Monday, January 14, 2013

House Call

(From The Way-Back Files -- Miracles of Healing, Guideposts 2006.)

           We sat atop the cemetery knoll, my old friend and I, staring in disbelief at the newly made grave.  “What am I going to do, Jenny?”  I sobbed, crumpling against her shoulder.  “What am I going to do?”

            I was 34-years-old and just widowed with a 3 ½ -year-old child, Zeke.  I felt as if someone had ripped my arm off and beaten me over the head with it.  And I had this horrible aching sense of suddenly not belonging anywhere, not even in my own home.  The house that Tim and I had bought prior to our marriage – a circa 1918 house that I had loved for its quirks, even while he’d complained about its smallness – had, overnight, become a desolate No-Man’s Land, and I was wandering around in it like one of those shell-shocked WWI soldiers in a Hemingway novel.

            Still, Zeke and I had to live somewhere.  So I went over the checklist that we’d been working on before Tim’s car accident.  We’d already contracted people to do the painting and wallpapering, so I went ahead with scheduling those things.  My oldest brother finished up the enclosed front porch, putting up the last few pieces of tobacco-barn wood paneling that Tim hadn’t gotten to.  I cleaned up the rest of the old beadboard wainscoting and painted the trim in the kitchen.

            Better, I thought once those things had been completed, but it’s still not enough.  I moved my bedroom up to the third floor, where Tim’s absence would, I told myself, not haunt me so deeply.  I took down the mini-blinds and put lace panels in their place, hoping to let the light in but, at the same time, maintain some privacy.  I hired a carpenter to build a new stair railing, extra kitchen cabinets, and covers for the old-fashioned stand-up radiators.

            Nice, I said to myself.  But, in my heart of hearts, I knew I’d been happier when the whole house was still a work in progress with barely any wallpaper up and what Tim had scathingly called “garbage-bag-brown paint” in the kitchen.  When he’d been there with us, joking and moving through the various projects with that quicksilver energy of his.

            I kept working on the house, basically doing whatever I could to make both the house and myself feel at ease with one another again.  Then, one morning, a good 5 ½ years after Tim’s death, I was painting the kitchen – again – when the truth came to me.  Not with any fanfare but quietly and kindly, like an old friend waiting for just the right moment to speak her mind.  It’s time, isn’t it?  Truth said, pulling up one of the Hitchcock chairs that I had so carefully saved up for early in my marriage.

            Yes, I said, pausing in mid-brushstroke, it really is.  I don’t want to be here anymore.  It's hard admitting that you've fallen out of love, whether it's with a person or a place.

            I found a realtor – or, rather, a realtor found me.  Lori showed up at my back door one day, canvassing the neighborhood for prospective sellers.  And I found a house – or, I should say, the house, like Lori, found me.  Early one Sunday afternoon, I was scanning the real estate section in the paper when one house in particular caught my eye.  The picture showed a white Cape Cod house in the town where Tim and I had grown up.  It was very similar to the one I’d grown up in and very much within my price range.

            I told the man I was dating – a letter carrier who happened to work in the same town as the Cape – about my find.  There was silence, followed by a chuckle.  “That’s the fourth house on my route,” he informed me, adding thoughtfully, “I could make it the last house on my route, though…Would the postman have to ring twice?”

              By the end of the week, I was standing in the Cape’s wide sunny living room, and I knew, without knowing how I knew, that I had come home.  I could see us sitting in this living room, my grandmother’s black cat andirons presiding over this hearth as they had over the great stone hearth in her old farmhouse (there’d been no fireplace in our 1918 house) – could see Zeke playing in the finished-off section of the basement on rainy days.  There were enough trees on the property to satisfy my tree-worshipping heart and an inexplicable but strong feeling that the house – which had been neglected by its current owners -- had been waiting for us.

            Oddly enough, my father-in-law, pragmatic soul that he was, wrote me a letter that underscored this feeling.  He was living out in Arizona now, but, of course, remembered the neighborhood well.  “There was one house that always intrigued me,” he remarked.  “It was on the corner of….”  And he pinpointed the exact location of the white Cape, the house that locals still referred to as “the old Clark house.”

            Of course, it takes awhile to put down roots in any relationship, and this new one that we were entering into with the Clark house was no exception.  I tackled both house and yard slowly, trying to get a good feel for what they needed.  And there were still things that I had to call experts in for, such as wallpapering, re-wiring, and removing the half-dead shrubbery out in front.  But I did more of the work here myself, rag-rolling the majority of the rooms in purply-blue, mauve, and creamy yellow and putting in flowers, trees, and herbs that spoke to something deep inside me.  As I painted each room, I, like the walls, became alive and singing with color. Likewise, as I planted pale-yellow Solstice roses, rainbow-hued irises, red bee balm, and kaleidoscope butterfly bushes with their fragrant calico flowers, I drew new strength and energy from the ground I was working.

            It has been 11 years since we came here.  Perhaps the pussywillow tree that I put in a couple of years ago says it best.  I have always loved pussywllows – as a sign of spring and for memory’s sake but especially for the old Polish legend about them.  According to that legend, some kittens were thrown into a river; and the mother-cat cried so piteously, the willows on the bank felt her pain and held out their branches for the kittens to cling to.  My tree reminds me of that legend and how, in a very real sense, this house called to me, holding out a life-line and helping me find my way back to myself.



Gwynn Rogers said...

T.J. - Your post was very touching and I could relate on different levels. I went through a divorce after 23 years but I had to keep the house as my mortgage was cheaper than paying rent for myself, two kids, and a German Shepherd. My real estate background kept me in that house. I managed to add a new roof and a new deck and reduce my house payment by $50. I was so proud of myself. However, when I remarried it was time to let go. It was tough, but the new home was better, once I managed my grief over the move.

It takes time to deal with grief and change. You did an excellent job. I loved your story. Gwynn

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Gwynn, both for your comment and for sharing your own story. What is that line from ALICE IN WONDERLAND about having been ten different people before breakfast? I think that the number's probably higher for most of us, as life forces us to constantly re-invent ourselves. We are all sketches-in-progress, I guess.

Samantha Mozart said...

You write so beautifully, T.J. I love the way you've woven together healing, house calls, and relationships with you "Cape", Tim, and the postman.

A touching story that drew me in and kept me reading, so honest. And your home sounds utterly charming.

T. J. Banks said...

nks, Samantha. Houses have personalities, as we both know -- a certain energy all their own, if you will. This one has always had a very friendly welcoming one, and I felt it the moment I stepped into the living room. Btw, there's this wonderful story by Jack Finney, author of TIME AND AGAIN, about an architect who finds some blueprints that date back to the late 19th-century: he decides to use them to build the house that he and his wife have been dreaming of, and the upshot is something that nobody dreamed of.

Pat Garcia said...


I discovered your blog by reading Gwynn's blog posting. This short story is wonderful. It is inspiring and encouraging. It shows our humanity and also that it takes time to heal and move on.
I enjoyed reading it tremendously.

All the best for 2013.


T. J. Banks said...

Thank you, Pat. "Sketch People" started out as a series of interviews or "conversations" with people about what they do: over time, however, it has expanded to include other types of stories.
I think you're right about the time thing -- it takes as long as it takes to heal. I've never liked the stages-of-grief idea: that's way too clear-cut, and life isn't clear-cut.

Dianna Bellerose-Author "Fire and Ice" said...

Love your story, very touching and written from the heart. So many people can relate to it.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Dianna. There is, of course, no "one-size-fits-all" rule when it comes to grieving; but in my case, the move turned out to be a necessary thing. I didn't truly begin to heal till we moved here.