Last weekend, we drove past my old house.
My dad bought that house in 1977, when I was twelve years old. I had my own bedroom with a door that locked. (You could easily unlock that lock with your fingernail, but at least I knew no one could burst into the room without a moment’s hesitation.)
I lived in that house for six years. When I left for college, I boxed up a few mementos and abandoned them in the closet. I sent my clothes and other belongings ahead to college. I had nine boxes. Imagine! Nine boxes contained the essence of my life. Back then, I could move across the country by post office.
When I left for college, I left. I hardly looked back. I returned for Thanksgiving that first year, and then Christmas . . . but not summer. The first summer, I worked as a nanny for a family that lived on the shores of Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri.
I went home again for Christmas the next two years, but I found jobs both summers. I worked in Charlotte, North Carolina, the summers of 1985 and 1986. I didn’t go home.
I never really missed home. Unlike many of my peers, I never felt homesick. How can you miss a place where you felt like you needed to lock your door all the time?
I moved back home six months before I got married. My husband-to-be and I each went back home to live with our families and prepare for the wedding. (I can’t imagine what we were thinking.) I lived with my dad and my teenage sister for those months and worked at a daycare. My sister and I ate a lot of homemade brownies.
I sewed my wedding dress in that house. The kitchen had an eight-foot long island counter-top which was perfect for cutting out fabric.
My dad decided to tile the main bathroom in the house that spring. He barely finished it before wedding guests arrived to stay in the house.
My husband and I loaded up a U-Haul trailer after our wedding and moved across the country to New Haven, Connecticut. Two years later, we loaded the U-Haul again and returned to the house where I’d spent my adolescence. My husband and I stayed with my dad for a few weeks until we found our own apartment.
Quiet months passed and then my dad invited us to move back in. He was alone in that five bedroom house. He worked nights and we worked days. We could share the house and save money to buy our own house one day.
We agreed. We had no idea that a week before our move-in date, my dad would be diagnosed with terminal malignant melanoma.
We moved in anyway and thus began four stressful months. My husband lost his job. My dad quit his job. I went to my job every morning, leaving the two men I loved to muddle through their days without me. We watched my dad decline. I worried non-stop.
At the end of summer, my dad died in a hospital bed we’d pushed into the bedroom at the end of the hallway, the bedroom that I’d painted lavender so many years before.
That Christmas, my husband and I had a live Christmas tree. After the holiday, we planted the tree in the front yard.
Not long after, we sold the house. We moved to follow my husband’s career. We left the house and I didn’t miss it at all. How can you be homesick when your life is finally unfurling?
Four babies, two apartments, a townhouse, a parsonage, a house and twenty-three years later–and there we were, driving past the old house last weekend.
It’s beige now, instead of brown.
My husband drove by slowly. “Take a picture!” he said and I declined. The garage door was open and I didn’t want to be caught snapping pictures.
But I wanted to step into the garage and look around. I wanted to run my fingers over the walls. I know the new owners tore down the room my dad constructed in the garage. But was there any trace of him left behind?
The courtyard was intact with its brick archway leading to the front door. Was the lilac bush still there? I probably still have a key that unlocks that front door.
Have they replaced the flooring? Figured out a way to fix the bricks in the ugly fireplace? We could see they added some windows to brighten up the dim living room. But was the tile still there in the bathroom? Is the kitchen counter-top still green or is it fancy granite now?
I didn’t get out of the car. I just stared through the window. The Christmas tree we’d planted looms high above the roof of the house. The little evergreen bushes I planted along the front of the house to improve its curbside appeal looked green and lush.
I wanted to press my nose against the window of the bedroom where I spent so much time dreaming of the future. I wanted to tell my husband to stop the car so I could circle the house on foot.
But we slowly drove away.
I would give almost anything to knock on that door and find my dad on the other side. I’m homesick now because I understand that you can never really go home again . . . and once you close the door on it, your key never unlocks the past again.
And even if you don’t box up your life and mail it to another city, the present shoves the past farther away until you can hardly remember a time when the Christmas tree was small enough to lug into the front yard for planting.