. I think my wife’s anxieties about mortality, my being in an “at risk” category over 65, and eventually her own father’s terminal battle with pancreatic cancer, led to our COVID divorce.
We had a largely amicable mediation of our separation, and I was (probably unduly) generous with support and settlement, hoping she might still make her business profitable, and so she could rent a townhouse for 18 months, making co-parenting easier. We shared Christmas Eve there, and I returned in the morning after Santa’s visit. I was the one to whom she reached out when her rebound boyfriend proved a poor choice, and we sustained a “loving friendship” well into the spring, even taking our son to our wedding venue in Paradise, PA on our anniversary. I still value the two copper cups she gave me.
We were celebrating reaching a settlement agreement, our mediator largely just a witness to our bittersweet division of property, painfully trying to take each other's preferences into account. But over our lunch, she told me her future wasn’t in Lancaster County. There were better jobs and better dating opportunities in the “greater Philadelphia area” of northern Delaware. Nana didn’t want to live alone after Popop died and had sacralized the estate by baptizing the trees in the yard with his ashes. Even my son wishes there was a better monument for the man who taught him to fish. My wife finally just said, “This is what divorce is about.” So, I said, “If you have to move, so do I.” Her move, from the townhouse she’d just settled into was finished by the end of February 2022, but it wasn’t the same kind of move as my uprooting 21 years of life from my Mount Joy home, where I had also lived for most of a decade before I ever met her, beginning just before 9/11.
Investing in a new HVAC system, repaving my driveway, painting my deck railing the Greek Islands blue I always imagined, the house was in good shape for a long-term rental, in case I ever wanted to sell it, or move back in my dotage. I signed a lease for a 2-BR apartment in Newark, DE for more than I’d get renting my house, but on a visit to several apartments with my son, he decided this one was “a winner.” I downsized a 1500 book academic library, and emptied out a basement of a ping-pong table, an iron wine-bar, and a 20-year accumulation of detritus. I packed up five 60-liter bins of my Ex’s romance novels, finally cleaned out and gave away a 60-gallon fishtank, hired movers for the big pieces, and then took several carloads a week for the next six weeks. “When's your moving day?” It’s a process, and one that took up what energy I had left after half a dozen visits to Chicago for my brother’s rapid decline from Early-Onset Alzheimer’s. I had my son on school nights, at a private religious school because my town and my ex-wife's did not have all-day kindergarten. We also figured a little religion wouldn’t hurt a kid whose parents were divorcing and whose Popop just died. So, we were finally camping out in my living room as I emptied out the house, brought in junkmen, a deep cleaner, and repainted most of the walls. Then we were trading custody weekly, so our son could spend first grade in one of the best schools in Delaware.
By this last spring, I’d gotten back on track with a consulting group to develop a public speaking career, had planned a New England vacation with my son to a “family camp” conference on climate change, and taken a relocation reward trip to visit and old friend who was now a Costa Rican ex-pat, where my room and board was free.
Then I got a wake-up call from my financial planners. My plan, if I was to stay in Delaware, would have to factor in regular rent increases, the higher cost of living in the “greater Philadelphia area” of northern Delaware, and a 5.5% state income tax on retirement withdrawals, which had blind-sided me after I didn’t even have to file state income tax in Pennsylvania, to say nothing of higher car-insurance costs. My ex agreed to my moving back to Pennsylvania, and, once we decided that a consistent home-base for school nights would be better for my son, there was no reason to stay in Delaware. I’d get two out of three weekends, and my son even suggested a one night a week visitation in Delaware.
Perhaps my real Ithaca was not the College at which I taught, and regularly returned to for 30 years, but the part of Pennsylvania I continued to return to, where I’d had academic positions since finishing my dissertation, at more than one College, since 1980, when I was 26 years old. I was still regularly lunching in Lancaster with my best female friend, at whose wedding I had officiated, and after one such lunch, I finally just texted, “this is my home.” So, most of my summer would be spent on coming home and relocating again. As my son spent most of his first-grade year at Nana’s house with his mom, alternating weeks at my apartment, and he’d been feeling that he didn’t really have a home, he was even more excited than I to be moving “back home.” I had found some solace on my little 8X10 study in Delaware, the stand of trees off of my 3rd floor balcony and driving my son to school through a densely wooded Delaware State Park, but I was comforted to know I was moving back to “Penn’s Woods.” My son also preferred the open farmland of Lancaster County, and I loved that the default in my home county was that people trusted each other. My junk man, my deep cleaner, and my painter had all come in under budget, as did the Lancaster County movers I hired to help me come home!
On our first weekend back, my son insisted we walk everywhere: Around the corner to the Weis Market, down to the park at the end of the street to watch a girls’ softball game, and across a field to Bube’s Brewery for dinner (he’s seven and loves that the correct pronunciation is “boobies”). Why walk everywhere? “Because we can.” Given the multiple cul-de-sac developments of northern Delaware, one has to drive everywhere, as there is nothing there but residences, so even local traffic is dense, the developments claustrophobic, school registrations also require the “name of your development” as that is a given. It makes me think of Rihanna’s hit song, Disturbia. Nothing is walking distance, and even driving distances are much farther than, say, the five minutes it takes to get to my favorite local winery in my “Mount of Joy” township, where everyone knows my son, and I’ve even helped harvest my favorite grapes. Getting anywhere significant in northern Delaware is likely to require taking I-95, even just to get to the only mall in the area, and there are always traffic slowdowns, especially during high-load periods. In Lancaster County, I actually know and have even dined with several of my neighbors, where my Delaware apartment neighbors never went beyond nodding hello.
Much as I liked my apartment balcony, back home I can watch my son running around our back yard at night, waving his lit-up Minecraft sword. We can enjoy our back yard fire-pit, and our afternoon sunlit commons over the railing of my “magic deck." We again have season tickets to Dutch Wonderland, have a blast at the Fall Balloon-Fest at Bird-in-Hand, and finally even took a sunrise ride on a hot-air balloon, enjoying the countryside, even dropping down to wake up the campers behind Dutch Wonderland, and, hearing the clip-clop of horses hooves in front of an Amish buggy, were tempted to yell down from our quiet aerie “Hey down there, it’s God.” We also got to root for our minor league Barnstormers baseball team as they again won the regional championship, and where my son once announced the batters from the press booth, and where I can have a beer and watch the game while my son plays in the left-field playground.
Bart Giamatti, a professor of Renaissance literature, onetime President of Yale University, and the seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball, described the mythic structure of baseball in an article on ”Baseball and the American Character” the October 1986 Harper’s, after my departure from Penn State, the birth of my daughter that summer and taking my position at Elizabethtown College in September. He described baseball, the prototypical American game, as an iconic “mano a mano” face-off between a batter and a pitcher who, like Odysseus, would dispatch as many rivals as he could, the lucky ones getting a hit (“a palpable hit” as in Hamlet), a hit in the field of battle occupied by the opposing team in order to, if successful, return to home base to score a run. “Let me root, root, root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame.” We all eventually retire from the field, but while even sliding safely into home plate is a step to victory, it is the “home run” that, as every little boy knows, is a peak moment in the success of his home team. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is my home field and, while an academic career may be a Series, a professorship, as I learned at the birth of my daughter, is just another job.
So, I was coming home. The omens were good. My son saw his first double rainbow as we drove through southern Lancaster County (Solanco). I switched my phone and internet provider seamlessly, and now pay half of what I did in Delaware. I bought my son a new “stand up” bed from our local used furniture shore, where he could “test jump” on the beds. On a Saturday, we saw a Ferrari on our leisurely drive back from a nearby mall, absent traffic. And yesterday afternoon a hummingbird came to feed on a Morning Glory flower on the trellis of my “magic deck.” All things new. Including now being happy to say "Ich bin ein Pennsylvanian," and on the wall is a Time magazine cover image of our new Senator Fetterman, with his “Out of the Darkness” story of overcoming Depression, a story that reminded me of my father’s less successful battle a generation ago.
I still have my post-academic, post-marital life of a halftime single dad to navigate, haven’t yet built a sufficient “income platform,” and I just turned 70, outliving both a father and a younger brother, who both died at 67. Old? I don’t know. On my birthday the octogenarian Rolling Stones just released their newest album, and I listen to Hackney Diamonds on a record player in my living room. At a seasonal part time job, I cannot tell people I am 70 without being told “no, you’re not," and I think I am energized for what I might do for my financial challenges I just rediscovered a flat stone “plate” I left next to my front porch, which says, “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breaths away.” Or, as I said at a banquet a few years ago, “I am a man of words, written and spoken, but what matters to me most is what renders me speechless.” Coming home was such a moment, and I am breathless.