My wife and I live with our six kids right across the street from the house she grew up in. Her 93 year old mother still lives there. We are one block away from the high school where we were sweethearts. We’re about a mile and a half from the house where I grew up. Before we were married I used to walk to her house every evening, hang around looking deep into her big brown eyes and all that stuff and then walk home in the wee hours.
We never believed that we had to find the right place to live before we could start being happy. My personal preference runs toward the rural… well, okay, the inaccessibly remote. I’m not sure my wife has a strong preference; she’s always been way ahead of me in the realization that people and relationships matter, places not so much. So we stuck around to be available for her mom and my dad.
Pop passed away a few years ago. The magnitude of the loss is still making itself known and will never be fully comprehensible. One of the few physical reminders of his 83 years on earth and everything set in motion thereby is an empty house.
Yeah, it’s all still there. The silver maple with my initials, the towering spruce trees mom and dad bought as twigs to support my Boy Scout troop, the forsythia, azaleas and, I think, the flags that come up in summer. As houses go it’s not much. A two bedroom Cape Cod built during the Second World War with an attic converted into two cramped, low ceilinged sections for my brother and me. My sister had her own room which somehow worked out to even less space than the boys had.
I could write a Russian novel about everything that went on there and what’s become of everybody and how the neighborhood has changed and so on. Since it’s a story everybody has in one form or another I won’t bother. I’ll just skip ahead to the part about occasionally driving down the old street past the empty old place. No change. No change. Oh, our neighbor from before I was born died. Now her house is empty too.
An empty house is the end of the line. As long as it was empty it was still, in a sense mine no matter what the deed said. All the stuff that happened there was our stuff. The paint on the walls was our paint. The signed handprints in the cement in the basement were ours. The dust in the closets, the sunlight in the kitchen windows, the quiet in the middle of the night were known to nobody but us.
Recently, while running an errand I took an extra five minutes and drove past the house. There were lights. There was an American flag flying. There was a gigantic Christmas wreath on the front door. None of this was a surprise. My sister had alerted me to these signs of habitation when she came to visit on Thanksgiving.
What did surprise me was how it felt. It was weird. The house was no longer the end of the line; there was no more line. Somebody else was starting to have our experiences, mixing them with their perceptions, turning ours into theirs. One by one, as family members moved, moved on or passed away the strands connecting us to the center were stretched or snapped. Now the center itself was removed, lifted from our circle to fit into somebody else’s.
I guess it’s natural. I guess most people have a similar experience. I guess it’s really just one in an endless onslaught of disorienting experiences that serve to remind us that this world is not our true home no matter how invested we are.
I don’t know the strangers in my house. Chances are I’ll never meet them, much less get to know them. But I hope they build lives as rich as the ones we built. I hope their imperfections draw them together, as ours did. I hope that in the future they will miss each other the way my sister and I miss our mom, dad and brother.
As houses go it’s not much. As homes go it was a gift from God.