“You are not welcome at the house because you abandoned the people who lived there.”
There were a bunch of other words, but these are the ones that burned. They were typed in an email, which is now long gone. I deleted it. I thought erasing the embittered declaration would be healthier for me—would free me to give up and let go, but it doesn’t always work that way. Not when “the house” is—was—home. The place overlooking a tiny lake where I once spent summers building tree forts, catching snakes, drifting among reeds and lily pads; the wooded wonderland where I later taught my own children how to fish, pick berries, and lull through a warm summer day without an agenda. This is where they learned that thistle flower tastes sweet, bluegills like Cheerios, and that finding a loon egg is a rare and woeful thing. A mama loon only deserts it if she feels threatened and knows no other way to protect herself and her young.
It is true that, despite the beauty of this place, I detached myself from the ones who lived there. No amount of natural splendor could temper a certain displeasure, nor mollify the ensuing friction. My efforts were inadequate, so I stepped back—way back. Life was less prickly there.
Later, when the house was empty, and someone else was chosen to care for it, I was told that my recoil would be permanent. I was no longer welcome to meander the woods surrounding the fingerly lake, nor free to dive off the dock into the smooth, cool, lilypad-pocked water. Not allowed to roam the barn loft where bentwood chairs, antique picture frames, cigar boxes full of brass fittings, an old pair of cross-country skis, and the shiny red trunk containing my doll and her tiny clothing, are stored. Not invited to imbibe the golden hued birches of autumn, nor spy on the brave approach of round little chickadees in winter, and I will have no need to shield my eyes from the silvery reflection of the late summer sun on the barely rippled surface of the lake. No more slow tours on the pontoon boat, sips of beer on the screened porch, nor quiet evenings paging through stacks of vinyl-covered photo albums, stacked in an old jelly cupboard. The ones that contain pictures of me. Me as a baby, me as an awkward teen, me on my wedding day, me cradling my children. I am not allowed to look at them.
This place is off limits.
But what am I complaining about? It is, after all, just a place, right? Aren’t people, their wacky ideas, the bad jokes they told, and silly songs they sang more important than tree toads, doll clothes, fir trees, and fishing poles?
What is “place” anyway, other than a combination of ground and objects?
If the gravelly road leading to the driveway were paved over, forever muting the familiar crunching of car tires as they approach the hill, would this be the same place? And if the dock finally sloped so far to the left that it had to be pulled from the water, and the pontoon boat finally rusted out and got hauled out with it, would it be the same place? The last time I traversed the stairs, they were warped and cracked; what if they were rebuilt in such a way that I would no longer know how to skip up them, two at a time? What about the wind chimes hanging from the eaves at the top of those stairs? If they failed to make a sound, would this be the same place?
There’s a catwalk connecting one deck to a set of stairs, and if you follow it around to the north side of the house, you’ll find that it leads to a stone-paved patio tucked into a cluster of trees where a pizza oven has been built. We used to gather there, cook there, play there. Somewhere, there are dozens of photos of my children in various stages of losing their teeth making funny faces there. Laughing there. If the patio, the oven, the prints disappeared, would I still long to return to this…place?
What if the orange enameled cast iron pot that my dad used when he taught me to make sauce was no longer there, and the heady aroma of slow-cooked tomato and sage had drifted away? What if the lake dried up and the loons flew away—a long way away? Far, far away?
Would I still long to be “there”?
Would the loons even long to return?