Where the Heart is

The sound of the garage door lifting open and the familiar smell of what was contained behind it hit me like a one-two nostalgic punch.  If you were to ask me what comes to mind when I think of home, the garage wouldn’t be it.  I was surprised at how readily my brain brought me back in time from the smell of the garage alone; back in time to some point in the 21 years I lived there.

My parents bought a house in the part of the state that my brothers and I now live in order to be closer to us and their grandchildren – well, maybe just their grandchildren 😉 – so my dad and I were back home to move more things to the new house.  It’d been a while since I’d been at home, so for a season, I’ve been in a mindset of looking and thinking forward to the new house.  I realized pretty quickly when I got there, that it’s been a long time since I looked back.

Dad was looking for something in the garage (the garage that has always looked like a mess to me, but apparently is organized chaos to him because he found what he was looking for), so I went in through the front door to get some things ready to put on the truck.  Sentiment made a fool of me, because for a half of a second I expected to be greeted by my black lab, Koda.  We lost him over 7 years ago.  Just in front of me was the old upright piano we got for next to nothing 10 or 11 years ago.  It reminded me of the Christmas that I got a keyboard that I used to fall asleep playing.  I practiced for hours trying to learn to play two hands together on that keyboard; that one was an upgrade from the Yamaha I tried my best to make music on (it only had 19 keys – or was it 28? – and only 2 could be played at a time).

The floor in the foyer is probably 20 years old, and I remember when it was put down (and the yellow carpet that was there before it).  I can still hear the sound my rollerblades made when I’d skate to the front door to go out and brave the hill of the driveway (which, by the way, is a minuscule decline, as it turns out).  I’d make my way through the threshold of the front door onto the porch, which has no rails, and squat as low as I could with my hands just behind me to catch myself the moment my feet rolled out in front of me.  I’d scoot down the brick stairs on my rear end (the same stairs I slapped the side of my face into once), then slowly stand up at the bottom and make my way down the sidewalk, with my headphones on, and my Disc Man in my fanny pack.  It doesn’t get more 90s than that.

The living room has a huge window that I didn’t appreciate as a youngster.  If you could’ve watched from the outside in through the years, you would’ve seen hours of Nintendo playing, instrument practice, and boyfriend/girlfriend hangouts.  You also would’ve seen one of my proudest moments: finally, after years of being picked on as the youngest by the middle child, I beat my brother at his own game.  He was messing with me in one manner or another, and I ended up sitting on the floor facing him standing before me.  In a split second I decided to grab both of his ankles and yank his feet out from under him.  He might not acknowledge such defeat (or remember, really).  If you look out the window to the front yard, you’ll see the tree that he swiftly cut behind as I was chasing him during a game of Marco Polo (not in the pool – I don’t know why that sounded like a good idea).  I was chasing him around the yard with my eyes closed, so naturally he led me to that tree and stood behind it and yelled “Polo!”, thus making it seem like I had a chance at catching him.  I lunged, hit the tree, then hit the ground.  That one gave me a pretty bad goose egg.  These are just the beginning of the stories that house holds.

I looked around the house and remembered very specific moments from each room.  My bed is still in what ended up as my own room.  I spent the majority of my life going to bed in the same spot, but now, 10 years after leaving, it seems like a lifetime ago.  Even now, I’m remembering a time I cried in my closet after having my lip busted by a bag of hard candy that one of the neighborhood kids had.  Each room has its own feeling and story; even each of the yards surrounding the house has its own feeling and story.  I was shaped in that house and in those yards and under the big oak tree (I won’t get into that right now – it’s one of the main identifiers of “home” to me), and now they’re becoming empty.

My Grandma moved into the basement apartment of my parents’ new house from the same city that I grew up in.  The day she moved, I helped on the unloading side.  I recognized most of what was in the trucks and on the trailer: it was every one of her belongings that had just come from her old apartment that she had been in for 20 years.  (She should really get a Tenant Lifetime Achievement Award or something.  Could you ask for a better tenant?)   A lot of the things that she brought with her had also been in the apartment she was living in down in Gainesville, Florida, the one she left to come to North Carolina.  I wonder how many times she’s left a home.

A day or two later, we all gathered in her new apartment for dinner (including all three of her children).  A lot had been unpacked by this time, so it felt like Grandma’s house already.  I saw reminders of my Grandpa in some of the things he made (and even a sock monkey that was made for him when he was in the hospital long ago), the potato lookalike that is actually a rock had made it, all of the binders that hold photos of all of our lives and journals of her travels were there on the bookshelf (she’s been to every state except Hawaii), the dining table I sat at a quarter of a century ago in Florida was set up…it was her home.  She seemed to already be comfortable.  She was making dinner and didn’t have to guess about anything.  She’s almost 93, so of course she knew how to make the meal she was making, but a new kitchen didn’t trouble her in the slightest.  I looked around and saw my aunt and uncles and parents talking at the table, my own children playing with toys I probably played with as a child (and chasing their cousins around), my Grandma beating an egg with such familiarity (she grew up on a farm, so she’s been doing that for at least 80 years)…life was happening, as comfortably in her new house as her previous one.  I can see her happiness to be here, and not because she has expressed to me a few times that she was eager to move.  So I guess the old adage is true.  I guess home really is where the heart is.  Grandma left a house to come to NC, and one to get where she was before that, and who knows how many others before that.  I’d be willing to bet that she figured this out a long time ago.

When Dad and I got back to the new house with the load, my uncle and oldest brother helped us get everything inside.  Slowly, the new house is filling up.  The new dining room is gigantic and is open to the family room.  The dining room table that once filled a kitchen now seems small in such a vast space.  The couch is apparently mammoth sized because it had to be taken apart to fit through the door, but it’s there now, too.  Even the kitchen utensils (some of which my mom has probably had my entire life – I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Some of them are broke, so I may or may not be hinting at what part of your Christmas present will be, Mom) found their way there.   The house still looks like somebody’s moving in, and probably will for a while, but home is starting to take shape.

It’s kind of exciting to know that familiar things from my past get a new life.  Going “home” to a new house will be an adjustment, but I’ve become an expert at adjustment.  The day is approaching quickly that the old house won’t be a part of my life anymore.  When I finally faced this reality, it stung a little.  I moved out 10 years ago and proceeded in life thinking that no matter where I go, the house will always be there.  I was wrong about that, and it’s ok.  I love that house.  It’s a modest house, but I hold it dear and will miss it.  Who knows if I’ll have the chance to go back one more time before everything is moved out.  If not, it’ll be just fine, because even though we are leaving a house behind, we are bringing home with us.