89: Down the Garden Path

89: Down the Garden Path

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

Down the Garden Path

Where we love is home,
Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

It was a wildly impractical house for a young couple with kids. But the moment the Realtor opened the front door to this old Jacobean (not Tudor, she had emphasized, but Jacobean) rotting before our eyes, we knew we had to own it.

So we hadn’t evaluated things like traffic patterns, insulation, wiring or that wonderful catchall — “low maintenance” — when we joyfully signed on the dotted line. So overpowering was our lust that nothing but an agreement of sale could put out the fire. For us, the house’s imperfection was, itself, a kind of wonderful perfection.

We spent twenty-eight years in that house, and left with the kind of sadness that marks significant endings. But our three daughters had had the audacity to grow up and leave. In their wake, there were three empty upstairs bedrooms, vast closet space and an almost solemn stillness.

So we did the sensible thing and downsized. Moved one-half mile — and an emotional continent — away into a sleek condominium with a sensible floor plan and modern conveniences. I still keep wondering when it will feel like home.

Fast-forward several years.

Our town’s garden club had our former home on its annual tour. The new owners had brought the place back to its earlier glory, something we’d had neither energy nor the resources to do.

Two tickets for the tour had been tacked onto the kitchen bulletin board for weeks. I would glance at them occasionally, and then walk away. They made my heart lurch.

The big question: How would we summon up the courage to go back to our old house? Could we actually return to the yard where each of our daughters had been married, each joining her groom near the giant beech tree in the side yard?

And could we ever, ever endure handing over our $20 tickets at the door just to see our old house again?

I’d been back just once since we’d pulled out of the driveway. That visit was to allow my aging and infirm mother one last look at the place she too had loved. The new owners had been extraordinarily gracious, realizing how urgent that last visit was. My husband, however, had not set foot in the place after we moved.

The day of the garden club tour dawned as one of those rare, golden spring days, the kind on which our former dining room, with its creamy walls, would blush — and yes, this was a house in which rooms could — and did — blush.

So we went on the garden club tour, arriving at our old house with hordes of other “tourists.” All of us were asked to remove our shoes in the front foyer so as not to disturb the floors. That was probably the strangest moment of all.

We wandered the first floor rooms, dazed and disoriented. The bones of the house were the same. The wonderful chestnut paneling in the foyer was polished to a gleam but was otherwise basically unchanged. The den still had its wonderful old bookshelves.

It was all so familiar that for one weird moment I wondered why the photographs on those shelves were of some other family, not ours.

There were even a few remnants of us…

The wall sconces made by a local artisan to replicate the 1929 era when the house was built were in place on the living room wall. The wallpaper we’d picked for the downstairs powder room — the source of some spirited arguments, as I recall — also had survived.

Upstairs, in the space we’d used as our family room, the crazy-patterned carpeting that we’d let our daughters select in a moment of folly was gone. But the sweeping views of the yard were as magical as ever, and the softer wall color was definitely better than our strange choice of refrigerator white.

Many of the other garden club wanderers recognized us — ours is a small town. Was it pity I read in their faces? Curiosity? Or just those nods of recognition that this must be bittersweet for us?

In the end, it was the kitchen that left us speechless. Ours was gone. In its place was a magnificent, modern, tasteful, perfect kitchen, the kind we’d dreamt about… Everything familiar had been swept away in a major, marvelous renovation.

Except — could it be? The old light fixture with its amber globe and sassy red ironwork was hanging where it always had. How many times that fixture had illuminated our kitchen life.

My daughters and I would sprawl on the kitchen floor, never on chairs, sorting out our lives, singing, bingeing on pretzels and peanuts too easily retrievable from the pantry closet nearby.

It was the one place in the house where I had to blink back tears.

It was almost dusk when we reclaimed our shoes and went outside to walk the grounds. The new owners are superb gardeners, and we marveled at the improvements. They had gotten it right. Their flowers and shrubs thrived — ours had too often withered. The grass was that green of magazine ads.

And yes, the wedding tree was still there. It was the one each daughter circled with her parents before she met her waiting groom.

We left our old house as some new arrivals walked up the path. This time, we looked back every few steps. Chances are, it would be our last visit ever.

At one point, my husband reached for my hand.

And without words, we walked away from our old home.

~Sally Friedman

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