Saturday, January 24, 2009
What We Leave Behind
On my drive to work, I take a winding, hilly two lane road that is being prepared for transformation into a four-lane road. Where once there were stands of trees and brush, houses and barns, now there is clear land, newly-created hillocks and concrete-lined ditches and massive culverts.
I understand the progress will eventually make my trip easier, but I can't help but feel some sense of loss when I drive through the bulldozed area. It seems so bleak and a bit treacherous because now the road is lifted up over two hollows on each side. You don't want to look away from the road for even a second when passing through that section now. Before, the trees and brush coming right up to the road's edge, it didn't seem so dangerous. There was a natural break and buffer, should one's car slip over the edge. Now there is just blank space.
I was reminded, though, that trees don't make a great safety net as I watched the slow picking apart and demolition of a house along the route. That's the house in this picture.
Next to the house, there was a large oak tree. A few years ago, a young minister lost control of his black Mercedes Benz as he was driving down the hill toward the house. The car smashed into the tree and fishtailed into the porch. The minister's wife was killed instantly
Until the tree was chopped down a few weeks ago, memorial ribbons fluttered from its trunk, creating a veil for a yellow rose wreathe that sat propped on wire legs against where the tree and the earth joined.
The people who lived in the house at the time of the accident remained there for several years after the woman's death. I assume that they've lived there their whole lives. The house, a ramshackle patchwork of wood and tarpaper looked to be many, many years old. I know you can't see it from the picture because I made it sepia, but the house appeared not to have been painted in a very long time. Much of the flat brown paint had chipped away, leaving large swaths of that shiny dark gray hue of weathered wood.
I always liked the porch that stretched across the house's front. Before the occupants emptied the house for demolition, rocking chairs and a mess of house plants adorned the shaded porch. There was something terribly romantic about that porch and the way the house was situated to face the tree lined hills to the northwest. I could imagine over the years, various lives being lived under that sloped roof and in my mind's eye, there was always someone, sunburnt and blue-eyed, watching the sunset, sipping a glass of sweet tea on that porch.
The people moved out of the old house and into a new house that was built further off the road. Over a couple of weeks, the scavengers came and stripped the house of whatever was useful. It was a slow dismantling. And then, one morning, as I drove through, I realized that the house was gone. The killing tree was gone. There was smooth land and a pile of debris still smoking a few yards off the road.
I was glad I snapped that picture of the house before it and its ghosts in my imagination were gone forever.
I began to wonder about the structures we occupy. Do we become as much of them, as they become of us? Think about how you define your childhood. Do you include the place or places where you lived in your personal lore? I do. I grew up in a yellow and orange brick-fronted single-story three bedroom two and half bath 1960s ranch house on a newish street at the end of a small town. When I lived there, my family was the only family to have ever lived there. The experiences I had in that particular place in that particular time helped create the person I am.
Maybe you lived in an apartment in the city. Or a cape-cod in a suburban coastal town. Or a mobile home on several acres in the middle of nowhere. It doesn't matter where you lived or what you lived in, you were shaped, in part, by the place and the structure, I think.
I always wanted to live in old houses because that ranch house just seemed so antiseptic and without character. My family lived there beyond the eighteen years I spent there, but now my parents live in a house they had built a few years ago. Their new house will never be my home. It's partly for that reason, I suspect, that it's been easy for me to be rather nomadic, moving first to Muncie, Indiana, and then to Bloomington, on to Chicago, Des Plaines, Illinois and finally where we are in Georgia, far away from our hometowns and families.
MathMan has mentioned on occasion that we are a bit rootless and have raised our children that way, as well. At first this concerned me because we both actually come from families with close ties to place. His family is a Chicago family, most of his siblings remaining there. My family has lived in the same small, Ohio River town for generations. When our children think of their hometown, what will they think of?
When I ask them that now, they still say Des Plaines. They were all born in Skokie, Illinois and we lived in our little house in Des Plaines for ten years, so this makes sense to me. They feel comfortable in the Chicago area and feel the family connection to it. MathMan's sister lives around the corner from our old house, so when we visit her, it's like going home.
But I wonder, too, do we leave pieces of ourselves in those places where we've spent large amounts of time? When it's empty, does our former home - a tiny house on a busy street corner - echo with my rushing footsteps as I try to hustle three young children out the door on a snowy morning? Can you still hear the laughter of an eight year old Dancer and a one year old Actor coming from the back bedroom they shared? Does the theme song from Max and Ruby still play among the dust motes in the big front window as the ghost of a very little Cupcake sips soup at the long-gone mahagony dining table under the Tiffany lamp? Can you see the shape of MathMan, going through the house after dark, making sure all is secured before coming to bed?
When we still lived in that house, The Dancer once told me of an odd experience she had. She was about eleven years old. She woke from a sound sleep because she said that she heard someone in the hallway. She sat up in bed and waited to see who it was so she could ask for a glass of water. The house was dark, but there was always an orange glow from O'Hare Airport sneaking its way through gaps in the curtains and blinds. Through her open door, she saw me and called out to me, but I didn't pause or answer her. She got out of bed and followed me to my room.
When she got there, she was puzzled because I was sleeping soundly next to MathMan, looking not at all as if I'd been out of bed. She reached out and touched me under the covers, but I didn't stir. Not sure what she'd just seen, she got a little afraid and shook me, this time waking me. I got her the glass of water, waited for her to go back to bed and then returned to my room. She didn't tell me about what she'd seen until a couple of weeks later.
Another family lives in that house now, leaving their own imprint on the structure. The people who bought the house from us, came and went pretty quickly, living there only two years before selling the place. When we sold to them, the transaction became tense and unpleasant so maybe the pieces of ourselves we left behind created a negative energy that left them always somewhat uncomfortable there.
Regular readers know that I am not a believer in god nor do I subscribe to any kind of spirituality. I freely admit that my wonder at supernatural things like ghosts and karma and energy is a complete and utter contradiction to my non-belief and very likely whole lot of bunk. But just because I don't believe, doesn't mean I've dismissed the idea that supernatural things do exist.
The house we live in now, brings its own negative energy, I suspect. Now I'm not blaming the house for our current woes - we brought many of them with us from Illinois - but it's interesting to me that this house stood empty for a year before we moved into it. The former occupants had been evicted. Before that, the woman and her husband who built the house divorced and then she had to sell the house to a real estate investor to avoid foreclosure. You could think this house is cursed. I tend to think we're the perfect demographic for such a house and there was always a fifity-fifty chance that we'd end up losing it because we were prime targets for sub-prime lending.
We've been here for five years now and when we leave this spring and it stands empty while the bank figures out what to do with it, will there be the ghosts and echoes of the time we've spent here?
Aside from an unfortunate hint of cat urine in the basement (I swear, I have tried and tried to make that smell go away), will there linger a mingled scent of The Dancer's perfume and the stink of well-worn pointe shoes? Will an occasional disembodied shout ring out and the sound of heavy footsteps go thudding down the narrow hallway? Will there be a blue flicker late at night coming from where the computers used to sit? And if one is quite still, will you be able to hear the faint tap, tap, tap of fingers flying across a keyboard?