The Old House

Not long before my mother left this world, she sold her house.

Mom had lived alone in the same house for years since my dad passed away. By the time she was in her early 80s, the signs of declining health began to appear. Her memory, once sharp as a stiletto blade, was now perforated with holes like a block of Swiss cheese. She would sometimes fall and bruise herself while walking to the mailbox. Finally, she acknowledged she could not live alone anymore and moved in with my sister.

My parents were still newlyweds when the house was built in 1960. To call it “modest” seems almost humorous. Constructed of cinder blocks, wood, sheetrock, and tin, it was the house where my sister and I grew up in the 196os-1970s. It was poorly insulated, and winters were often brutal. I recall shivering as I dressed for school each morning. Summers were hot enough to steal your breath.

It was the house where we played. Ate. Slept. Did homework. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t stately.

It was home.

Years later when I visited my mother, I noticed things that hadn’t mattered much before. The patched-up carpeted floors. The dusty old antique wood and glass bookcase that was falling apart. The small air conditioner in the window. The broken-down recliner. The TV I’d bought her more than a decade before, now crowned with aluminum foil rabbit ears. I’d sit listening to my mother’s voice, a cantaloupe-size lump in my throat, hoping she wouldn’t see tears in my eyes. She deserves much better than this, I’d think.

But my mother never cared about having expensive things. She was content with what little she had, and it was little.

After she sold her house, the new owners decided to burn it down. My sister and I met one evening and walked through it one last time. As we stood in the kitchen reminiscing about old times, I remembered hunting as a teen on cold winter nights with my dad and a friend. Later, we’d sit at that table, talking and laughing over hot coffee.

Mom died in February 2008. One Saturday morning a few months later, my phone rang.  My sister said, “They’re about to burn the house down,” and my stomach lurched. I felt lightheaded, and sounds became hollow in my ear. My brain seemed to slow down. I struggled for words.

“Today?” I blurted out at last. I told her I didn’t want to see it yet. She said she would drive over to see it later, but the reluctance in her voice was unmistakable.

As I was driving home from work that night, I found myself steering the car down a familiar pothole-infested road I had driven many times as a young man. Within minutes I crossed the small bridge where I stood years ago, casting pebbles into the shallow creek below. A hundred yards up the road I turned left into the parking lot of a nearby church, tires crunching on gravel as I wheeled around and aimed the headlights toward the house.

That night was one of the darkest I’ve ever witnessed. It was as if a crestfallen moon had turned away in grief, unable to shed even a sliver of light on the scene below. Even so, the inky blackness couldn’t conceal the surreal, nightmarish image of what I saw in the beam of my headlights.

Emptiness.

The house was gone. Vanished. Thick plumes of black smoke rose like tendrils from the smoldering cinder block foundation where it once stood.

I felt as if someone had dropped a noose over my head and yanked hard. My lip trembled, and my eyes were suddenly wet with hot tears. I felt sick. The house I had lived in had been obliterated from the face of the earth. Had I been standing, I would have collapsed on the ground. Instead, I sat gripping the wheel, my knuckles pale as tombstones, mourning the loss of my childhood.

I don’t know how long I sat there that night.  Maybe 20 minutes, maybe an hour or two. The raw, open wound of my mother’s recent death had been ripped open, robbing me of all sense of time. After a while, I managed to compose myself and drove home.

My parents are buried in a small family cemetery perhaps 50 yards from where they raised two children. I don’t visit them that often anymore. I’ve stood at their graves, gazing at the small plot of grass where we live, and I could almost hear the voices of those two children playing. In my mind’s eye, I could see a younger version of me, riding a bicycle, tossing a ball, reveling in his innocence.

My innocence died that night. Sometimes I wish I had it back, along with my dad and mom.

But Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.

I’d better stop here. My throat feels tight again. I don’t know where I’m going with this. Maybe I needed something cathartic to purge this out of my system. But there’s one bit of advice I’d like to give you.

Don’t let anyone steal your innocence. 78

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