Driving down the road on a sleepy summer Sunday morning, I see flashing lights and stopped traffic ahead. As I get out of my car, I hear the rumble of a truck cresting the hill. “It’s not every day you see a house come down the street,” a bystander says, her video camera in hand.
“Especially when it’s the house you grew up in,” I say.
The back of the house faces me as the truck inches toward the corner, a gaping hole marking the place where the fireplace used to be. I look into the den—our den. I see the bookcases, the cabinets, the wooden floors. A bottle of water sits on the counter. It’s so utterly familiar that I half expect to see a family member walk through—my dad, a brother, a niece, even my mom, now seven months gone. It’s utterly familiar, and yet so utterly strange. Our den is rolling down the street past me.
For all practical purposes, the house has always been a part of my life. I was 2 years old when we moved into it. For 20-odd years, it was the only house I knew, and for all the years since, it’s been the place to which I’ve come home.
When they first found this house, my parents were faced with a growing family and cramped quarters. My mother immediately fell in love with the screened porch and the backyard filled with pine trees, big enough for a kid to explore. She loved the kitchen with lots of counter space, the full basement, and outside, the cul-de-sac that we called “the circle.” In later years, she told of bringing me out to the house before we’d moved in, pushing me around the yard in my stroller, dreaming of raising her family here.
My parents swallowed hard and committed themselves to the $150-a-month mortgage payment. It was a stretch, but for three bedrooms, a basement, and a whole acre of land, they thought they just might be able to do it.
As much as the measurements of our heights penciled onto the kitchen door frame, a landscape becomes the measure of the passing years. The maple tree that my brother jumped over when we moved in soon grew tall enough for me to climb. The Christmas tree we planted one year became a towering evergreen, twice as tall as the house. My mother loved and carefully tended her forsythia, jonquils, tulips, boxwoods, azaleas, and dogwoods. My father was the artist in the family, but the yard became my mother’s canvas. As the years began to pile up and her frame started to shrink, she still renewed herself by putting in a fierce day’s work in the yard.
One day when my brother called, she reported that she was tired. I suppose he thought it was to be expected, since she was nearly 80. He asked what she’d been doing. “I put a half-ton of rock out in the yard today,” she replied. The stories of her laying out river rock to landscape the garden or wielding a saw to cut down small tress became part of the mythology of her aging.
More than 25 years after leaving home, I moved back in for a short stay. A bike ride had ended when a driver had disregarded my turn signal and collided with me. My pelvis was fractured in three places. When the hospital released me, I listened to my mother’s pleas to take up residence on their recliner sofa.
Like most people, I dislike feeling helpless, but it wasn’t entirely awful to have my mother bring me breakfast every morning. Throughout that summer, she took care of me in other ways, too. She hauled my wheelchair in and out of her car. She rose early in the mornings to drive to my house to trim the shrubbery before the air got too hot. But like some science-fiction movie, as I got stronger, she began to weaken. Her back began to bother her, and navigating the basement steps to the laundry room became too much. Her yard started to be as much a burden as a pleasure. Her doctor recommended a move into a retirement community.
My parents made their decision before they said anything to us children. My mother cried a lot, and I tried to imagine the courage it took to face this step. We talked about what family possessions I’d take, and I cried a little, too. But I was relieved.
Moving day came, and it was the coldest day of the year. I reminded my mother that she’d always said hell would freeze over before she left that house. As I helped her into the car, she stared at her beloved porch and, in a voice on the edge of tears, said, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I can’t leave my house.” I told her she had to; it was time to go.
They weren’t moving to a dreadful place. It was a small but beautiful home, where they’d be surrounded by old friends. We talked about the water-aerobics classes she could take when she felt better, and about the freedom of no longer having to cook. But she got to enjoy none of these things. Two weeks after the move, she was dead, the victim of a six-week-old, fast-growing, malignant tumor.
My father offered to pay someone to clean out the old house, but I told him I’d do it. I needed to do it. I cleaned out my mother’s closets, occasionally burying my face in her clothes and the scent of her. I cleaned out the file drawer dedicated to every card her family had ever sent her. I became friends with the attendant at the Goodwill drop-off.
All the while, I tried to wrap my head around the notion that this was no longer our house. Living next door to a private school, my parents knew that when it was time to sell, the school would want to buy. We figured the school would rent it out for a while, as it did with the rest of its properties in the neighborhood.
But as the summer dragged on and I continued to sort and clean, I got word that the school had issued a deadline. They needed me out. They were going to tear the house down and build a playground. As I continued to work, I alternated between anger and sorrow. I began rescuing as many plants and flower bulbs as I could. One day, I loaded up my car with the river rock my mother had so faithfully laid out. I didn’t know what I’d do with it, but I needed to keep it safe.
On my last day there, a young man came in as I was working. He apologized for the interruption and told me he was in charge of moving the house. The school had told him he could have it if he moved it. He intended to raise his family in the house, he added. His wife was expecting their first child.
I was tired and stressed. I burst into tears.
“I’m sorry to upset you,” he says, in a slightly panicked voice.
“No,” I say. “You’ve made me very happy.”
So the house was moved. I showed my father pictures of the house en route. He, in turn, showed me pictures he’d just snapped of our old yard.
I’m taken aback at how deeply the grief hits me. There’s nothing left of our former yard. All our trees are gone—the maple tree, our Christmas tree. Tears come to my eyes because I was the kind of goofy kid who made friends with the trees, and it feels like part of my family is gone. Every scrap of vegetation has been bulldozed.
I try to come to terms with the fact that I’ll never again be able to drive past our old yard and house. My mom is gone, and now the yard that she loved with such a passion is finally, completely gone. It feels like losing her all over again. Eight months into that fabled first year of grieving, it feels like another layer of sorrow has been scraped raw.
A few weeks later, sitting around the table at our usual Thursday-night family dinner, my niece excitedly tells us that she and her husband have found a new house. With a two-and-a-half-year-old and a six-week-old baby, they need more room. She tells us about the house, located on a cul-de-sac, with a full basement, a screened porch, and a wooded backyard.
“So,” I say. “You’ve got a house on a circle with a basement, a porch, and a yard full of trees. That sounds vaguely familiar.” Her face lights up. “I hadn’t even thought of it,” she said. “It is like Grandmamma’s and Granddaddy’s house!” She’s delighted, and my own spirit lightens.
This is what I’ve learned in my season of loss and grieving: at some point, you have to grab onto the future again. Our house has wandered off to a new place, but the experiences that bound our family close remain. While my mom’s beloved yard is gone, her love of digging in the earth lives on in me. And while my mom herself is gone, there’s a six-week-old girl here who already shows signs of being as rare a bird as her great-grandmother was.
Perhaps, one day, we’ll play in the woods together.
Peggy Haymes, M.Div., M.A., L.P.C., is a writer and counselor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her latest book is Didn’t See It Coming: How I Faced Bouncing Off a Buick and Other Assorted Stuff.