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Friday
Sep202013

Home Sweet Home

“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again."

—   James Agee, A Death in the Family

 

You can never go home again.

That’s exactly what my mom told me when I asked why we had to leave Tuxedo, NY (a place to which we’d moved two years earlier, after leaving Harriman, a place to which we’d moved six months earlier, after leaving Georgetown, a place to which we’d moved a year earlier, after leaving…) Yeah.

Mom was a bit of a nomad.

Her two best friends were Rand and McNally. The road atlas was no mere map to Mom — it was a brochure for a golden future, rife with possibilities, and she studied it like a kid who’d just discovered the Sears toy catalog for the first time. She even dog-eared her favorite states: Montana, Oregon, West Virginia. Our next home was never more than a whim away. To this day, I still panic a little when I hear Willie Nelson telling me how much he just can’t wait to get on the road again. That song was Mom’s anthem for adventure — there was no turning back once she started singing it.

I was fifteen when we left New York (that time). To say I wasn’t a fan of leaving would be an understatement of epic size and scope, like saying Snooki is a few watts short of a light bulb or Charlie Sheen has a little image problem.

The point is I liked Tuxedo. I wanted to stay. I’d attended seven different schools by the time I’d entered seventh grade, and the one in Tuxedo had broken the record for The Longest Time at One School.

Two years and three months.

It was heaven. I had finally found a place where, even if I still didn’t quite fit in, at least I was no longer being ridiculed daily as the ugliest, fattest, poorest kid in class. I’d even stopped sneaking next door to the elementary school each day at lunch, just so I could pass the period huddled in a quiet stairwell, away from taunts and fear and the constant, overwhelming yearning to just … disappear. Another year or two, and I might have had friends.

But it wasn’t to be. Because you can’t go home again. And whatever had prompted Mom to return to her tri-state origins in the first place — whatever sense of “home” she thought she’d find — remained as elusive as Snooki’s membership to Mensa.

And so we hit the road, leaving behind the most beautiful place I had ever lived. I pouted and raged and silently vowed to get off the crazy-train as soon I was old enough, regardless of where it had stopped.

A couple years later, I met my future husband at a community college outside Phoenix (thus proving every cloud has a silver lining). We shared similar backgrounds and had both logged many years playing Pin The Tail On The Roadmap. We left Phoenix, a town in which neither of us had chosen to live, and settled in Austin. My father and stepmother let us stay with them, rent-free, so we could pad our savings. Six months later we bought our first home. I still remember lying in the middle of the living room floor after we’d signed the papers, floating on a cloud of contentment.

We were homeowners.

That little house was ours. No one could make us leave, so long as we paid the mortgage. At long last, we had ROOTS — and did we ever dig them in! Past the dirt, past all the rocks, way down where the earth is cold and heavy. Not even the strongest wind could shake us loose. We’d live there forever.

There was only one small problem — small being the key word. We had outgrown our little house even before adding to our family. Once our daughter was born, it felt like living inside a postage stamp. I’m not sure why an infant the size of a bowling ball needs a million onesies, much less two million burp cloths and seventeen million toys. I just know they do ... and I knew if we didn’t find something larger, our house would stretch like an overinflated beach-ball until it finally exploded, covering the neighborhood in a curious layer of stuffed-animal cats and half-naked Barbie dolls.

With the threat of Toddlermageddon looming, we looked for a new house. Amazingly, we found one nearly three times as large, twenty years younger, and far more energy efficient than the one in which we’d spent the past twelve years … all at a price too good to believe. We made an offer. Then we sat back and said, “Ruh-roh. What the hell were we thinking?”

We don’t deal well with change. It’s not from lack of experience — it’s the opposite, in fact. Familiarity breeds contempt. In my case, though, the word contempt is too mild. Terror is more like it.

Homegirl likes her sense of security. Bigtime.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to sell, even after we’d signed the papers to buy a second house. Turning the first into a rental property seemed like the perfect answer. We wouldn’t make any money, but neither would we lose too much. It was worth it to keep our options open. If we hated the new neighborhood, we could always move back. We weren’t really leaving this time. And now we were landlords. Again, there was only one small problem.

We sucked at being landlords.

We could have hired a management service, but then we would have lost a stupid amount of money. So we did everything ourselves.

It wasn’t fun. In fifteen months, rent was never paid on time and the simplest of transactions turned into massive headaches. When our tenants decided to break their lease two weeks before Christmas, the task of finding new ones, especially at that time of year, no longer seemed worth the effort. It was time to grow up and stop hedging our bets.

It was time to put the house on the market.

Ironically, it sold just three months before our daughter’s school announced its new, permanent location … two blocks away from our old house. Rather than driving over 40 miles a day (and paying $6 a day in tolls), I could have walked her to school. In five minutes.

Of course, that would have meant returning to the smaller house. And life should be lived moving forward, not backward. Also, you can never go home again.

Because of my daughter’s school, I now return to my old neighborhood several times each day. And I know you can’t go home again, and I know I wouldn’t move back into that house even if I could, and yet … I can’t get past this sense of nostalgia every time I see the place. My steering wheel tries to turn, and my fingers itch to pull over, to trim the too-low branches from the fan palm and sniff the blooms of the mimosa tree one more time. This melancholy is more pervasive than the nandina that still grows beside our old garage. I know it is not the structure for which I long so much as the memories and the history and the little piece of my soul I somehow forgot to pack.

Some day, I hope I’ll be able to drive by the house without feeling so damned nostalgic. But then I wonder if that won’t be the saddest day of all.

All this reminiscing reminds me of a story I wrote when we sold our little house on Mosley Lane. Perhaps it’s time to share it again.

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you have the privilege of living in a house you love.

____________________

Goodbye, Mosley

 

I know it’s just a house. 

Just a shelter from the elements, a glorified box with windows and doors. To say it’s nothing more than bricks and mortar would be stretching the truth, since there’s only half a wall of masonry in front. Even that serves more for decoration than function. Simple lumber provides the only real support. Clearly, the architect cared more for cheap construction than design elements.

Once upon a time, there were rats in the attic. We set traps when we suspected this and quickly had proof: a dead rat, with a hollowed out skull where its head should have been. Presumably, the other rats had eaten its brain. Zombie rats ... who knew? Calls were made to pest control specialists. Contractors eventually replaced the siding and roofing, safeguarding us from the rodent version of Dawn of the Dead. We set more traps, loaded with peanut butter, in case any of the little freaks of nature were still inside. 

Zombie rats love peanut butter.

There are a thousand things I meant to do to this house. Now that it’s empty, they jump out at me: the gaps where the baseboards still need to be caulked; the gouges in the wall where I got a bit too zealous removing the wallpaper; the crack in the ceiling, along the drywall seam. 

If I look hard enough, I can just make out the holes in the wall where the baby-gate was attached. And that’s when it hits me.

These walls have seen more of my life than any others I’ve known. 

They held me up after my mother died, when the effort to walk was more than I could bear. They watched me bring my newborn daughter home from the hospital and set her tiny, sleeping body on the bed. They must have seen the terror on my face, must have realized how unprepared my husband and I were when I whispered, “What do we do now?” The house answered as best it could. The doors seemed to stick less when she was sleeping, and the needle-sharp holly outside her window quadrupled in size. No intruders would dare enter.

My baby outgrew her crib in this house. She became a child here. It feels so wrong to stand in her room now that it’s barren. Where is the Winnie the Pooh wallpaper border we hung when I was pregnant? Where are the Tinker Bell murals that brightened her playroom? 

The halls echo with my footsteps instead of her laughter. Safe, neutral tones have replaced the vibrant green walls and purple trim she loved so much. I know it had to be done — who would buy a house with such ludicrous colors? But it still feels like a betrayal, like I’ve destroyed a piece of her childhood. With paintbrush and putty knife, I have erased every trace of the giggling babe who once crawled these floors.

My little girl.

I’ll no longer be able to sneak into this room while she’s at school, or sit in the rocking chair and feel the phantom weight of her tiny body against my chest. The scent of baby lotion no longer lingers on the air. There’s only the sharp smell of fresh paint, and the bittersweet sting of remembering.

There are more memories waiting for me down the hall, in the bedroom my husband and I shared for so many years. Sleepy morning kisses and gentle rain pelting the windows. Candlelit nights and soft sighs. But these are private memories, best left unwritten. No one will know the games played in this room. The house will keep our secrets.

I walk to the living room and stare out the window. The patio looks so sterile without my jungle of houseplants crowding it. The ash tree will drop its seedpods soon, but someone else will have to sweep them up. I’m relieved, yet I can’t stop a stab of jealousy as I picture a stranger sitting beneath these branches. Will they wrap themselves in a blanket on chilly autumn mornings and sip their coffee, as I did? Will their eyes watch for the flash of red from the cardinal who winters in our yard? Will their spirits lift when they hear his song?

The image before me blurs, and I know it is time to leave. Time to say goodbye. 

Goodbye to pool parties and plentiful parking, to zany neighbors and crooked walls. Goodbye to an insanely large closet and an annoyingly small kitchen. Goodbye, messy tree and sweet, melodious cardinal. Goodbye, zombie rats. 

Goodbye, Mosley.

I turn my key in the lock for the last time and allow myself one look back. I see much more than an empty house. Behind the cracked, peeling paint of the front door I remember thirteen years of laughter and tears, thirteen years of fights and reconciliations, of highs and lows. Within this simple shell, there was the joy of birth and the sorrow of death. 

But above all, there was life.

I know it’s just a house. 

Just wood and nails that cannot see my tears or hear my whispered thanks. I offer both anyway. 

Thank you, Mosley. Thank you for being our home.

 

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