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.