Tuesday, August 10, 2004

A trip down memory road - and an extended farewell

Early in 1973, Joe & Helen Flower brought their 3 kids - me (2 months shy of 16, in the middle of my sophomore year of high school), and sisters Sue & Sandy (twins at 13, in junior high) to a recently constructed two-story tract-style house in the Crossgates neighborhood of south Toledo, Ohio. It was an interesting journey to get there...

My father had been unemployed for an extended period, and had finally found work with Prestolite Electric in Syracuse. So we were uprooted from our dream home in Niantic, CT, to stay in a tiny rented house on Warners Road in Camillus, NY (where we thought we were going to build our new home). But after five short months, Prestolite transferred their entire engineering department from Syracuse to Toledo - uprooting us yet again. It was that transfer that brought us to the house near the end of Woodhurst Drive during that first dreary, rainy week of February, 1973.

The house was not an impressive sight, unfortunately. There were at least 4 cookie-cutter houses almost exactly like ours within a two-block radius; there was no grass or landscaping (sod wouldn't come until summer-time), so only a sea of brown mud greeted us. Where we'd lived in Connecticut and New York, there had been scenic areas of hills and trees around our homes - but much of the "newer" part of Crossgates had been built on a treeless, barren patch of cornfield. So seeing our "new home" for the first time was not a spiritual experience for any of us, as I remember.

It's been a shade over 31 years since that fateful week - and after more than 3 decades, the house (the closest thing my family has ever had to an "ancestral homestead") is going on the market. My sister Sue and husband Jeff moved into the house when they got married (shortly after my Mom died in 1992), and they have worked mightily to keep it up. But neither of their health is so good, any more - and with a good-sized yard crying out for maintenance, and two sets of stairs between the bedrooms on the second floor and the washer/dryer in the basement, even things as simple as mowing grass or laundry had become a real trial for both of them.

So when the chance came up for Sue & Jeff to buy a single-floor, no-maintenance condo, there was no real argument - it definitely seemed like the right thing for them to do. As a result, it looks (barring unforeseen financing issues) like "ye olde homestead" could well be in someone else's hands by the end of September.

Several people have asked me how I felt about this - and on the surface, my reaction was between "Yaa-HOOO! Oh yeah, baby!" (for getting Sue & Jeff the heck out of what has become "The Money Pit") and "Ye gods!" (as we contemplate dealing with more than three decades of family flotsam and jetsam). But attachment to the place? No way. After all, some of the worst of my family's history - the crumbling of my parents' marriage, the death of both parents (13 years apart), and all of my benighted experiences of high-school, college, marriage and divorce (and my subsequent entry into recovery) mostly revolved around the blue-&-white two-story on Woodhurst.

In addition, while my dad was alive, it seemed that whenever he would travel, something in the house would inevitably break down or fail. Once my dad died, it seemed that the house continued to subtly fall apart, as if in tribute to his final going-away. I tried to help Mom keep it up - God, friends and neighbors alike know I tried. But somehow, my father's predisposition to handyman-hood never really made it into my own genetic makeup - so ever since Dad's death in 1978, the house just slowly degenerated, despite Sue & Jeff's efforts to keep up with it. In fact, when Mom died, and Sue & Jeff took possession of the house, I would not have faulted them if they had somehow "accidentally" burned the place to the ground, and started fresh somewhere else. (It would have been my number-one option, if our positions had been reversed.)

The last two weekends, I've been in Ohio with Sue & Jeff, starting the process of winnowing down a four-bedrooms-plus-basement house to a 2-medium-bedrooms/no-basement condo. It has felt good to start creating a pile of garage-saleable stuff, as well as throwing out a sizeable amount of formerly-valuable stuff that had just become trash, over time. But like the old song The Way We Were, it seems that "it's the laughter we will remember" - even amidst the memories of some truly yucky times in that household. And somehow, that's what I've been focusing on this last two weeks.

After all, for thirty-one years, this place was "home" for me, no matter where I lived. Anyone could find any of us siblings simply by mailing to this one address, or calling one phone number. There has been more than one person who couldn't even remember my last name (but somehow could still remember my mom's old phone number) who tracked me down that way. But in a few short weeks, those links to our collective past will be irrevocably severed.

So while I won't miss rolling down the badly-patched pavement of Woodhurst Drive, or dragging suitcases up the steep set of stairs to "my" bedroom, nor the remnants of the 30-year-old puke-green carpeting, the baby-blue-metallic-nightmare wallpaper in the main bathroom, or any of the other mechanical or decorating idiosyncracies of the house, I do recognize that it's truly the end of an era for my sisters and me. No matter what, it's going to seem pretty weird not to get off the highway and just head down Heatherdowns or Glendale to the old domicile when I come to visit.

Still, in all my moves over the last six years, I have learned that "home" is not a place, but a collection of people and God-given relationships - so wherever I have people who love me, that is where I am truly "home." Peter, Paul & Mary captured it best in this song chorus from the CD Lifelines:
Home is where the heart is
No matter how the heart lives
Inside your heart - where love is -
That's where you've got to make yourself
At home
So I'm sure that whether I'm at the new condo in Toledo, or with my church and recovery families in Kansas City, or with my seminary and recovery family here in Chicago, wherever love abides, that is where my home will be. And that's a very, very good feeling to know.

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