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?


  1. What a beautiful post. You know I describe my life and moments in time by where I lived. It is how I keep track of the many places I have called home. My mother was an unofficial gypsy, we moved 22 times before I was 18 years old. Every year I got to experience being the new kid. What defines those years for me though are the places we lived.

    I like to think that I have left my mark on those places that I have called home. That somehow and in some small way that I am a part of each of them. They will always be a part of us that much I am sure of.

  2. As melancholy a post as I ever read here.

  3. I think about that sort of thing - blogs vs. diaries. Sure we all read blogs but what happens to all those accounts? Will our grandchildren find them in Cyberspace and read them to know who we were. Or will all that data be destroyed or become redundant? Same thing with digital pictures.

    I always like reading the diary of Samuel Pepys for that reason. He lived in the 1600s in London.

  4. Spend some time with my daughter and you'll have an interesting perspective on the reside we leave behind.

    A walk through an old church in Denver had her in a slight panic, seeing shadows of crowds of people going to mass (there were only about a dozen people in the entire building at the time and it had been converted into a Buddhist temple). Spending weekends at the house I grew up in has her seeing the ghost of a small dog we had when I was a child, and nearly any building with a bit of history to it reveals its strays to her. She doesn't want to see them, but she hasn't found a way to tune them out yet.

    Tons of fun, I tell ya.

  5. What a great post - I always feel that way about houses too - it's one reason I am so fascinated with old houses and try to preserve them; I always try to imagine who once lived there, what took place there. That is why it is so sad that this old house that you took the picture of is now gone.

    Until I was 9 years old I lived in an older house in a nearby town. I used to drive past it from time to time to make sure it was still there and still the same. I was horrified one day to drive by and see they had encased it in vinyl, enclosed the porch, covered every bit of the character of that old house with vinyl. I can't imagine what they did to the inside and don't want to know. I don't drive by there anymore. But at least it is still there and underneath I guess it's still my old house. I hope someday someone releases it from its boxlike disguise and brings it back to what it once was.

    I'm also sorry to hear they are widening the road you drive on. Once that happens it just makes more suburbs and more sprawl spring up around it.

  6. Gifted Typist said it best for me. Maybe it's my fondness for Pepys as well that makes me wonder about the family histories that will disappear when their cyber shelf life runs out.

    I too have lived a nomadic life, and yet now in old age live in the family home purchased in the early 1950s for $14,000.
    Supposedly the property is worth $400,000 now.

    But if houses can be haunted mine might be. And every house we lived in when I was very young. If there is bad karma it is a form of energy, and bad energy seems able to inhabit a space. This might be why I prefer the "cottage" to the main house, where it all began.

    Lovely pictures of homes past, and of the home dismantled by tragedy slowly over time.

    Beautiful, evocative post my dear.

  7. I loved this post, Lisa. I have moved so many times and have lived in so many places that sometimes the places all run together in my memories.

    My son used to tell me he saw my father after he passed away in his room at my Mom's house. I always wondered if it truly was him what he must have thought when she sold the house they lived in for over 30 years and moved across the country.

    The IL house was so cute. I love midwest homes. I have always dreamed about moving back to Indiana. Probably never will, I'm rooted here. But I do dream of the midwest.

    The story was very interesting and haunting about the tree and the accident and what happened afterwards.

    Have a nice evening.

  8. Beautiful post. I share your feelings about houses - what laughter and tears happened within those walls? Babies born? Folks dying? Meals made? I feel it, really feel it, in older homes and historic sites.

    I don't count out the "supernatural". We only use 1/3 of our brain capacity and when we finally harness the rest of it, we may find out that space/time fluxuations are indeed perfectly natural.

  9. That was lovely...

    We have a ghost in our house. And I don't know if I believe in God or not. But...can't deny that there is something out there.

  10. It's unjust that you don't get paid for your writing. Yet.

  11. A wonderful nostalgic insightful post Lisa. I too have memories and feelings about the homes I've lived in. I'm probably in a small group of people that has only ever lived in new homes, so for me, it's the history my family made in each of those 4 homes I lived in that I wonder about. Most of my growing up, between 6 and 18 took place in a suburb of St. Louis in a very common ranch style home. Many of the homes I grew up in, I've been back to gawk at. I wonder who is in my old bedroom, talking on the phone,or sneaking her teen boyfriend in.
    Thank you for always making me think!

  12. Speaking of leave behinds... remember me and Caroline and the picture you found of me in your dorm room? Or how you knew about my dad before you met me?

  13. What a thought provoking and beautiful post.

    I do tend to think that we each leave something that gets burnished into the patina of place.

    I find the history of your current home fascinating. I never knew that.

  14. Now you're making me all kinds of weepy...

  15. I loved this post!! I do feel that we leave some of ourselves behind in our previous homes--perhaps like you said, a type of energy...

    I have to tell you, probably about 90% of my dreams take place in my childhood home. Even though my parents moved out from there over 10 years ago now, it still will always be my parents' home in my mind. And it obviously meant a lot to me.

    By the way, where are you guys moving to, in the spring? Back to Chicago? *smiles*

  16. Loved this ... it made me think about where I've lived. The apartment we lived in when I was born, and how the guy who played the piano in the bar below would play rock-a-bye-baby every night around 7 pm, just for me. We then moved into a "national home" -- the ones built for all the GI's returning from WWII. My parents lived in that house until my mother died, and then my father stayed there another four years before moving, eventually, to Florida. I can still remember the neighborhood, and how safe we all were there.

    I've lived in a number of places since leaving home, and the only supernatural encounter took place in a house in Cleveland Park, in DC. I was renting the basement apartment.

    One morning I heard footsteps walking around upstairs. Iknew my landladies were out for the day, so I just assumed it was their guest who had come in the night before. For some reason they called me, so I asked if their friend had stayed behind. The response was "no" she's in the car with us. Yikes ... who was walking around upstairs?? The house had an alarm system, and it didn't go off ... so who (or what) was it?

    I think the reason I like the house I bought is because it looks nothing like the house I grew up in. My family home was a box, literally. This home is a Cape Cod, with lots of nooks. Love that.

    Sorry for the long response, but as I said in the beginning -- your post got me thinking ...


  17. love this post, lisa.

    every place i have lived has had a ghost or 2, and they were all slobs! if not for them, i would be living in a neat, clean beautifully decorated place.

  18. my family (ma pa and sisters)have always loooked back on our dwellings and they make for many good stories.

    Mother and Father's first house was the "green house" nad we still talk about it to this day.

    And the funny thing is my best friend growing up now lives there!

  19. Beautiful, thoughtful, wistful post! Like you, I can't tell if place leaves more impression on us, or we leave more impression on place. I think it's some of both, but the people and the place determine which rubs off more.

    I think the house we grew up in, already over a hundred years old when we moved in, left more mark on us than we did on it. Maybe it was he strength of the accumulated years. Maybe it's that we took the place into ourselves willingly, and we've all carried parts of it with us carefully, deliberately, ever since.

  20. I had a cousin who lived upstairs in the home I grew up in. After he died (before I was born), my mother said that she could hear him running around when my uncle and aunt went out. His brother said that after their father died he would hear him snoring in the back bedroom at night. That flat seemed to hold the ghosts.
    I remember that you always said the Dancer was an old soul and could sense things.

  21. Great post. One thing about being a renter, my apartment is my home, but it doesn't have the same pull as a house. When I finally have enough cash to buy an apartment, I don't think I will feel a pull of nostalgia. In an odd way, I'm happy about that. Now when I discovered that they tore down the house I spent my first four years in, that was devastating.

  22. wonderfully written...thank you for sharing.

  23. lisa, this is so evocative and beautifully written, it made me ponder past houses I have lived in, my kids and how they feel about the house we have built since they have all grown do they feel about the old ranch house that was their home for all the years they spent growing to adulthood, that is no longer?

    two NA Spirit women live within our home, I knew it before we ever built and sought permission to site the house where we did...I know that might sound odd but we all have differing perspectives ... yet, where home is concerned, I do believe we leave a trace of the energy we were, within those walls, upon that land, those trees and rocks and water...the slight whiff of a scent, the giggle of a child, smoke, shadows on walls where doorways used to's all there and so the house with the porch that has become dust because it's in the way, is very touching in it's demise...I see those kids on the porch drinking sweet tea and lemonade, cookies, mom and dad at sunset...all so evocative-a family, life shared in all it's pain and joy?

    what of the house you are in now? it is interesting, isn't it, and makes me think of the karma of place and timing and problems as they move from one to the next, seemingly random but are they really? I am not sure of anything anymore really, excepting what my heart shows me is true...

    this piece of writing is the most moving I have read in a very long time.... lovely, pure and simple writing at it's very best...thank you for sharing a little bit of what makes you, you.

    have a wonderful sunday, wherever you are...

  24. My parents moved in to the house they currently occupy in September, 1970. It was built in stages, the west end just after the Civil War, the east around the turn of the 20th century. At the time it was originally built, it was a lone farmhouse far outside the small hustle and bustle of our tiny village. Now it sits in the midst of town.

    I had just started kindergarten, my oldest sister was a sophomore in HS. When I think of the word "home", that house is the first that flashes through my head. I have lived and laughed and cried and bled and made love and been in various altered states and celebrated in that house.

    My parents are in their mid- to late-80's, and we three deal very openly with the reality that their time is short. I used to want nothing more than to take over the house when they are gone, if for no other reason than sentimentality. Yet, it would be unrealistic to do such a thing. I contemplate the passing of that house to another family with mixed emotions. This post resonates with me and my feelings on houses and home so much.

    Thanks, Lisa.

  25. I think there's a lot said for feeling a house's energy before you sign on the dotted line.

    Some people think it's a crazy concept, but if you really listen as you take a walk through, it will speak to you or it won't.

  26. Hey,

    Very well done. Looks like the area around here, where a new 4 lane is being built. Houses in various levels tear-down or prep to move (watching them move these old houses is a cool thing, in and of itself... if you have the time).

    But, Lisa, my life has taught me that the old saying "Home is where the heart is" is true.

    I live within 40 miles of my "home town" and I avoid it... simply because my heart doesn't feel the way it used to about the place or even the people.

    I have no doubt, since becoming your friend, that you have a wonderfully warm and caring heart. Can you be tough? Hell yes, but that never stops a warm and caring heart.

    Even though I hardly know you (and especially after losing my 'Lil Sis, Jen) I want you to know that I recognize many of those very same qualities within you that I KNOW were within her.

    Your husband and children are at home anywhere your heart is, Darlin'

    Have a very good day!


    (aka BuelahMan)

  27. Lovely and heart-ful, this post. I love musing about the architecture of our memories, how the physical space of our surroundings influences the self (selves) we create in life.

    I think you hit this right on...thank you for writing. I'm going to be enjoying reading your archived posts. Your writing is just lovely.


  28. Travelingman Rick - Thank you and thanks for the email. The love of your life house is beautiful. I can see why it stays in your heart. And wow! that's a lot of moving. Your mother definitely was a gypsy of sorts. I understand the need to move about is part of who they are. I, myself always felt that tug to be able to move whenever the spirit moves me. Maybe being a renter really is the right thing for me.

    Edward - Melancholy? Maybe. I guess that's how I'm feeling these days. But it's mixed with a guarded optimism. The nicest thing about not having a crystal ball is that I can hold on to the hope that there is a 50/50 chance for good things in the future.

    Gifted Typist - Now you've introduced me to something new. I'd never heard of Pepys. I'll look for him. Sometimes I think I should print off my favorite posts to keep. Is that vain? I can put it in the box with all my journals and diaries.

    Curiouslyrandom - I understand how difficult that other sight can be for your daughter. I think it would be pretty disturbing. There have been times in my life when people thought I might be "gifted" in that way, but it's never been so vivid as your daughter's experience.

    Maui - I think it would be really hard to see your old house encased in drab perfection like that. I guess I understand why people feel they have to make "improvements" like that, but still. Yuck.

    And yeah, progress has its downside, for sure. The road will widen to accommodate all the growth and more growth will follow.

    Utah - Thank you. I think it's fascinating that you're back home, living in the cottage rather than the main house. I don't blame you. And though the reason you came back was very difficult, I think it might also have helped you capture the past so that you can use it so beautifully in your writing.

    Linda (SD2) - You have to wonder if your son did you see something, don't you? We never really know. And like you, I dream of the midwest, too. Most of my remembered dreams take place there.

    MNMom - Exactly! There's the possibility of all sorts of things we can't or don't understand. When I think about all the things that go on inside houses - good and bad - I can't help but think about how that leaves an imprint on the place. Somehow.

    Maria - Yes. That's it. There are things out there we can't prove or touch or even make others see or understand. I hope your ghost is a friendly presence. I assume it is.

    CDP - Thanks. Yet. That continues to be what I tell myself.

    Anita - Thank you! I'm glad that the post made you think about your old homes. And the new ones, too!

    MathMan - Yeah, I should write about those strange coincidences! Funny how that comes together like that.

    Fran - Yes, this house carries its own baggage, doesn't it?

    Brightside Susan - Oh no! And you're the cheerful one! Well, I promise not to do that very often.

    Miss HP - I still think of my childhood home as home. And I dream of it often. We're going to be moving not far from here in April and then in late summer, we'll have to move closer to my job which is relocating to South of Atlanta in August. Yuck. But necessary. I wish we could move back to Chicago, to be honest with you. Except for winter. Brrrr.

    BAC - I'm so glad this post made you want to leave a long comment! Once, while living in Muncie, my roommate called me at work frantic. She was home alone in the big old Victorian on the White River that we rented the upstairs of. No one was renting the bottom floor and she heard people down there. I was at the mall working at Sears and couldn't help her so I told her to call the police. She did, they came and checked it out and there was no one there, no sign of any activity. Creepy. And that wasn't the only ghostly encounter in that I hear you.

    I'm glad you love your current home. I'm sure it does have lots of character!

    nonnie - you too with that sloppy ghosts? We've always got one to blame around here. And don't get me started on the poltergeists that inhabit my stupid car.

    Pido - I enjoy how you weave those places into the stories you tell on your vlogs. But then, I love all your family stories.

    Steve - I love the idea of also carrying a piece of that place with you always. I know that the days I may have spent jumping my bike over the dirt hills where new houses were being built or hanging out with the other neighbors on the street corner in our safe, small town have shaped, in part, how I view the world.

    MaryCatholic - I wonder if some places are more susceptible to holding on to ghosts? What an interesting idea. And, yeah, I often wonder about The Dancer and how many times she's been around. She seems to have such innate sense of self and an understanding the world, it's a bit scary sometimes.

    PiNYC - I would hate it if the house I lived in as a child were torn down. And I get what you mean about ownership and the connection you feel to a place.

    Eebie - Thank you.

    linda - Wow. That's very interesting about your NA spirit women. I can imagine that you would be the type of person who is tuned into that kind of thing. Have you asked your children what they think about when they think of home?

    Geoffrey - I would so want to take over the family's house in that situation, but realistic? I know. I really do believe that a house must hold some memory of ourselves when we were in the midst of all that living.

    Phil - I'm going to be thinking about energy when we look at rentals. You can bet on it.

    Beulahman - You made me tear up about Jen. Thank you for the kind words. I'm so sorry that she's gone, but I think you've done amazing things to honor her life and memory. Thank you for considering me a friend.

    Kirie - Me, too. I know that since I've always wanted to live in old houses, I've always done what I can to decorate new houses to look like old ones. And the few older houses I've lived in - I just relished them. And welcome! I'm enjoying your blog, too.

  29. I so love this piece and the photos..awesome Lisa. ;)

  30. When I was a little girl, I lived in a white brick house with huge yellow rose bushes on either end of it. After my parents moved (when I was in college) the new owner removed the roses(and thus, so much of the beauty) from the house. Sometimes I wonder if they did it just to erase our 14 years of possession?

    As many have said, this is a beautiful and poignant post and I'm sure we can all find things to identify with here. I always worry about my kids not being rooted anywhere, but then in some ways I think that is a good thing . . .

    I'm not religious, either, but I do believe (probably contradictorily) in karma. It sounds like your house had some bad ju ju. I hope you will really "own" a place someday and feel truly at home there.

  31. Nice, Lisa. Really, really lovely.

    I live in a 1905 salt box I moved into in 1994 with a husband and two kids, and then a dog. First the husband left, then the oldest kid (college), then the dog. Now it's just Petra and me. I always said when I moved in here that I would only leave feet first, in a box. I'm not sure I would say that now. But... it's home, the place I've lived the longest, with the exception of the house I grew up in.

    Some of the echoes here: Me dancing with my husband and kids to Ella Fitzgerald. My kids jamming on the guitar and piano. Lots and lots and lots of movies and episodes of Friends. Me crying, laughing, singing.

    I'll be the last one here. That's ok with me.

  32. I love this piece of writing, Lisa. It's beautiful.

    A number of years ago, an old friend was introducing me to his new partner. He said, "This is Dan. he grew up in your house." My first thought was, "He did? I never saw him!" Well, it turned out that he had lived in the house I grew up in -- the one I think of as my childhood home -- about 2 families before we moved in. That was a fun connection.

    A few years ago I was walking around the old neighborhood with my childhood best friend, and the current owners of that same house heard us talking, and invited us in to see the place. When I was a kid my mom had a huge, stinky St. Bernard dog, who lived in a little shed built into the foundation. I was amused to see that they had converted that former dog house into a sauna and I wondered if it was haunted by stinky dog smells.

    And finally, for weeks after my daughter died I smelled ghostly newborn baby poop. Weird, huh?


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