I parked at the curb. The cars in the driveway looked out of place. As if guests had arrived before I got home from work and assumed the vacancies in the driveway were for them.
It was dusk, but bright enough to assess the exterior. The same windows, siding and brick face made it seem like seven years had not passed. But then I noticed otherwise.
The boxwood shrubs lining the short walkway were fuller.
The rhododendron and mountain laurel bushes now partially covered the front windows.
The oak tree branches reached one side of the roof and rested in the gutters.
I had always entered the house through the side door since it was closest to the driveway, and led directly to the kitchen, but I thought I was probably expected at the front door.
I rang the front doorbell for the first time in my life and took a deep breath with the anticipation of seeing the house I lived in for fourteen years.
The woman, whose name escaped me, greeted me with smiles and warmth. The envelope was in her hand.
Although there wasn’t a need, I introduced myself. As the woman let go of the door to shake my hand, it swung open further. My eyes left hers to quickly scan as much as possible without seeming rude, however my distraction was noticed.
“Would you like to come in?”
“Are you sure you don’t mind? I don’t want to keep you. Since you called I’ve been thinking about the house and my time here. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Sure! Come in, come in!”
Three steps in and I looked to my left to see the fireplace and mantle. Once covered with wedding and baby pictures of our daughter, it now was home to faces I didn’t recognize.
To my right was a long-ago winterized porch, which we used as a small study with my piano along one wall. Unfamiliar furniture filled the space now, however the room was still covered in the wallpaper my mother and I hung one weekend.
We laughed so much those two days, blundering through a project that turned out better than we expected in every way. That weekend was probably the first time my mother and I enjoyed each other’s company for any length of time. It was a watershed moment that moved our relationship into novel territory based on my new adulthood.
My eyes then settled on a cast iron radiator where I warmed my hands, and sometimes hung my socks, on chilly mornings. The wall space over the radiator was home to a large, framed Prendergast print I fell in love with on the maternity floor when our daughter was born. It eerily foreshadowed the future of our family. Four black and white photographs of cityscapes were there instead.
My stomach clenched and I felt myself taking shallow breaths. My neck, and then cheeks, became warmer with every passing second, and light-headedness floated in the periphery.
Being in the house felt like a dream that juxtaposes people, places and things that don’t belong together; where everything feels familiar, and yet wrong.
I glanced toward the kitchen, partially visible from the living room. An intricately stenciled grapevine pattern was still on the soffit. It was a project I undertook one Easter Sunday to distract from the fact I was spending the holiday completely alone; my daughter with her father, my parents in Florida, and my sister with her in-laws. My sister encouraged me to go with her, but I knew I wasn’t very good company, and it took too much energy to pretend.
Tears welled and I willed myself to control and conceal them. Everywhere I looked brought a memory sharply into focus.
Through the window into the backyard I envisioned my daughter’s red, yellow and blue plastic Fisher Price sandbox. She was never joined by siblings as I had hoped.
In the brass chandelier over the dining room table I saw my father and father-in-law coaching my then-husband through the installation. Both fathers were gone now.
In the darkly stained hardwood floors I saw myself four months pregnant and staying with my in-laws to avoid the fumes of refinishing. The beginning of home improvement projects that prematurely ended.
There were certainly many moments of happiness, excitement and gratitude when I lived in the house, however I only felt heartache in remembering them.
The joy of cozy nights in front of the fireplace.
The pure contentment of sitting on the couch and holding my infant daughter with sunshine streaming through the windows.
Those memories were darkened by the future I imagined in those happy moments, that inexplicably slipped through my fingers.
I was completely blindsided by the combination of disorientation and grief.
Like most people, I’ve spent my share of time looking at old pictures and remembering past events, but it never elicited anything close to what I experienced being back in the house.
I gave a hasty thank you to the woman for inviting me in, and taking the time to track me down when she received an official looking piece of mail she thought was important.
I left as quickly as was polite.
Walking to my car, I didn’t look back and vowed to never return.
It took me several days to stop thinking about the past and ruminating about the what-ifs.
To embrace the present and feel gratitude for a second chance at happiness.
To let go.
Our homes can be places of joy, love, pain, disappointment and a myriad of other experiences. When we leave them, we take those memories with us. Time often softens sharp edges, and we shape our memories into a narrative that has meaning and is manageable. Sometimes we block them out completely, or change them into less painful versions of the truth. They become part of the past that we accept. We heal. We move on.
When making plans to retrieve the letter, I looked forward to seeing the chestnut moldings and the charm I fell in love with in the tudor-like home, but was unprepared for lingering ghosts to awaken from their slumber. To this day, I don’t know if the ghosts were in the house, or in me.
The visit reminded me why I decided to move. The painful memories outweighed the joyous and it was time for a fresh start. Perhaps, there was more healing to be done.
I believe there is truth to the Thomas Wolfe book title
You Can’t Go Home Again. I admit to never reading the book so the author may have been referring to a more symbolic explanation of the title, however I strongly subscribe to the literal meaning.
I imagine there is only one home we can return to with complete joy and without regret. It is not here on earth.
And until that day comes, when all that’s been lost no longer matters, I will not be knocking on the doors of my past.