If you want to know a person, ask them about their houses. The house they grew up in. The first house they bought. The house they’ve always wanted. My houses have all left their marks on me, and I left a bit of myself in each one of them. And the thing about houses is, once you leave, they’re never the same – even if you go back. Because a house is not just a house on its own. It’s made of the people who live inside.
I grew up in a house down a long country road. You wouldn’t find it, unless I told you where it was. And maybe, not even then. The trees may have taken it over, by now.
That house was never homier, than it was at Christmas time. I still smell the wood smoke, and the Christmas tree in the living room. I remember the exhilaration as I unwrapped my gifts – dolls, teacups, and ponies. Joy unfettered by hardship, burden, or responsibility. When I moved away from that house, much of that youthful freedom was left behind. Folded up and put away, with my other childish things.
The next house I lived in was borrowed space – from the kindly woman who lived upstairs. A friend and I split rent for the basement. At Christmas, we shared hot chocolate, board games, jokes, and friends, because it was all that we had. In retrospect, though, it was more than I thought. And one day, somebody knocked on that basement door. He brought me love. He became my husband – or, “Hubby,” as I liked to call him.
The first house I bought with Hubby was old. The plaster crumbled, and the ceilings dribbled, but we filled it with ambition, work, and silly, happy dreams. One such dream was to fix that house. We tore it apart, from the inside out, and put it all back together again. It cost plenty of money, which we worked hard to earn.
One Christmas morning, as I left for the early shift, the old man from next door was outside on his porch, smoking in the dark. I was startled to see him and he smiled and gave me a wave. I waved back, feeling sorry for him, living all by himself. I wondered what more I should do, but drove away instead. Two days later, an ambulance came. They took the man away and he never came back. He died in that house on December 27th. That was his final Christmas – the day he waved at me, leaving for work.
Living there taught me many things. But most of all, I never forgot that elderly neighbour. Time moves fast. Houses get old. People get old. And some chances never come around again.
After children were born, we sold that old house and bought a newer one with a larger yard. I remember that place like yesterday, because it’s where we stayed the longest. Vines drooped from around the windows. The lawn was scattered with balls, trucks, and bikes. And the inside was like the outside. Unfinished projects covered the dining room table. Lego littered the floor. Walls and shelves were dressed in pictures and keepsakes from the things we did and the places we went – which were many. So the house, at times, nearly burst at the seams. I spent two decades collecting that stuff, and the next two decades digging myself out from under it.
Some Christmases there were happy. Some years, my heart bled. But always, the children’s eyes glittered and their laughter rippled through the rooms. The unending clamour made me crazy and kept me sane, all at once. It was the busiest time of my life. But as with all seasons, it came to an end.
The boys moved out, taking with them their chaos and clutter, and that house began to feel enormous. So Hubby and I found something smaller. There, we dawdled through days, just the two of us, and had the time to talk to each other again. We remembered we were, in fact, a very good match. Even after all those years.
Of all the seasons in all the houses, that one felt short, for five years ago last month Hubby died. I’d forgotten how to live without him and still haven’t remembered. We had grown together like two grafted trees. We had laughed and fought and loved and cried. He couldn’t have been more different from me, but he made me better and now that he’s gone I feel like half a person. Empty of him, that house broke my heart. So I moved to the place I live now.
The boys still come by, and take my arm when I get up out of chairs and usher me to the dining table or bathroom. Their lives, today, are so different from mine. But when I look at their eyes, I see the babies who giggled on my lap – only now, they understand better what it all took. And I believe, when they look back at me, they remember the woman who bounced them on her knees. And we love each other. Somehow, that is enough.
Yesterday was Christmas, and I woke up early. It used to be the kids who woke me up before the light. Back then, I would have given an arm for fifteen minutes of quiet. Now, however, it is the deafening silence that rouses me from rest.
It had snowed, so I bundled up and wandered outside to brush the porch that Hubby would clear, if he were around. There’s a young couple living next door. I saw the woman go out to her car, with a bag over her shoulder and a coffee in her hand.
Ah, the Christmas shift, I thought with a smile. Time-and-a-half pay.
For good measure, I waved at her. She looked at me stunned, the same way I must have looked at the old smoking man all those long years ago. Going one step further, I gathered up my nerve and called, “Merry Christmas, dear. Don’t work too hard.”
Her expression warmed, and she paused and placed her coffee on the roof of the car. “Thank you. Merry Christmas! Mrs. – ?”
I told her my name. She repeated it, nodded, and drove away, waving.
Oh, what I wouldn’t do. To go back to any one of those times. In any one of those houses. Instead, however, I have their memory. I have my husband’s old slippers. I have my boys, and their kind, knowing eyes.
And I have my young neighbour, whom I understand, much better than she thinks. If the good Lord wills it, I’ll be here tomorrow. And maybe then, I’ll walk to her house and knock on the door.
Many thanks to my local paper, the Carillon, for awarding my story with FIRST PRIZE this year!
And, what’s more, my young son also won FIRST PRIZE for his poem! What a thrill it was to see the both of us published on the same page!
I think he cranked that poem out in about five minutes. (Cute, isn’t it?)
Thank you to everyone who visits my blog, for sharing my writing journey. It just would not be the same without you.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. May you know the peace of Jesus in your life this year.