Broken Homes

When I was younger, I had a special affinity for abandoned homes. I relished the challenge of finding an unlocked door or an open window that would provide passage into mysterious rooms where I would explore the remains of other human lives. Like examining a fresh corpse, I would proceed cautiously at first, using mostly my eyes to assemble the narrative held tight by the walls still standing. Sifting through artifacts of the lives that had played, laughed, loved, had fights and then made up, my imagination pieced together a tale of an alternate life much better than my own. The past held clues. In a breezeway littered now with plaster from a sagging ceiling and leaves blown through a broken window, a pile of square, pint-size Tupperware containers and their pastel colored lids of pink, light yellow, mint green remain as evidence of a freezer clearing—the summer produce (probably string beans), carefully put up by the gardener’s hands, no longer needed or wanted.

Even as an adult, I had an unusual attraction to derelict properties, places no one wanted any more. One summer when I was still single and considering a move, I printed off a list of HUD homes, which are government-owned by tax default. I didn’t really have enough money or the credit to buy a home, but I could dream if I wanted to. I drove to dozens of empty houses and found my way into many of them; without occupants, they were vulnerable and easy to penetrate. I entered through the broken back door of a two-story A-frame, the lower level banked by earth, cold and dark. On the second floor, a loft window looked out over a massive dairy operation. I imagined a desk below the window whose view of green fields would be ample inspiration to an aspiring nature writer.

Another sliding glass door that had come loose from its track provided entry to a 1950s single slope-roofed ranch with a large modern living room flanked by a full-wall brick fireplace hearth painted white by the previous residents, and a toilet in the master bedroom closet. The red and gold shag carpet would probably have to go. I could easily imagine myself living in any of those homes, because by the time I was 25, I had lived in more than twenty different houses. Inhabiting new places had become second nature. My family was nomadic, moving sometimes on a whim, sometimes out of necessity when bills got tight, and more than once, on the run from someone or something.

In the very early years, before my memory begins, my dad served as a captain in the air force and had to go where he was assigned. Naturally, we went with him. He and my mom would load us in the station wagon and head to the next post, Long Beach, San Antonio, Dover, wherever he was needed. By the time his four-year commitment expired there were seven of us and like a band of gypsies, we just never stopped moving from one place to the next. Even after my mom and dad made their split, the wheels kept turning in the direction of home, a place we never arrived at. For a long time I believed that when I reached a certain age, like 25 or 30, that all of the important elements of life would simply fall into place—a husband, kids, an education, a job, and a house to hold it all in.

At some point, life would just sail along smoothly, a series of days and nights ordered and easy, defined by a set of circumstances guaranteed not to change. I know my vision was naïve and short-sighted, certainly not the way life had presented itself so far, but I really wanted to believe stability was possible. I wanted a life that could be counted on, something certain. I thought that if I tried hard enough, I could make it happen. But at 36, despite my best efforts, the life I had carefully constructed began to unravel. My marriage was splitting at the seams and the likelihood of our patching things up was slim to none. I was not the kind of person to give up easily, but after ten years of trying, I was ready to admit that I had done everything in my power and I still couldn’t make it work. I felt exhausted by the conversations, the feelings, and the decisions. And now that it was over, I felt like I had gotten out of a car on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I had invested everything in our partnership with no Plan B. I took a look around me and didn’t recognize my life.

Before marrying, I had quit college mid-stride, left my job with the first baby and moved away to a farm an hour and a half from our family and friends. With no job and no place to live, I felt pretty insignificant. Seven years as a stay-at-home mom had not prepared me in the least for what lay ahead. The reality of my situation was very raw and the only thing I could do was to try to make things easier for the kids, so spending a lot of time with them became my primary concern. At least it was a place to start.

On a Friday I loaded the three kids in the pickup truck and we headed to the small library in Fairmont, the rural town close to where we had been living. The spring morning air was crisp and cool, but the sun promised a nice afternoon. Ariel sat in the front seat holding our picnic lunch on her lap even though I told her she could put it on the floor. Eli and Kestrel were quiet in the back seat making their final thumb-throughs of the books we would be returning. Suddenly, Ariel pointed out a patch of purple flowers growing near the side of the road and because we had nothing better to do, we stopped to pick some. “Be careful.” I slammed the heavy truck door and hurried to catch up.

The three kids nearly disappeared in the tall grasses growing along the roadside ditch. Within minutes, they were loading my arms with the periwinkle blossoms. Reaching up to rub my eye, I noticed that we were picking flowers in what used to be someone’s front yard. Almost completely hidden by trees engulfing it, a rundown house stood nearly fifty feet from where we had parked. It was very old, a federal style, tall and lean, with long narrow windows that yawned, open-mouthed without glass or screen to cover. Neglected for years, the house had been all but swallowed by swift growing silver maples that took root along the foundation.

Vandals and teenage partiers had marked nearly every outside visible surface with red and black graffitti. The glass from the windows lay scattered along the foundation brick like unswept confetti and gaps where shingles of white asbestos had fallen exposed the original wood clapboard siding underneath. The house stood alone in the middle of farm fields that stretched in every direction to the distant tree lines. A large cattle barn about 30 yards from the house served as the house’s only companion.

Certainly no one would see us if we took a quick look around. “Can we go in ple-e-ease!” In unison, the kids echoed my exact thoughts. “Please. Can we see what’s inside?” I didn’t want to say yes, or no; I just approached the front door with Kestrel on my hip. My curiosity much stronger than theirs, I stepped onto the porch, testing my weight on the floorboards as I went. The floor felt solid and well-built with thick strong wood that would stand the test of time. Eli and Ariel huddled close to my legs. Multi-colored pieces of broken plaster littered the floor of the main living room and crunched under our feet. “Watch out for nails! Don’t step on any boards!”

I was crazy to allow my kids to follow me into such a ruin, but I couldn’t help it. The walls gaped with holes and I could reach right in and touch the house’s grey-black bones. Wallpaper flapped like streamers from the walls and ceiling. In the dining room, I counted eight different layers, a rose pattern, and one with red chickens surrounded by tiny yellow chicks, another with golden leaves printed in alternating directions. Upstairs, a tattered lace curtain danced from a nail on the window frame of the master bedroom. Moss grew on the windowsills on the north side shaded by a Norfolk pine that towered at least fifteen feet above the sheet metal roof. Its branches had begun to grow through the open windows.

Walking across the wide board wooden floor to touch the evergreen, I wondered about the other women who had lived here, what they thought about, who they loved. I pressed against the walls waiting for them to reveal their secrets. I imagined the women doing the same things I did, feeding kids, cleaning kids, dressing them, playing with them and rocking them to sleep. I wondered if they ever felt this same kind of emptiness. Did they ever wonder if there should be more? Did they long for real love? It was the only thing I’d ever really wanted and now it seemed forever lost. I didn’t know if I would ever find it. Standing at the bedroom window on the second floor, I stared out across the cornfields lined with fresh green shoots and wondered what it would be like to wake up every morning with that view, to fall asleep under those tall open windows with the sound of cicadas singing me to sleep, to recreate myself in that place, to tell another story.

That abandoned house began to fill my every waking thought like a new lover. In the mornings when I awoke, I would keep my eyes closed and imagine the things I could do with the place. My mind constructed a renovated floor plan, as well as paint colors for each and every wall. I mentally planned the gardens, outlining planting beds and borders with visions of parties on the lawns in summer amid flowering trees. The fantasy provided an escape from a life that had become so uncertain.

Slowly, by instinct, I began to piece my life back together. I moved into a mobile home, a temporary residence, and took a job as a waitress at an Italian restaurant in town. I signed up for some classes at the community college just to stimulate my mind again. On the days when I didn’t have to work at Rosie’s Little Italy, I loaded the kids into the truck and drove to the empty house where we got our hands dirty. We unearthed a buried sidewalk and put daisies in vases on the windowsills. We cleaned: moving fallen limbs picking up buckets of broken glass, and sweeping fallen walls into piles. We dug up trash and planted seeds of marigolds and zinnias in its place. We picnicked on a makeshift table in the kitchen—raspberries gathered from the vines out back, dessert in little china cups we brought from home.

My kids and I explored every inch of that little homestead, rummaging through the barn and the sheds surrounding the house. The kids gathered treasures, pieces of broken china, an old pair of glasses, forks and spoons, an old transistor radio, into private caches, creating a make-believe world of their own. The house gave us focus, someplace to jumpstart our future. There was plenty of room for everything there, especially dreams. The house, in all of its brokenness, seemed to come alive with our little bits of love and care and that gave me hope that I too could start over.

As summer came to an end, I finally decided to move back to the city, back to my family and the familiar. Before leaving, I drove out to the house one last time. Thomas had the kids for the day, so I was alone. Dark clouds gathered in the distance, but the sun peaked through occasionally, shining on the stretch of road before me. A jackrabbit darted out from the shoulder and I had to slam on my brakes to miss it. I watched it zigzag along the bluish colored grass drooping by the side of the road. The cloud of dust my tires had created caught up with the truck and passed on by. The truck’s engine died from the abrupt stop, so I reached down and turned the key again. The engine sputtered to a start, and I continued on.

Rounding the last turn, I pull into the drive and in my mind the newly-poured gravel circling the giant maple gleams fresh and white, crunching under my tires as they roll to a stop. I walk to the front porch, the smell of marigolds drift damp in the air. I pull the screen windows shut and fasten them in place. I open the front door brightly painted the color of honey, two shades darker than the siding, but matching the carefully restored shutters. The new wooden floors gleam golden under my feet. I stroke the fresh plaster and marvel at its silky smooth skin. In the kitchen, a wood stove hums and a tea kettle, just removed from the heat sits steaming on the counter. The stairs never make a sound as I climb slowly to the second floor. When I arrive in the largest bedroom, I pull back the curtains and watch the cornstalks flutter as a soft rain begins to fall. I am moving again, whether I like it or not.

Crossing my arms against my chest, I try to keep my heart from falling as I descend the stairs. On my way back to the truck, I notice something white in the tall weeds. With the tip of my tennis shoe I flip an old ceramic saucer. On the front side an image in delft blue of children picking apples from a tree captures my attention for a minute, maybe two. Although I like it, I will not take it with me. These relics of the past must remain. They don’t really belong to me anyway. But in that empty shell of a home, digging through the dirt and debris, I realized what I had really been looking for in all of those broken down houses, the bits and pieces of my life that I had lost along the way, the parts of myself abandoned each time we had to pull up stakes, pack our stuff and move along. Without my knowing, vital elements of my being had been severed, cut loose like helium balloons that float away on the wind, silent and soft. I knew without a doubt that it was time to call them back home.

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