“There’s an aspect to materialism
that has to do with possession for its own sake, as if the goods we own
are a measure of who we are. But there’s another aspect that has to do
with attachment to objects themselves long after they have ceased to serve
their original purpose in our lives ...”
— Richard Bode, First You Have To
Row A Little Boat
I drove past the house, barely believing my own eyes: The house still
stood, but it was a smoldering, charred hulk, its insides awash in ashes
and burned debris. By the time I drove the few miles home, numerous
messages clogged my voice mail bearing the same report: “Your house
It was no longer my house and had not
been for years. After Mama’s death and my father’s remarriage, I
tearfully watched the last vestiges of my childhood home being carted off
by total strangers at an estate sale. Daddy rented out our former home for
awhile; then, tired of being a landlord, sold it. Daddy is gone now, too,
as is his second wife.
Like others fortunate to grow up in a
happy home, I thought my childhood home was the most wonderful house in
the world. Built in 1949, the compact brick bungalow was about 1,300
square feet. My father confided that he could have built a much larger
home, “but we would have had a mortgage!” My parents saved for 15
years to build the house debt-free.
Two large magnolia trees flanked the
front of the house, while two large maple trees did the same at the rear.
Our lot was small but my grandparents’ 40-acre farm was a short walk
away. Until my grandparents’ death when their farm was sold and morphed
into a subdivision, there were only a few houses nearby.
The living room, dining room and
kitchen flowed into each other. A floor furnace straddled the dining room
and hall leading to the home’s sole bathroom. My parents’ front
bedroom was large and airy; the smaller rear bedroom was mine. The walls
were block and plaster, and the floors were hardwood.
A screened front porch adorned the
face of the house, with another small screened porch in back. I loved the
tall, white-painted cabinets that anchored walls surrounding a white
porcelain double sink in the kitchen. My father added two additional rooms
by finishing off the second-floor attic. The detached brick garage and
carport out back were adjacent to the small plowed-up patch of land that
was our annual summer garden.
In the summer we enjoyed thick slices
of cold, garden-grown tomatoes on bread with mayonnaise, to me the
choicest dining delicacy. We sat on the back porch amid cooling breezes,
shelling green beans and listening to the sound of cicadas. I loved
catching “lightning bugs” in the twilight, marveling at their luminous
glow in a Mason jar with a lid of holes allowing air to keep the mystical
creatures alive. In the fall the leaves turned golden and the air cooled,
but the house’s welcoming presence never changed.
A few years ago I gathered the courage
to knock on the door. I had gone from room to room, documenting each part
of the house with my camera, before Daddy sold it. Now I wanted to see it
again. A single mother, along with her son and mother, were tenants;
they’d always wondered whose house it had been. The kitchen cabinets
remained the same, but otherwise the house was very different.
After the fire I went to the house
again and took as many photos as possible. (The tenants, thankfully, had
escaped the fire unharmed.) I visualized Mama’s tear-streaked face as
she stood at the rear kitchen window whispering, “They’re burning my
home place down.” When her parents died and the family farm was sold,
the local fire department was allowed to set her childhood home ablaze to
“practice” their skills. Eerily, I finally understood what witnessing
that must have been like for her.
As work progressed, one day I could
actually see the house’s original wood sub-floor. I realized this is
what the house must have looked like as my parents watched it being built,
full of their own young dreams.
Friends asked, “Why don’t you just
remember it as it was?” I couldn’t explain why I wanted to see the
fire-ravaged house that is no longer mine. Another friend suggested
retrieving a brick from the house as a remembrance. When I managed to
locate the owner for permission, I learned the house would be restored.
Continuing restoration has totally
changed the look of the house. All the trees but one are gone, as are
Mama’s azaleas. The second floor was demolished, the new floor extended
to provide more square footage. The back porch was enclosed and the front
porch has stately pillars.
What is it about this
bricks-and-mortar, physical thing that so draws me? I know home is in our
hearts, not in a physical place — but the allure remains. Today’s
mega-houses, filled with all manner of upscale amenities, can’t touch
the warmth of that small bungalow, filled with kindness and love. It is no
longer mine, but I know I will possess it for all my days.
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