Finding “Home” in the Heart

doormat

 

Mike and I began house-hunting, as a couple, nearly a year before we married. He had been planning to buy a home of his own for him and his daughter well before we met. Before my divorce I’d owned a home too, with my then-husband, until our divorce brought about its sale. After it was clear we were a permanent thing, Mike and I needed a dwelling large enough to accommodate a blended family of five. Mike’s daughter was only with us on the weekends, so she had little concern about where we lived, as long as she had her own space. It was a reasonable expectation. My daughters found the prospect of moving to a new school district, and leaving their friends, to be a source of hysterics and great drama. Anyone that has lived through having teen and pre-teen daughters understands that it doesn’t take much for them to feel like the entire world is ending. So, we acquiesced. We made certain our house hunting focused on places within their school district. We found an adorable four-bedroom, two story traditional, on three-fourths of an acre, in a tract that had once been an orchard. It was in a “country-like” setting, around the corner from a family farm with horses and a donkey, in a quiet little neighborhood, and removed from the hustle and bustle of town. It had a huge backyard that butted up to a wooded area. The lot even had some original fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Each girl had her own bedroom. There was a family room with a wood burning fireplace, a redone kitchen, and a semi-finished basement (well, circa 1975 “finished”). It was idyllic. I have a very clear memory of seeing it for the first time. It was bright and spacious. I mouthed the words “I want this house!” to Mike as the realtor took us from room to room explaining the house’s features.

As we settled into life on Gleneagle Drive, we noticed that the neighborhood was mostly populated by senior citizens and retirees. There were almost no families or children. My kids didn’t mind, though. They had their friends at school, so we drove them to see those kids. What our neighbors noticed about us was not so innocuous. We were loud. My kids played their music loudly. Opening the windows during warm weather meant everybody within 100 yards of our house could hear the girls bickering. They could hear me or my husband yelling at them to stop or any one of us calling to one another between floors or rooms. We also had a huge yellow Labrador that was prone to “jail breaks.” He roamed the neighborhood getting other dogs riled up or nosing through stuff on people’s property. Retrieving him was a spectacle. It was me driving the junky family mini-van around the neighborhood whilst the kids dangled from the open sliding door, calling to him and waving slices of bacon as bait.

Our home saw quite the menagerie of pets over the years. Besides the aforementioned Labrador, we had two cats, two fish, a rat, three guinea pigs, and two more dogs. One of the cats and at least two of the guinea pigs are buried in the woods behind the house. We honored one fish, a red beta named Tony Beets, with a Viking funeral in the fireplace. He passed after a particularly long stretch without power one winter. The entire neighborhood lost power an average of two to three times every year. And that is something I do not miss.

The kids grew up and moved out and our crazy dog got too old to run around like a terrorist. Time mended our reputation in the neighborhood. Somehow our neighbors forgot who we once were. I know this because one year my husband and I took up running. We began by walking. We mixed in some running intervals until, over time, we worked our way up to running a three-mile series of laps through the neighborhood. One day some of the folks on our route started giving us smiles, waves, and happy thumbs up. A few of them even motioned us over to congratulate us on our progress and to tell us “how proud” they were of us. We were surprised, because we had always kept to ourselves. We weren’t aware that they had been observing us. They remained our little white and gray-haired cheerleaders as we trained for our first 5K. Sadly, our foray into running ran its course (please excuse the pun), but I will never forget the caring and support those lovely people showed us.

Our immediate neighbors to the South were Roy and Gloria. Like nearly all our other neighbors, they were older and had grown children. They were both still working when we moved in, but a few years later Gloria retired from her job at a nursing home. Shortly after that, Roy retired from his job as a materials manager for a local construction company. IEventually, the reality of being at home with Gloria all day every day set in for Roy. He ended up going back to work part-time in Mike’s store. I am certain his decision to return to the work was Roy’s way of escaping, if only for a few hours a few days a week. Once he got over the “shock to the system” of retirement, Roy quit working altogether and seemed to “up” his landscaping maintenance game. One summer morning I awoke at about 8:00 a.m. to the sound of Roy using his leaf blower to blow stray leaves…in the SUMMER…from his lawn and into the road. Good on ya, Roy. You’re the Beyonce of neighbors. Fuck the sleeping neighbors! You go on with your bad self! You go and do what you wanna do! Here, lemme get up and put on a bra, so I can pass you a mic to drop!

The thought of Roy and Gloria brings many things to mind. First, Roy was the consummate handyman. Whenever my “all thumbs” husband would attempt any project – like building a picnic table or fixing the mower or starting the snowblower – Roy would appear out of nowhere for an assist. I once watched him “help” Mike assemble a picnic table meant to be a memorial to our late oldest daughter. With Mike being a huge Star Wars fan, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Wow. That looks like a Jedi Master (Roy) with his padowan (Mike).” I also remember feeling awestruck by Roy’s skill. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do. He rebuilt our deck, and insisted on adding a badass elevated octagon-shaped platform. He and his son reroofed our garage. He fixed the sump pump on the drain for our washing machine. He even diagnosed the source of a leak we discovered upon arriving home from Mass one Christmas Eve that had sprung from the kitchen ceiling. When he wasn’t “helping” his negligent homeowning neighbors, he was “just checking in” with us. We affectionately referred to this as “getting Royed.” What it meant to my husband was a fifteen to thirty-minute conversation about a variety of topics. Sometimes simply going to get the mail would take ten minutes. “What happened to you?” I would ask Mike. “I got Royed,” he would reply. He never had to explain what that meant.

I was somehow able to avoid getting “Royed” much of the time…except in the summer. In my former profession as a teacher, I had summers off. I typically used that time to do home projects like painting, replacing electrical fixtures, or landscaping. In fact, by the time we moved, I had replaced every light fixture and painted every room with my own two hands. One summer I decided to plant flowers and bushes around the backyard. I put in a patch of my favorite lilies and, against the back of the house, a lavender hedge. I wanted its lovely fragrance to waft through the ground floor windows and to deter mosquitoes in the backyard. I also decided to plant azalea bushes around the awesome deck Roy had built. During the project, I thought I would be smart. To avoid getting “Royed,” I made sure I wore earbuds and listened to music while I worked. I also wore sunglasses, so I could remain on the lookout…on the downlow. The strategy was minimally effective. I’ll reluctantly admit it. There were times I peed my pants, just a little, when Roy snuck up on me while I was rockin’ out to my 90’s alt jams and vibin’ with my landscaping vision. Aaaaah! Having to put on cool dry underpants on a hot summer day after having wet yourself as a grown-ass woman (HEY! JUST a little). Yes. Thanks, Roy. Good times. Great memories.

There are so many memories that live at 7971 Gleneagle. Weeknight dinners around the family dining table featuring stories from our respective days. Meals that devolved into quarrels and ended with one or more children leaving the table in tears and stomping off to her room. Opening gifts Christmas morning in the room we spent the least amount of time in most of the year because it lacked a television. The sweet smiling faces of extended family gathered ’round the table for a Thanksgiving dinner I lovingly prepared. The way light poured in from the big picture window and changed, ever so subtly, with each season. Moments of calm, watching all three daughters getting along for a change. Seeing them laying on the trampoline, gazing up at the wide blue sky and talking about nothing in particular. How quiet the house became after the loss of our oldest daughter. How even quieter it got when our remaining two graduated and went on to make their own lives. Parting with that place was sweet sorrow.

Two years before we moved, my husband bought a fire pit. He’d insisted on getting one ever since he began working at the outdoor sports store he now manages. I didn’t see the point of such a purchase, but I finally relented. It proved to be one of the best he ever made from that store. It created some truly lovely memories of us as empty-nesters in our last days in the house. I had camped a few times in my life. Those experiences never led me to appreciate the relaxation that comes from sitting in front of a good ole fashioned fire. We spent two consecutive summers and well into the following autumn seasons relaxing by that damn fire pit. We enjoyed many campfire dinners – hot dogs, pan fried fresh lake caught blue gills, s’mores, and pie iron sandwiches. We even found the perfect campfire adult beverage – a red wine that recreates the taste of s’mores with chocolate and marshmallow flavors. Those summer nights by the fire pit were sublime. We often spotted deer near the woods at the edge of the yard. They always found their way to the apple tree to nibble fallen apples. Fireflies dotted the air and little bats would wing in and out of the trees. At twilight, the hydrangeas, lavender, and lilies made the yard look like a water color dream.

Selling our house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For both my husband and me, it was the place in which we’d lived the longest of our lives. We decided to move for several reasons. One was the upkeep of such a big house and large yard. We knew it would become too much for the two of us as we age. When we had three able bodied teenagers in need of spending money, having the lawn mowed or the bathrooms cleaned was a non-issue. Once our kids were gone, we grew weary of the housekeeping obligations. We also watched my parents age. We watched as it became clear their home, which was like ours, no longer met the needs of aging bodies with limited mobility. We knew we needed a dwelling that could accommodate the changes to come. We needed a home where we could “age in place.” My leaving teaching necessitated the move, as well. We needed to eliminate the sizeable debt we’d incurred over the years. We needed a way to reduce our monthly mortgage payment to offset the reduction in my wages, too. The facts converged. We resigned ourselves to the fact that selling our big, beautiful, beloved, and memory filled home was the only way to achieve our goals.

I’d spent years making improvements to the house – room by room, summer by summer. I decluttered and purged and staged and invested every spare penny. We were excited when we finally listed. I bought a little St. Joseph (patron saint of home and family) statue and, per Catholic lore to expedite the sale, buried it upside down in the front yard. I chose a spot near our lovely birch tree. I prayed the prayer every morning before I went to work. We immediately had people interested in seeing it, and, happily, we had an offer within the first week. We were thrilled, but that meant the pressure was on to find a condo. There was little available within our budget. We somehow managed to find a place we liked. It wasn’t ideal. It was a third-floor unit, defeating one of the main purposes for moving. It also posed a headache when it came to taking the dog potty. Still, it was the best option, and we made an offer. Then, as if on cue, our universe seemed to enter some sort of karmic retrograde. My father died suddenly. His affairs, including guardianship of my incapacitated nursing home resident mother, were left for me to sort out. I had just begun a new job and had little time off to devote to the sale of a home, the purchase of a condo and taking care of my parents’ stuff. The inspection of our home revealed a myriad of issues, including some very pricey ones. The appraisal of the condo came back under asking price and the seller was unwilling to come down. Ultimately, the sale of the house and the purchase of the condo both ended up falling through. Our heads were spinning. We had to start over.

It wasn’t long before we had another offer on our house. Though the inspection once again revealed issues, the buyers were less demanding than the previous one and we were weary. We agreed to their requests and the sale went through. Once again, we found ourselves in a position where we had to find a place to live…quickly. The condo we settled on was adequate – a two-bedroom, one bathroom 880 square foot former rental property five minutes from Mike’s store. The seller lived in another city. For some reason, he’d had the electricity shut off when the tenant moved out. So the first time we saw the place was by lantern. Another oddity was that the owner’s realtor had little involvement. His dad, who lived nearby, did the showing. Still, I found the quiet wooded setting appealing. It was a second story unit, but the ground floor was below grade, so it was up just seven steps. Once again, it was not ideal. Once again, it was the best option…and a hell of a deal. We offered the asking price and were delighted when the seller accepted. Then karma again had her say. The buyers for our house had a to coordinate closing on the purchase of our house with the sale of theirs. Foster parents with three young children, they needed to be able to move in within the month. Closing on the condo could not possibly be completed within that time frame time, and we were heading into the holiday season. We would close on the sale of our house and have to be out before we had a place to go. But, as fate would have it, we did have a place to go – my parents’ house, now empty following my father’s passing. My father had lived there alone for several years. It looked like an episode of Hoarders come to life – a filthy, smelly, pack-rat disaster. We pitched, donated, and cleaned as much as we could to make it habitable. Having to spend Christmas in the dilapidated shell of my family home was salt rubbed into months of wounds. We washed and dressed them. We took some Tylenol, gritted our teeth, and rented a U-Haul.

Even though I felt like I had spent weeks packing, the week leading up to our last weekend in the house was chaotic. It was the holiday shopping season and Mike, a retail manager, could take a limited amount of time off. My daughter and her girlfriend ended up helping me with the lion’s share of packing and loading the moving truck. They could only help for one of the three days we’d carved out for the physical move. Sunday, the third day, was our final day in the house. Mike and I were left to finish on our own. Mike made runs to my parents’ house. He packed our Toyota Rav4 to the gills with the remaining miscellany of our shit. I cleaned and touched up nail and screw holes with spackling and paint. The vacuum broke, at one point, and it was more than I could take. I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Mike returned from a run to find me sitting on the floor, in the empty living room of the now almost completely empty house. I was ugly crying with swollen red eyes and gasping for breath. He was drained and exhausted, too. He had little patience for my meltdown. There were still odds and ends that needed to be moved…or left. We battled over what to keep and what to leave. In reality, we were both grieving. His grief manifested as wanting to “Just leave it! Leave it! We won’t have room for it!” Mine was the opposite. “I can’t leave it. I just can’t. I might need it. We might need it.”

In the end, we took more with us than Mike wanted to…and I left more than my heart could comfortably part with. We both simply had to reconcile. The clock was ticking, and we needed to leave. Exhaustion was catching up with both of us. As Mike took the final load of stuff, I mopped the kitchen floor. It was the last task left. When I was done, I walked from room to room. Twenty years of good and bad and wonderful and horrible memories played like a video in my mind’s eye. When Mike returned, it was time to say goodbye…for good. It was cold and raining. Mike had backed into the driveway, so sight of the house appropriately filled the rearview mirrors. It wasn’t until that moment that I remembered St. Joseph. “Wait!” I said glancing toward the birch tree. Mike knew what I was thinking. “Nope! No! You’re not digging that thing up now. It’s raining. I’m exhausted, and we need to leave now!” I felt a twinge of panic. What if leaving it would bring us more bad luck? What if leaving it was like taking for granted the blessing it had bestowed? I searched my mind for a rationale. “Okay, okay, okay! I’ll leave it here to watch over the family, the new owners,” I said. Yes! That was it! It would be a talisman for the new occupants and their family. Mike’s expression was that of relief.

The thought did not keep me from going back, though. One December evening just before Christmas I persuaded Mike to be my partner in crime. We returned under the cover of darkness and when it appeared no one was home. He aimed the headlights at the spot by the tree. I had nothing but my bare hands with which to dig. It was cold. The soil was beginning to freeze and dead leaves carpeted the ground. I couldn’t find the stone I’d placed to mark the spot. I retraced the paces from the tree I’d measure out that warm September day all those weeks before. I bent down and started to dig, paw over paw like a dog. Nope! Not there. I moved a few feet to the left and repeated. Still no luck. I was beginning to get nervous that we’d be discovered. I made one more unsuccessful attempt before giving up and returning to the warmth of the running car, dirt caked beneath my fingernails. Mike’s expression this time said “I can’t believe you just did that.” It’s an expression I’ve gotten use to after all these years.

What Mike and I have learned from our recent experiences, and over the years, can best be expressed by an Oliver Wendall Holmes’ quote. “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” Our house on Gleneagle was a dwelling for us and our girls for many years. The experiences from our time there made it home and, because of that, it will always be our home. Still, memories are made by people and attached to places. We’ve made a few good memories in our condo so far. We have new, equally amusing and fascinatingly strange neighbors (but that is a story of for another time). We’ve celebrated some holidays. I found spots for almost all my Christmas decorations. We added to our family in the condo – a tortoise shell calico cat named Roni. Unfortunately, we’ve subtracted, too. My mother passed away and my daughter ended her long-term relationship. I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve learned to enjoy having a smaller space to clean. I’ve learned to enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while relishing the tranquility of the woods, up-close, from a rocking chair on my balcony. I’ve savored a nice cup of Earl Grey on my couch while watching the gently falling snow on a Saturday morning in January. I’ve awoken on a spring Sunday morning by a cacophony of birds in a tree just outside my bedroom window. After my first trip abroad, I couldn’t wait to come “home” to my comfy bed in this condo. The photo attached to this post is a picture of the actual doormat that sits in front of my door. I got it a few months ago. It took a while for me to feel the sentiment. I guess this new place is becoming home now too.

 

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