[Note to my wonderful readers: writing this is therapy for me, and the post is dreadfully long and possibly totally irrelevant to you. Feel free to skim or skip this one if you want. But thank you for indulging me.]
The house was built by my great-great-grandfather, the one whose name is in the front of the boxes of antique books I just went through. His daughter is the Anna who inspired my own daughter’s name. The house that he built is the one my parents moved into, young and newly married, with just one adorable red-haired toddler, where they set to work making it into a lovely home. It’s where I made out with boyfriends in high school, whenever I could manage it. It’s where I read every Nancy Drew book ever written, watched every episode of the Hardy Boys on Sunday nights. It’s where Mom left notes on the kitchen table, and Dad walked out the back door to go to his studio to paint. It’s where Dad and I threw the softball together and where my temper flared up every time he tried to coach me — at anything.
It’s where I taped pages of elaborate alphabets to the windows, grabbed handfuls of markers, and learned to draw beautiful typography by tracing. It’s where I played Monopoly during a 6th grade slumber party — or, more accurately, where my friends played it, snuggled into my walk-in closet, while I slept. It’s where Kerry and her friend Jennifer stood on the stair rail to peek into the stained glass transom window over my room and where I screamed hateful words at those little brats. It’s where I cried myself to sleep listening Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” writing letters to DJ, my first love. And it’s where I brought Mick, my British boyfriend, the summer we met before he left to go back home. It’s where I shared Christmas morning for the first time with a boyfriend after Tim and I met, where I carved out space for “us” instead of “me.” It’s where my cousin Kathy and I giggled upstairs, late into the night. It’s where my glamorous cousin Jodi brought her boyfriends, where I was mesmerized by their long hair and tan limbs and agile minds. It’s where I lay gingerly balanced in a rope hammock, rocking in the breeze until I couldn’t take the bugs anymore, and it’s where I lay late at night on the floor of my room, recording my prayers in the wedge of light from the hallway. It’s where I had my first drink and got to choose my first wallpaper. It’s where I slammed doors and fought Mom and cut my thumb carving a linoleum block and made silkscreens and took 4-H photos. It’s the place I longed to escape from, the place I believed to be the center of all things boring. It’s where I wrote papers for scholarships that would take me away from there, into this wide world and out of small-town minds and hearts.
And it’s where I returned to play Tripoli on a hand-drawn cardboard game board every Christmas. Where we put together jigsaw puzzles on a folding table. Where silver hooks jut out from the brick fireplace mantle, sturdy and strong but not large enough to hold the ever-larger piles of stocking stuffers. Where my grandma fell asleep in her wheelchair after dinner, mouth wide open and head crooked back, snoring so loud it made my mom want to strangle her. It’s where my kids pulled out the ice bucket and rolled quarters and pennies and where they read “But Not the Hippopotamus” with Gran before bedtime.
I know the perfect loop for the four-wheelers, the slight rise in the front yard where there was once a brick walkway, how if you gather enough speed and hit the bump just right it’ll loft you into the air. Just a little, but just enough to make it worth doing. Over and over and over again. I know where the bees like to live and where the hollyhocks grow. Every time I sit on the toilet, I look in front of me at the built-in laundry hamper with the tulip pattern made of drilled air holes, and my eyes go to the two dots that my dad forgot to drill. I know the ten-degree temperature change when your head crests the curve of the stairwell, and I remember imagining the scary things that might be above the panel covering the crawl space. I know the dusty smell of the attic, the fear of falling through the gaps in the floor and crashing through the ceiling, scavenging for forgotten treasure, dust particles making you sneeze. I know the view out my upstairs bedroom window watching for the school bus, because it was the only way to see it coming with all the corn between our house and the one before it. I know at what point the motion sensor light on the porch will come on, and just how far the spotlight lights up the driveway before giving way to pitch darkness. I know which cookbook used to hold $100 bills stashed for an emergency, and how cold the kitchen floor is on winter mornings, and how the sun slants across the field across the road in the evening.
I know how Mom sat on the porch swing that provided that view, reading the paper, settled and at home. And how that was the only place she wanted to be when she died. I remember moving her home from the hospital and how she hurt Dad by saying she couldn’t stand to look at his painting of the golf course anymore, the one hanging on the wall in front of her hospital bed. And I remember my brother-in-law sitting on the kitchen counter the night she died, telling us not to watch them carry her out, because he has never been able to erase the image of them carrying away his dad.
My dad loved my mom with every act of his life. I can’t forget his voice, watery eyes looking up at my sister asking, “Is she really gone? Is she?” I’m devastated by memories of Dad spreading her ashes in the yard, as she requested, saying, “I guess this is the last walk I’ll ever get to take with her.” And I fully remember the depth of his sadness, how the loneliness consumed him, how he didn’t want to be home. I remember the way he sounded like a teenager when he came home from Florida and told me he and Rita were in love. He showed us around her house in Florida with pride, wanting to convince us how great it was. How happy he was. And I see why he doesn’t want to be in the house in Ladoga anymore, that he needs to be able to enjoy life and not worry about this place. He needs to not wake up at 3 am and wonder if the guy mowed the grass like he was supposed to or if someone’s realized that Dad’s out of town and broken in yet. He needs to have fun, not knowing how much life remains. Knowing how quickly it can change.
Yet with every step he takes, I find myself holding more tightly to my memories of Mom. His decisions are not acts of betrayal, but each of them stabs into my heart just as surely as if they were. “I want to remember!” I silently shout, over and over, only to be drowned out by the sounds of change whooshing by. “What, honey?” Dad asks, and I shrug, too weary to repeat myself. The words evaporate, fade, as transient as I feel.
So he puts the house up for sale, and people practically throw offers at him. And that damn grief, that sneaky, slippery darkness, sneaks back into the shadows. Not his. Mine.
Whether or not he owns that house, the memories are still mine. But without a physical place for them to reside, I feel as though the memories themselves are threatened. In writing, a sense of place matters. Your story can’t be floating in a void. It needs to attach itself somewhere. The setting doesn’t have to drive the story, but it helps define the character and her actions.
When I lost Mom, I felt untethered, like there was nothing tying me down. In her absence, I didn’t know what I was anymore. Or who. Over the last two years, I’ve worked to rebuild. I’ve accepted that I know what Mom’s opinion would be, so in a sense, she’s here, even if she’s not. At first, in defiance — because, dammit, if she wasn’t here to stop me I could do whatever the hell I wanted — I chose the opposite path. Then I slowly found my way back to center, not walking in a straight line, maybe, but zigzagging back and forth, in smaller zigs and less extreme zags. I’m starting to feel a warmth when I think of her, not just pain. The loss is still there, sometimes still palpable, but livable.
And now, faced with losing the house, too, I feel like I’m out flapping in the wind again. Nothing to hold onto, no anchor to attach myself to. Logically, I can’t fathom how I could be defined by either a person or a place. I can make my life into whatever I want it to be. History doesn’t matter. Location is irrelevant. No one can take my memories.
Illogically, emotionally — well, that’s a whole other thing.
Choosing which furniture to take, making way in my life for more stuff, I sense how shallow that task is. How devoid of meaning. Boards nailed together, shelves that just happen to have graced the rooms of several generations of family. Family which feels lost to me. Generations past. If no one remembers, they’re truly gone. And I feel the burden of holding on, desperate to show them they mattered. Lives were different because of them. The loss I feel is staggering in its breadth. How do I keep alive that which is no longer present, in a place that will no longer belong to our family?
How do I redefine myself — again — by what is and not what’s gone?
For now, I clean, sort, eliminate boxes and bags of detritus, trying to make way and squeeze even more into my life. And I wait, and hope, that one night soon, maybe tears won’t sneak up on me the minute the lights are out. That I’ll carry on what is good and leave behind the sadness. That I can find ways to memorialize the people I have loved. That I’ll remember, and because of that, so will my kids.
And that I won’t need that house to feel like I still have a home.