It belonged to me, partly, for a short time. The image above, of it reduced to a smoldering heap, atop its cinder block foundation, should make me sad, but doesn’t. Although I sympathize with its current settlers, displaced and robbed of their belongings, I’m glad it’s gone. If I’d been notified while it was a blaze, I would’ve parked out front, alongside the ditch bank of rural Tomahawk Street, with a six pack of beer, toasting it’s demise.
To the community, by which it was cradled, it once stood as a welcome reminder of my mother and step-father, who built it and lived there for years. To me, it symbolized grief, not just of their deaths, but more importantly their lives and the lies we all lived there.
Beginning during my teens, construction wavered under my step-father’s supervision. For every productive person providing assistance, there were a half a dozen more, along with female groupies, who showed up to spend evenings around fire barrels, drinking beer, celebrating ‘his’ unfinished accomplishment. I lived there for just a few years, after it was completed, out of boxes, before embarking into independence at seventeen, followed shortly thereafter by my brother’s exodus.
Exercising her innate artistic flare, my mother tried tirelessly, on a stretched budget, to make the house a home, hanging hand embroideries on the walls when she could stow enough money aside to have one professionally framed, strategically planting spider lilies and Japanese maples in the yard to accent its facade; her talents adorned the house every holiday, especially Christmas, when she dressed three trees in different rooms. Standing afar, I often wondered if she realized she was merely making the house look like a home.
It served my parents well, shielding them from the elements of nature for two decades, surviving even hurricane Hugo of 1989 without damage, but it proved no match in keeping tragedy at bay. The vortex of dysfunction within its walls seemed to attract bizarre detriments to our family. My mother, attempting to make light of sickness and death, often joked that the land they chose to build upon, was obviously an old burial ground, and they had stirred resting spirits, who in turn were punishing our family for the disturbance. I always knew it was much more than that.
Displaced in the early 90s after my first divorce, I again found myself suffocating within its walls. There was no rest there, no warmth, no welcome, only angst. Willing to escape its chokeholds by any means, I hastily persuaded another man to make me his wife, living free from its grasp for ten years, during which time my brother’s sanity succumbed to schizophrenia. He too, still found no rest, warmth or welcome there. When my step-father’s health declined, requiring 24 hour a day care, simultaneously during my second divorce, I moved back in again, with two children in tow, secretly hoping his death would also bring an end to the alienation I felt under that house’s roof. It did not.
My step-father’s death brought things to light, things that no one wanted to talk about, specifically the fact that my brother Eric and I were step-children; as step-children, and because Port didn’t have a will upon his death, we weren’t rightfully blood lined to inherent anything that our mother attained during her marriage to our step-father. While Eric lay in a pre-vegetative state, bed ridden and mute, in a nearby nursing home, our mother stood in the hallway, outside the bathroom where I readied for my work day, apologetically explaining that ownership of the house and land were being transferred equally into her and our baby sisters names, but she would set things right, later. With tears streaking my freshly painted face, I rejected her peace offering, shutting her down with a guttural “You know what Mama, don’t you change a damned thing! You leave it just the way it is!”
My reaction, uncontrolled as it was, shocked us both. Wincing from the blow, I scampered out the door, clutching the pain in my chest. My hurt blinded me to hers; maybe I expected too much from a woman who had just buried her husband of twenty six years.
I left the place called home again, but this time it was different; I wasn’t running away from my step-father, or from fear, I was running away to escape the pain of my own mother’s rejection. I left her there alone, to lounge in her pool of passivity.
She made good on her peace offering years later, while setting her affairs in order as she battled ovarian cancer, willing her interest in the house to me upon her death. Still nursing my wounds, I held no appreciation for the olive branch she extended, expressing disinterest in the house or its monetary value. It was nothing more than a house of pain, as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t care what she chose to do with it. Her reasoning added insult to injury. She felt Felicia would be incapable of its up keep and financial strains, therefore she was depending on me, as executor of her estate, to take care of those matters after her death. Her peace offering, her olive branch, felt like a weight tied around my ankles, anchoring me to hurt and pain I spent the majority of my life trying to escape.
As the weeks, then months passed after her death, Felicia and I reluctantly began the daunting task of sorting through wall to wall storage. If our mother said it once, she said it hundreds of times, “You and Felicia are gonna curse me when y’all have to go through all this stuff!”, and she was right, I did. For every moment of loneliness, or guilt, or sadness, or regret, our mother had apparently purchased a trinket, or a crafting supply, or a decoration. A hoarder of many things, from buttons, to fabric, to magazines, she undoubtedly attempted to fill emotional voids with things.
Fully engrossed in purging the house of its contents, I lingered, taking time to methodically rummage through every box, and drawer and envelope. Before I could part with any item, I first had to touch it and allow myself to ponder what importance it held for my mother or step-father, I then had to decide if it should be important to me or my siblings, or our children. It was during that process, my process of closure, that this blog’s reality was birthed into existence. It was during that process that I discovered our mother’s journal of Eric’s illness and the journal of her own battle with cancer……. the love letter she wrote to my step-father before they were married, that he had kept all those years……..a piece written by Eric during his struggles with alcohol and drugs….these were not trinkets or things, these were treasures for me. Sitting in the floor, bewildered by the sea of boxes around me, I cried thanks to my mother, promising her and myself that I would get to my calling as soon as the work was done.
Emptied of all the things that made it look like a home, the house stood barren, its rotting roof, molded walls and warped floors demanding attention. Embarrassed that my mother was living in such conditions, I felt obligated to invest some TLC into the house, before we listed it on the market for sale. With funds from our mother’s life insurance claim, Felicia and I replaced the roof and repaired its structural decay, and for months thereafter, I spent my weekends painting, trying desperately to finish the cosmetic facelift Mama started before her death, wishing regretfully I had taken the time to help her when she was still with us. I kept Allison Kraus’s “I’m Just a Ghost In This House” blaring through her Bose stereo for hours on end, as I painted and cried, and cried and painted. The grieving drained me, more than the physical work itself, but I kept my hand to the plow as long as it took for me to let go of my regret.
Before the work was done, I surrendered, listing the house for sale. It was vandalized twice while it sat on the market for months, and after dropping the price twice before, we sold it for practically nothing.
On the day of closing, I rode by one last time and took this photo, and cried some more.
It was such a lonely, hurting place.
Standing in the yard, looking at this house, I recalled a conversation I had with Mama before she died. “I want to be cremated”, she had said, “I want every no good, nasty cancer cell in my body to be burned up!” Standing in the yard that closing day, remembering what she had said, I thought the same thing about this house. I thought, “I’d like to burn it to the ground, it and every no good, nasty memory it represents!”
Yes, it belonged to me, partly, for a short time, this house and all the pain and hurt that lived there, but it is mine no more. The image of its demise, of it smoldering in a heap brings me not a sense of loss, but one of hope. Hope that as the pain and hurt of yesterdays are tried by the fire and flames of life itself, I will sift through the ashes and find my foundation.