Monday, October 02, 2006

Is It Always The House That Makes It A Home?

Even though several gracious friends allowed me to live with them after I was laid off in September 2001, I spent the next 23 months virtually homeless - living out of boxes and clothes baskets, trying to create some assemblance of home in each house and room that was opened up to me. A picture here, a momento there, reminders of my family, reminders of my friends, reminders of my life before everything seemed to fall apart... I cannot begin to explain how humbling and overwhelming the kindness was that was shown to me, and to this day, thoughts of that generosity still easily bring tears to my eyes. Yet, at the same time, even though I tried my best and my friends went way above and beyond the call of duty to welcome me and take care of me, none of it felt like home. My belongings weren't settled. My job wasn't setled. My life wasn't settled. And, I didn't have a place of my own.

On one Sunday afternoon, soon after I had finally obtained a full-time job, a small group of us from church set out to attend some open houses around town - as was (and still is) our custom to do, just for curiosity's sake. When only a couple were found, we stopped at a nearby gas station to see if the paper had any listings that we had missed. One, in particular, stood out, even though I was not familiar with that part of town. An auction would be held in about a month, and a house was open that day so that potential buyers could meet with the auctioneers before it was sold.

To this day, I still can't describe what I felt as we drove up to the tiny little yellow house...but immediately, it felt like HOME. Maybe it felt that way because I wanted a house so badly. Maybe it felt that way because I so badly wanted out of my current situation and to feel settled. Maybe I wanted my independence back. Maybe I wanted all of those things...and maybe, just maybe, that was the place to which I was being guided.

Right away, I loved...
  • the size: small, but just right for me.
  • the location: very close to church.
  • the potential: foot after foot of cream walls that seemed to be screaming for color.
  • the cubby holes and archways: wonderful little details that set the house apart.
  • the upstairs: a place I could make all my own...maybe even that craft room I've always wanted!
  • the hardwood floors: hiding under the carpet, they're still one of my favorite parts of the house.
  • too many features to mention!

  • But, immediately, I realized what truly set this house apart as HOME was the large yard that surrounded it. Filled with a lilac, burning, rose, forsythia, azalea, barberry, and snowball bushes...holly, apple, sweetgum, dogwood, and Japanese maple trees....ferns, daffodils, peonies, tulips, irises, tiger lilies, and so much more that I can't identify. I purchased the house from a 92 year old woman who, sadly, couldn't keep it up on her own anymore. Mr. and Mrs. Sievers built the house in 1940 as he prepared to go off to war. They raised their son there. They spent most of their married life there. And, she lived there on her own long after her husband passed away, welcoming grandchildren through the door for visits. The house was full of memories, but so was the yard....and I could tell that she had treated both - like her family - with tender loving care.

    I know there are several factors that make a place feel like HOME. We can feel that way because a house holds our stuff. We see items that we recognize and set us at ease. We can feel that way because we've lived in a place for a long time, sometimes living in the exact same address as many ancestors before us, and that helps us feel grounded. We can feel at home because pictures of our loved ones surround us, flowers are present, or familiar cooking smells keep us returning to the kitchen. Paint colors, fabric choices, comfy furniture...all of these factors can make a huge difference in making a house a home. But, I have become keenly aware that I feel more at home at my place - not because of the inside (which I DO love!) - but because of the outside and the memories it brings back from my childhood. Mostly, those memories center around Grandma.

    I think it was said that very first day we saw the house.... and on the day I was blessed to receive the house at the auction... and when my parents first visited... and so many times since then: I wish Grandma could be here to see this.

    Grandma taught me all about flowers. I can still picture her fingernails and her hands, strong but knobby from arthritis. I can still feel the softness of her skin as we walked hand-in-hand around the familiar yard path to check the flower beds. I remember her distinct walk as she would carefully lead me as a small child... then match me pace for pace as I grew into adolescence... and finally depend and lean on me when the walk became more and more difficult to make. Her voice was kind as she would not only instruct me how to weed a particular patch or prune a specific plant, but also encourage me to take my turn and learn from experience. I remembered how she worked with the soil - rough when she needed to be, yet soft to guide the gentlest roots and stems. Her flowers were always so beautiful, and her yard brimmed with color. But I knew that was because of the individual time and attention she spent on those plants - just as did with each of us, her grandchildren.

    Fast forward:
    After I was blessed to receive the house at the auction, I felt like a great responsibility was being handed over to me. A passing of the torch. And, it pained me terribly to neglect the yard that first year while working so hard on remodeling the inside of the house. And, even now, I admit I struggle at times. Some bushes go for a few weeks without being trimmed. I have weeds growing in my driveway. My rose bush has needed pruned for far too long. The grass needs fertilized. And my ever-meticulous neighbor is probably upset that my yard isn't at the glory that it once was. But, even though I don't measure up to Mrs. Sievers or Grandma, I have tried really hard in the past two years to do my best in keeping it up. And, I am trying to learn everything I can because it can be so gorgeous, and often, it reminds me of a hidden garden or park. It's definitely a place for me to get away from the hustle and bustle. I just wish Grandma could be here to coach me and to enjoy the beauty with me.

    They are these memories - mixed with the recollections of my mom in the huge garden outside the old farmhouse and my dad taking me out in the corn fields and grain barns - that draw me to the windows (and then out into the backyard) each day. I don't remember any other place I've lived where I've looked out the windows so much. But here at HOME, I never know what I will find. Icecicles melting drip by drip? Auburn leaves floating and dancing slowly to the ground? A full harvest of apples? A chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, frog or the neighborhood cats? The birds playing in the birdbath? Crickets singing their midnight song? New blooms on a tree or building buds for next year? The first bloom from seeds I planted months ago? The visit from "old friends" which bloom from bulbs spring after spring? The burst of color after a good rain and a full day of sunshine? Or, maybe it will be a sudden growth spurt from the bleeding heart plant, my favorite flower from Grandma's old flower bed. It was one of the first additions I made to my yard after I settled in at my house, and each day, the bleeding hearts remind me of her.

    The truth is I have no idea where I am being led in my life. I have no idea if I will live in my house for 45 more years or move in 6 months. But, for now, I love my house and the wonderful yard that complements it. (Sweet gum balls and all!) But soon, a new arrival will make the yard even more complete and special. A few years ago, Uncle Roger was kind enough to bury some vines from Grandma and Grandpa's grape arbor so that starts could be created. And, any month now, I will be setting up a new arbor at my place to develop a new home for the new vines. I cannot wait! Even more memories of Grandma and our summer walks flood back.

    I won't ever learn everything that Grandma had in her head about the numerous species of flowers, plants, bushes, and trees...let alone be able to care for them like she did. Yet, I long for the day when I might be able to share some of the same experiences with my children and grandchildren, or with neices and nephews, or the small children at church, or the neighborhood kids....and pass on the love of nature that Grandma passed on to me.

    My little bitty house is special enough in itself. Yet, my yard and the memories it evokes of Grandma - one of the few people with whom I've always felt at home - are what make it feel like home to me.


    Sandy-san said...

    Oh, Michelle - Your testiment is SO beautiful! I totally understand what you mean... and I am happy that you have precious memories with your Grandma.

    I imagine the children and grand-children that follow you will feel the same way as you do about your Grandma. Life is a circle of joy...


    mikee said...

    You write so beautifully, Strem. Thanks for gathering and planting your words, thoughts, emotions, experiences.

    When does your book come out? ;)

    Chris said...

    Michelle - thanks for this one. I often forget the need to spend every available moment with Grandma, forgetting that soon she won't be with me, as your Grandma is no longer with you.

    It also reminded me of times similar walking with Grandma in her vegetable garden, learning what spinach, okra, green beans, squash, etc...looked like. Fun times! Good memories! Thank you again!

    Nardo said...

    How sweet memories can be! Especially of those already gone to be with the Lord. I am truly thankful that He blesses us with the ability to remember the wonderful people and places we have in our live, long after they are gone.

    lydia said...

    Sorry I'm a few days late posting my comment...This is truly a beautiful entry. While reading it my mind flashed back to several good memories I've had with my grandparents. It is definitely bittersweet to reflect on such experiences of the past. Like you, I can only pray that I will one day be able to share similar experiences with my children and grandchildren.

    Your house truly is wonderful and beautiful. Not only is it 'home' to you, but you do a great job at making it 'home' for those of us who stop by from time to time.