My sister brought four air mattresses. We filled them and stacked them, two where my twin bed used to be and two where hers was in the room at 807 we shared all our growing up years. We both wanted to spend one last night in the house on Deering before we closed the sale on Friday.
Look, here’s the ghost, I said. What ghost? she said. On our wooden bathroom door the sap lines had run in the shape of what to me had always looked like a little man with a robe that I called a ghost. She had never noticed.
Whatever happened to your white French dresser? she asked. I think Mama sold it, I told her. She laughed and commented on how I had all my makeup and stuff there and I told her not to touch any of it, ever. Did you? I said. Of course, she said.
I walked through the house and remembered. The casual dining room always had a chocolate cake in the cake dish in the built-in china cabinet. The kitchen was full of sounds and smells and light, and Mama was always standing over the stove. In the living room our Christmas tree stood on the chest that is now in my sister’s attic waiting for my son to go get it. Mama and Dad both spent their final moments in the front bedroom after being in this home for sixty years. In the middle bedroom were a stereo, a piano, a couch where I talked on the phone for hours every night during my high school years. And the back bedroom my sister and I shared — I could look at the red blinking radio tower south of town from the window beside my bed, in the fall I could hear the compress humming, I could smell honeysuckle on the back fence. Every night in the adjoining bathroom, I’d wash my face and apply Clearasil, I’d roll my hair on jumbo rollers, and I’d read my Bible in there so I wouldn’t disturb my sister, already asleep. I read a verse every night, even late, after a date.
This place is where I became who and what I am. How do you leave this? How do you walk away from all these memories?
In the backyard Mama’s Carolina jasmine was just about to open in thousands of blooms.
Friday morning, my sister put on a red sweater. Oh my gosh, I said. I have the same sweater in blue and I’m wearing it today. We laughed and said, yes, we are definitely sisters.
One thing I noticed strongly: the house was too quiet. It was never quiet. But now it was unsettlingly quiet. Mama and Dad weren’t there, and the silence hummed in my ears.
I hung the old flag out front that Dad flew every patriotic holiday…the one I hung the day he died, and then the day Mama died. The flag signals all ends.
We went to the cemetery and told Mama and Dad a new family was going to be living in the house at 807. Then we signed on the line. And cried. And cried.
I am finally understanding myself after all these years. I came up in a safe world, the prosperous post-war years, a small town where everyone knew me, a church whose members fit my first pair of shoes and helped cut ivy for my wedding. No parents in the world were more stable than Ray and Lucille Hardy. In my home there was structure, there was a schedule, there was security.
My parents bought a little house after the war, and now that they are both deceased, I own that home. My father’s ancestors bought land in Kemper County in 1850. They are all gone now, and I own a parcel of that land, too. I hold in my possession things that are old and treasured, things that gave life and shelter, things that reflect stability and security.
No wonder I have a hard time with change. With letting go of old things. When I left my daddy’s home and entered young adulthood, life gave me change. Every few years, I moved, jobs changed, houses changed, children came, children left. Then a gnawing feeling in my gut grew stronger. I wanted to put down some roots. I wanted to stay somewhere for a long time, for the rest of my life. I wanted what my parents had. I wanted stability and security.
My husband and I bought our newly built house in 1995. This week marks the 15th anniversary — I’ve lived here longer than any other place, except at 807 Deering, the house I grew up in.
I am finally realizing, however, that life is not made of stability. Life is dynamic. It is filled with choices. I can make changes any time I choose to. Most of the time, I choose not to. But then there are those changes that come unexpectedly, that just flat knock you off your feet and pull the ground out from under you. You have no choice. They slam you, and you’re into this whirlwind, and you’re caught up for the ride of your life. You grope for solid ground to fix your feet on, and it’s not there.
There is no such thing as security. People are torn away from you, jobs, even houses that have fit around you and sheltered you. You can plan, you can surround yourself with what you need to make it, you can have everything worked out for the rest of your life, and it is guaranteed that all of this will be ripped away, too. In all likelihood, the best laid plans will not follow the intended track.
So you plan, but you know it won’t last and so you plan for it not to last. You leave room for change. You learn to hop, so when the ground is pulled out from under you, you’re already used to unstable footing. You learn to put one foot and then the other one on thin air because that is where life is. You learn that all you have is inside you and that nothing is under you. But you never really learn that because it is so against your grain, so you just do it without any surety and you hope that one foot or maybe two will land on something.
Maybe that is faith. Is it?
You learn a textbook definition of faith in Sunday School. But you don’t know what faith is until you are out there and there is nobody with you and nothing under you.
He removed a roasted turkey from the ice chest and set it on the kitchen countertop.
“Um, do we, um, have a knife?”
“Oh, a knife,” I answer. “Well–”
“When I took the butcher block table home with me, I took most of the utensils in its drawers.”
“Then I guess we don’t have a knife.”
“How am I going to carve the turkey? I guess I’ll have to get my hunting knife from the car.”
And so it went for Thanksgiving 2009. There was no can opener for the green beans when it came time to put the traditional casserole together. Yep, hunting knife again. There wasn’t even a table to sit at.
I spent Thanksgiving at the house of my childhood, that constant place, the place of stability and security and order, even at times when my life had none, the place my children knew as a home that would always be there; they’d moved around so much they never had a home like that. My parents bought this house at 807 Deering in April of 1949 before I was even born. It is the only “home” I have ever known. Now, my parents are gone. Dad in 2006, Mama last month.
We’ve done some cleaning and weeding out of things — clothes, shoes, dishes, cookware. The grandchildren have brought rental trucks and removed big furniture items — a butcher block table, a freezer, table and chairs, recliners, bed, rocking chair, safe. Now, it’s the little stuff that’s left, and the whole family had planned to meet for Thanksgiving for one last celebratory meal together. Everyone backed out, except me, and a son and daughter-in-law and twin grandchildren came for a few hours.
First off, a realtor met me at the house. “It looks good…don’t need to do anything…it’s ready to show…I have a young couple in mind.” Took my breath away.
Then I spent alone-time going through every cabinet, every drawer, throwing away, saving. It surprised me what I saved. A tiny crystal vase filled with stubby red Maybelline eyebrow pencils, the kind we used way back in the day. She had this sitting on her dresser. I cried when I picked up a jar of Vicks Vaporub. Vicks Salve, she called it. How many times did she rub this on my chest when I was little? I cried again as I picked up her jar of Noxema. She always bought this for my sister and me when we were teenagers. She still used it, and I think my sister does, too. Her jar of Ponds cold cream. Her hairnet. Her tea bags — I threw them all away. Box after box of Lipton orange pekoe. They were hers and no one else has the right to use them.
I looked at the backyard where the sandbox used to be. And the slide and swingset. And merry-go-round. I sat Indian-chief style on the front porch where I used to play jacks, next to a big hydrangea bush. Now there’s an azalea and daylillies. I looked at a portion of the driveway that is in front of the living room window and remembered how I would pull in the driveway going 40 mph and brake at the last second as Dad watched from inside. He always shook his head.
Everything happened there. Every. Thing. I kept crying and asking myself, “How do I let it go?” I’m not one to let go easily. I want to hold on dearly to things that are special to me.
Then Thanksgiving morning, as the kitchen was alive and active again, a little seven-month-old boy who bears the family name, the name on the deed of the house — Hardy — came crawling into the kitchen and smiled up at me. And this is what life is made of. The old passing, the new taking over. And it is bittersweet.