In 1996, NBC News sent its anchors fanning out across the country, each to do a story about the place he or she came from. The series was called “Going Home.” I panicked a little at the prospect. My first thought, irrational as it sounds, was “But nothing happened there.”
I found a story about a federal busing order that brought racial diversity to my high school. The opening shot would show me waiting for a school bus on the porch of the house where I grew up. But I hadn’t found one story, I had found two, and the second, I can say without exaggeration, would change me forever.
While I was waiting for the crew to set up, the current owner of the house graciously let me come inside. I had been 13 when we moved away. I was 45 when I came back. My mother had been gone less than a year and my father had passed away three years before that, but for me their presence in the house was still palpable — the doorknobs they’d turned, their closets, Mom’s kitchen sink, the paneled walls in the basement. I believe they decided it was time to move when Daddy ran out of walls to panel. Touching the heads of nails I might have handed him seemed to open a portal into a long-forgotten place.
I went upstairs to their bedroom. There was the dormer window that looked out onto the street. I remembered Daddy balanced outside it on one end of a board he had laid across the windowsill, stationing Mommy on the other end to keep the board secure while he painted the house. It amused him to think she might hear the phone ring and leap up, sending him flying. As I went through room after room, peering in closets and expecting to find our clothes and sheets and towels organized exactly as I could see them in my mind’s eye, I wasn’t bracing for bad memories, only aching with the wish that I might find “us” still living there.
Three years later, there was a second series, called “Roots.” The assignment for NBC News anchors was to tell a story about our ancestors. Fatefully, I decided to go back just one generation and tell a story about my father, showing how his life intertwined with the great events of the first half of the 20th century. For weeks, I gathered pictures and documents and old newspaper clippings from family and friends, along with the odd assemblage that passed for our family archives. For 49 years, a box of letters, hundreds of them, had sat undisturbed in the houses and condos where my parents had lived. I started to read them for the first time.
My father’s entire early life was punctuated with loss and trauma, as I said in the 1999 “Dateline” story. Months later, sitting on the floor, surrounded by those letters and pictures and newspaper clippings, I noticed the date on Daddy’s father’s obituary — January 1940 — and I thought, “That’s wrong!” I had reported that my grandfather had died of leukemia three years earlier. It took me a few minutes to absorb the magnitude of my father’s loss. My father hadn’t lost his parents three years apart — it was only three months apart. His mother was killed in April 1940, in an automobile accident. The car slammed into a tree. Daddy was driving. His parents were 52, and he, only 23.
In a film of a road trip he took in the summer of 1941 with his buddies, Daddy appeared fully recovered. They went to Mexico by way of Los Angeles, Big Sur, Salt Lake City and Mount Rushmore — all in 10 days! “Making good time” was my father’s lifelong mantra.
From the book Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue by JANE PAULEY. Copyright © 2004 by Jane Pauley. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.