aging in place, Family stories, mother daughter relationship, moving an elderly parent, Retirement, Retrospective

Journey Home: Five Years

house old jpeg

Five years ago today I pushed my keys across the attorney’s conference table to the young couple who sat on the other side. The attorney passed me a check. The sweet bungalow with the gardens I restored—a mission of love that brought new life to more than the garden—had been mine for five years. And now not mine for five years.

As spring in North Carolina gave way to summer heat, I packed up my little house. It was no surprise to anyone that it sold quickly, still I was shocked to already be leaving. From my empty bedroom under the eaves, I watched professional movers on the street below load my winnowed belongings into the end of a huge truck, and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. I thought there would be more time.

That night, dear friends sat with me on the floor in the bare, candlelit hearth room and shared the last of our many meals together. As they helped me say goodbye to the house, doubt began to crowd my heart.

I moved into a friend’s guest room so I could continue to be a wage-earner while I waited for my second grandson to be born across the state. Three weeks later, I loaded my 14-year-old Honda CRV with a few clothes, a cooler, the oil painting a friend made of my beloved house that I didn’t trust to the movers, a used Rand McNally US Atlas with a tentative route marked, my newly upgraded AAA Gold Plus membership card, and my cat—traveling in a dog crate behind the front seats—to begin the journey back in time.

I said one more goodbye to friends and coworkers who celebrated my 60th birthday with me the night before my departure. Driving to the house and restored gardens that were no longer mine one last time to pick up mail—left for me by the new owners at the front door I had painted Bittersweet Orange before I knew what that would mean—I breathed a namaste to my life there, got back in the car, and turned to the west. It was time to discover what was next.

Smudge was none too happy in the crate. I felt her pain. We howled together as we drove out of the city that had been my for 24 years. What had been nagging doubt began to pummel me. What the hell was I thinking? My sister was there at the other end, clearing her leftover things out of the rooms in the basement of my mother’s house she had moved out of five years earlier, readying the space for me; but beyond that there was nothing to prepare me for what I was getting myself into. This was not what I thought my sixth decade would hold. I was supposed to be keeping house with a for-life partner, waiting for children and grandchildren to visit and fill it with noise and laughter. I surely never thought I would be living with and caring for my nonagenarian mother in my childhood home 42 years after leaving it.

But as the miles and my old life rolled away, I slowly let go of my grip on what I thought would be and began to look through the windshield, rather than the rearview mirror. I was ready for a bold new venture, ripe with opportunity for an adult relationship with my mother. And it was only to be for one year, then I would find my own home again. The lies we tell ourselves. But I didn’t know it was that yet.

I stopped for a few days at the western North Carolina home of my son and daughter-in-law and six-year-old Max—where I welcomed my two-week-old grandson to the world. The knowing that I wouldn’t know or be known by these sweet boys sent me back into a downward spiral. I had already lost them. I had chosen. My heart cracked.

On the morning I left, I put Smudge back in her crate, and turned to open the driver’s side door. Just then Max barreled toward me from the garage where they were waiting to wave goodbye and threw himself into my arms for one more hug.

I drove down their long driveway to the road and waved back up the hill to him, standing alone now, his parents and baby brother back in the house. When I was out of sight, I pulled off the road and wept.

Five years later my mother has a new home, as I continue to spend my days in this house on the hill. But it will always be my parents’ home. It holds the ghost of my father, the essence of my mother, and the effluvia of a family no longer here. It represents the life they built and dances with their energy.

The past crowds around me, making it hard to see a future as I fight not to disappear into the shadow of the house that is my home, but not my home. It is cared for and lived in by me, but in joint legal custody—and joint memories—with my sisters. It is not mine to make fit me.

Am I, I wonder, staying here to put off dismembering the house, divvying up my parents’ life among heirs, thrift shops, the landfill, as the cousins did with my father’s childhood home recently? To avoid disappearing the place I’ve known 50 years longer than any other house I’ve called home?

Hard as it is to be without a home that is mine, though, it is also privilege to be caretaker on behalf of my siblings and our children and their children of this place of tranquility and beauty; of birdsong and coyote howl;  of moon glow and fog; of hills and tall trees, mountain and valley; of touchable and untouchable memory.

As I turn 65, I am nearing the legacy phase of my life. My first priority is that I be remembered when I am gone—preferably favorably. That means creating something worth being remembered for.

I don’t know how long I will stay in the house on the hill—and it isn’t entirely up to me—but that I keep it long enough for my four grandsons (I’ve gained two more in these five years) to remember it, to consider it their ancestral home as I do my father’s childhood home in Michigan, to tell the story of those who lived here to their children when I’m gone, is suddenly of utmost importance to me. If that means living in a place for a few more years that will never truly be my own, and spend more time and energy than I would like to maintain it, my heart—and my life—will be full.

house new jpeg.jpg

15 thoughts on “Journey Home: Five Years”

      1. My dogwood needed a couple big transplants before the roots took hold. Even then, it was a couple years before the first bloom appeared. I guess all things thrive in good time and on their own schedules. ( And then there are the rose bushes I went to great pains to remove over five years ago. It took an ATV to rip them from the ground. This year, a full five years later, two have returned in their original places to mock me. Sometimes things are more deeply rooted than we know … )

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  1. Several thoughtful comments to this post were left on my Facebook link. I’m adding them here to refer to in the future. Thank you to all readers for your support.

    Bonnie Rae Nygren: I hope it helps to know that some of us only know that home on the hill as yours. I’ve known you only a short time but when I visited I saw you everywhere: The thoughtful, small touches in each room, the artifacts of your life on the shelves (your photo album being one of my favorites), the light in the rooms that bathe it in a warm glow at night, the trails broken through the woods … The photos from your blog of sunrise, and green forest paths made me want to experience it for myself. Your descriptions were true and your observations of the different times of day and season give movement to a place that might just sit on a hill. Your stories bring it to life and your gracious sharing of it ensures a beautiful legacy for both your family and your self. I’m guessing that all of you are planted in those gardens and you will all bloom there in good time. Thank you for continuing to share this story.

    Tricia Sensor: This was so beautiful and bittersweet to read, Gretchen. I agree with Bonnie, the time you’ve spent there, you have made it your own in many ways while honoring your parents and siblings and creating a sanctuary for your grandchildren. I couldn’t picture that house on the hill without you dwelling in it and beautifying the land it rests on.

    Carol Schwarz: Love this! Now with the Air-bnb you are creating your own touches. Isn’t that what life is all about? Taking a life as a child that is a melding of your parents and family…. growing into an adult of your own choices.

    Gayle Curtis: Wonderfully honest and self-reflective story, Gretchen. I can identify with the emotions of leaving a beloved home, friends and family. I like Carol’s notion that with the Airbnb you are making–and leaving–your own mark on a home that is at once your “old” home and your “new” home. I remember with fondness the times the nonnette (or whatever configuration we had at the time) at your beautiful house on the hill. Can’t wait to see it…and you…again.

    Theresa Moore: Your stories of both homes have been so interesting and thought-provoking to follow. But I especially enjoy your continuing journey in your current home and life. Thanks for letting me be an observer and “beneficiary” of your many reflections and discoveries. . .

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  2. I don’t think I realized that your journey to the Pacific Northwest coordinated with mine. But while you were returning home, I was starting a new life. After living the nomad life of an Air Force wife (and a child of someone who worked for an oil company), when we sold our house in Texas about the same time you sold yours in North Carolina I had lived in 27 different houses all over the world. So coming to Tacoma was never a return to anything, but the beginning of a something new. I don’t have an “ancestral” home at all – my grandparents’ house burned when I was in college, and at that time it was the only place that had “stayed put” in my life. My mother and father returned to the town where Mama had grown up after they retired, and we owned a house there for a couple of years, so the town is more my “home” than a particular house. One sister still lives there, but even the cousins from my generation are all dispersed. I envy you having a particular patch of ground where you have roots. My roots are as far reaching as England and Germany, and as tangled as old fishing lines.


    1. You’ve got me beat on houses. I lived in three during my childhood (one very briefly while building the current one), 13 as an adult (plus 3 dormitories). My children have no childhood home, which makes me a little sad, but that’s what it is. They do have this place for now, and even when it’s gone it will have been the constant in their lives. As my father’s childhood home is in mine. My mother lived in many houses as a child and it was her fondest dream to stay put as an adult. After the war, she and my dad did just that. Thank you for sharing your story, Abbie.

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