My parents both died at the age of fifty- seven, a million years ago. My father died and then my mother followed, three years later. I returned to the house that I grew up in for a last walk through before it was sold. Todd and I were about to leave for an 800-mile backpack in the High Sierra and it was doubtful that I could enter the house once I returned. The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Log Home Years- One Couple Builds a Home From Scratch and Creates a Life, Skyhorse Publishing, NYC. It was written thirty years ago and is finally going to be shared with the world.
I have dreaded going back for weeks. Thinking of it brought a sick feeling to my insides, like when you walk into a hospital room to visit a loved one who is dying and you haven’t seen them in awhile.
I don’t recognize the red brick house when I pull up. Tears fill my eyes making it difficult to see. The rusty glider and painted wooden rockers that I used to sit on in lazy summer afternoons and count cars going by when l was a kid are gone. The flower pots with geraniums are gone. The canvas awnings are gone letting in sterile, bright light, illuminating the porch’s nakedness. A carpet remnant bought as a runner to look good for perspective buyers lies tangled in the shrubs, blown off by a summer storm. Sheets of yellowed newspaper lie crumbled and stuck in the hedgerow. The metal “FOR SALE” sign swings and creaks on its hinge.
The house seems almost as important to me as my parents and saying good-by feels almost as traumatic. It’s what took place here. So many years of memories and sharing inside its walls and yards around it. It’s hard to believe I can never come back.
Slipping my key into the big, heavy oak door, I automatically look for the heavy drapes parting and my mother’s smiling face peeking through the glass, turning the knob to let me in before I can turn my key. She always knew I was coming and hung around the living room to greet me. The drapes never move and no face appears.
I push open the door and gasp. So cold! Like a tomb! Empty like my mother’s dark Italian eyes when I saw her lying dead in her hospital bed. No sign of life anywhere. The smells are cold. Dampness. Mildew. A shut-in odor. They replace the smell of garlic and onions frying on the stove and the treats baking in the oven.
I close the door behind me and the sound echoes through the house, bouncing off the walls, no pictures or furniture to absorb the vibrations. Everything that could be picked up and moved is gone. There are signs that life took place here at one time. Indentations in the plush carpet tell where furniture once sat. Rectangles of bright paint show where pictures once hung. A gaping hole in the wall remains where the refrigerator once sat.
Most of our small yard was turned into a garden when dad was alive. He put in twenty-eight tomato plants every year so he and Mom could jar quarts and quarts of her famous sauce. These last years we mowed the weeds like grass and after this summer’s rain, the garden looks like a jungle. In the basement, the pool table light hangs ridiculously low to the floor, with no balls or green felt table to illuminate.
The stillness inside is overwhelming. It’s as though the house is lying in wait. In my old bedroom on the second floor, colorful paint blotches and rings of linseed oil stain the carpet. My palette had a tendency to dump, much to my parents’ chagrin. Where my paintings once hung for viewing, nail holes cover the blue plaster walls like someone opened fire. I go into the bathroom and sit on the closed toilet. How many tearful hours I spent here as a teenager, late at night, arms folding tightly across my stomach, rocking back and forth and crying with menstrual cramps, the rusty radiator at my side that Mom used to make me scrub, never understanding why my younger brothers couldn’t aim better.
I walk down the steps holding onto the wooden banister and think of the times I hung on those upper rungs as a child, crying to my parents to let me come down after I was sent to my room, punished for one thing or another, usually mouthing off. The same banister my hand glided over while the other held up my wedding gown with and waiting at the bottom beaming. The same banister my skinny, weak Father grabbed as he climbed to his bedroom, oxygen hose trailing behind, his fragile body fighting the losing battle of cancer, only a few years ago. My tears wet the wood on the banister as they fall.
I sit on the bottom, carpeted step a long time, thinking about my past in this house and wondering about its future, about the family who will move in next. I realize, that despite its empty, abandoned look, this home is a living home, a symbol of warmth, security, comfort, and shelter from the outside world. What was here inside, is not gone. The life and spirit that was once present lives in me, just like the love of my deceased parents. And I will transfer that love and spirit into my log home that we are building. Todd and I haven’t been thinking about things like life and spirit happening inside our log walls. It seems more like a structure, a shell. We’ve made memories building it, but nothing compared to what will occur as we bring children into the world, raise them through their youth, and grow old within its confines.
The feelings my parents’ house has conjured up in me have given new meaning to our big question of why exactly are we building our log home. Because we’ve put so much of ourselves into its creation, the memories we’ll make inside will mean even more, not just to Todd and me, but to our children. Our log house is a gift, not only to the two of us, but also to our children and our children’s children.
I rise and head towards the door, not feeling that I need to be here anymore. The Sierra Nevada calls me and then my log house and then the voices of my own unborn children. It is time to continue the flow. One generation has made room for the next.
I was “a hard child to raise,” my mother told me after I became an adult. I had this spectacular sister, JoAnn, only thirteen months older, who was every mother’s dream- smart, stylish, efficient, neat. I was mouthy, a bit sloppy, easily lost things and was very independent. My mother loved me, she just wished I were normal. But she had one daughter like that. I didn’t see why she needed two.
I made waves in my parent’s life, maybe even tidal waves sometimes, although I never meant to. The biggest waves were modeling nude for life drawing class, working underground in an iron ore mine with 800 men and 12 men, (to get $ to go to professional art school), then majoring in Fine Arts Painting and pursuing the very insecure occupation of a fine artist, and finally long-distance backpacking.
The episode that pushed my parents the furthest however, was modeling nude. I was in college at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania at the time, and going to school for art. When the model did not show up for life drawing class, (which happened quite a bit) we all had to go home. Because I was an athlete all my life (competitive swimmer), I had good muscle definition and my art teacher asked if I would consider filling in. I shared my new part time job with my parents and did not think anything of it. But they went ballistic.
My father drank whiskey heavily all night and my mom had to bodily block the door to prevent him from driving across the state to drag my ass home. He wrote a letter to the president of the university trying to get my drawing prof fired as he believed he had brainwashed me, for he couldn’t believe I would decide to do this act on my own. I received letters, holy cards, and plaques in the mail that said, “Have you prayed about it?”
Life drawing models were not a big deal for art students. It was a necessary part of our education. You saw a lot of nude people, all ages, all sizes, and we had to draw them without their clothing on in order to properly learn anatomy.
My parents were not buying it, especially my dad. I did not think modeling nude was an immoral act like my dad did. They were deeply religious and I understood that their belief system was different than mine and they were entitled to theirs. I did not respond in anger or feel like I was being persecuted, or was a victim, although it did not feel good. I just had to weather the storm and wait until they got over it.
I returned home for Thanksgiving break and brought my cat along, who lived in my dorm room. My mom was still pissed about my new occupation and when I went to see some friends that Saturday, I returned home to find no cat. My mom said, “You do what you want in your life, with no regards to our feelings, I can do what I want too. We don’t want your cat here.” She had taken it to the SPCA. I was shocked.
I knew when it was all said and done, that my parents’ behavior was not a reflection on how much they loved me, but quite the opposite. They would not have bothered to react the way they did, had they not been deeply fearful for my well-being and health, however skewed it appeared at the time in my young mind.
After my father died, Todd and I grew very close to my mother those last three years before she passed. We had no children of our own yet and because of our lifestyle, we were able to travel often to Reading where Mom lived, and have dinner with her, watch movies in her king size bed, which had grown very large after my dad died, and stay overnight. It was wonderful for her to have her children back in her home.
I know how that feels. Although I have my husband here and since we both work from home, we certainly aren’t alone, but we do miss our children, no matter how old they grow, and it is always wonderful to have them come visit. It is a deeply comforting feeling when you say good-night to your visiting children, knowing you will have the great privilege of seeing them when you wake up. No need for them to stay, just a short visit is like a ray of sunshine in your life.
Sierra made the five hour drive up from Virginia for Mother’s Day this year, through the driving rain and darkness. Bryce wasn’t able to make it and we missed him terribly. Now that I have revisited and am working on my log building manuscript, thirty years after the fact, I wonder how my own children view this log home of theirs, and what it means to them when they return. Along with the log home is the garden and orchard, surrounding woods, goats and kitties- their childhood pets. This home is ten times more therapeutic and healing of a place than my childhood home was, which was in an old development in a suburb with a backyard on a busy street. Yet, it meant the world to me to grow up there with a loving family and parents who loved me unconditionally, which is not the same as approving of all my behavior. Not the same at all.
My parents worried like crazy over me. Being underground with all those men in the mine, hiking in the woods and sleeping in the wilderness, a place so foreign to them. I can only imagine the volume of prayers and candles that they lit and sent up to heaven, requesting God and the angels to stand guard and watch over me.
I have saved every single Mother’s Day card that my children ever made me and there have been close to 30 from Sierra and close to 28 from Bryce. Todd and I were recently attempting to clean out our storage area and found a half dozen boxes of art and writings that our children created growing up. It was hard to decide what to toss. In fact, I distrusted Todd’s opinion so much that I had to go through his entire pile of “Toss” to make sure nothing of value was lost. I recently went through my box of greeting cards and found a Mother’s Day card that read,
Hundreds of stars in the pretty sky
Hundreds of shells on the shore together
Hundreds of birds that go singing by.
Hundreds of lambs in the sunny weather.
Hundreds of dewdrops to greet the dawn,
Hundreds of bees in the purple clover,
Hundreds of butterflies on the lawn,
But only one mother the wild world over
And in MY hand it was written, “We love you very much. Can’t wait for our kids to know you and experience what you went through for me.” Cindy & Todd
And I realized that it was a card that I had given to my mother on Mother’s Day, that she had saved and that I had found after she died and then I had saved.
Neither my father nor my mother got to meet my wonderful children, Sierra and Bryce. I can never say to her, when I went through hard and challenging times with my own children, “Now I know what I must have put you through. Thank you for still loving me regardless, regardless if you didn’t understand, or approve, or feared for me, mentally, physically, or spiritually. Your love never, ever wavered.
A few years back I went to a psychic for some insight and advice into the veterans I am working with and telling their story in a new book, particularly one who committed suicide. In the session, the psychic said, “Your mother is always with you. She sits on your shoulder and never leaves your side. She is here right now. And your father. He’s smoking a cigar. You have to invite your dad to come along, but your Mother, she is always with you.” And I began crying right there in the room from the thought of my beloved parents who have been gone for so long, still with me, helping me through my life. But especially my mother, for I realized after all these years how much she truly loved me.
On this Mother’s Day, I want to thank you, my Mama, for loving me, the thirty years you were on this planet with me and the thirty-five years you have been gone, but are still with me. I love you still and feel you. And to my own children, Sierra and Bryce, thank you for giving me the greatest reason for living, to love you.
That is what we celebrate on Mother’s Day, the amazing fact that our Mother always loves us. Everyone else can leave our sides but our mothers never do.
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