A few days ago something or other I saw on the telly prompted me to hop onto the web and find out who’s living in my erstwhile home in Tennessee now—whether it’s the same people who bought it at auction in 2012, mere moments before the bank would’ve foreclosed on it, as it turns out. We took a blood bath on that house, the place at one time we thought would be our forever home. But the outcome could’ve been much worse.
In the end I never found my answer, because instead I went down a rabbit hole of memories after the home’s old listing popped up on a real estate website (“off the market,” it said). Only five images were attached to the web listing, all of them of the house’s exterior. If you wanted to see the inside ahead of the auction, you had to call and schedule a walk-through. Anybody who did would’ve found the place mainly clean and kempt, as I’d been living there alone (with only my GSD Clarence-the-Canine as company) for the better part of a year—my divorce was pending, so no spouse, and my teenage son had moved in with his dad by then ahead of my impending reboot in far-off Vermont—but boxes were packed and stacked high and it was clear to even a casual observer some work needed doing, still-unfinished projects that I, or we, now would abandon for good.
Meanwhile, the photographer (the realtor, I imagine, but can’t recall) managed to crop out most overt signs of decline on the exterior: neglected garden beds, a missing copper downspout some thieves had recently pried off the front of the house but we never replaced, a formerly beautiful swimming pool with a broken pump and filtration system that had been that way for some time (it was mid-summer by then, so you can imagine). Had the photo resolution been higher, you might also have noticed a slate roof broken all to pieces after an historic April storm ripped through Knoxville the year before, leaving in its wake property damage of epic proportions all over the region.
Still, this house was exquisite, and anybody with even the remotest architectural aesthetic could see that. Add to this a corner lot in a coveted historic neighborhood with specimen trees—the oaks on our lawn were easily a century and a half old, towering over the 1930s masonry house, a pleasant collision of Tudor Revival and Arts and Crafts styles—creating an overall picture nothing shy of enchanting, even in its misery. It was the best imaginable place for a difficult little boy, and his parents, to call home for most of his growing up years.
But towards the end of my time in Tennessee I often noted to anybody listening, the outside of that house showed palpable signs of what had been going on inside it for the last several years, at least. When I was in grad school studying historic preservation planning in the early ‘90s, I learned the term for this is ‘incipient decline:’ the symptoms a property is on its way down, and headed there fast without some kind of timely intervention. In short, it felt like my own East Tennessee version of Grey Gardens, but without quite so much filth and insanity. There was no way on earth I could manage that place on my own, without some kind of bankroll to do it. Already the house had been limping along in our final years as stewards of it, with little more than band-aid solutions to patch up the problems that are part and parcel of living in an old home. And because it stood on a prominent corner, living there was a bit like living in a fish bowl; by the end of our tenure, our once beautiful home had grown sad and ugly from neglect, and life there was frankly an embarrassment, laid out as it was for all to see.
Six years later and here I sit in a new and utterly different life with somebody who cares deeply about me, and us, and that is what matters, after all. Why torment oneself with the past? If I could, I’d resist web searches that dredge up painful memories, instigated by dog-knows-what, imagining tapes rewound at this point and that. But I think it’s simply who I am (my eternally nostalgic father’s daughter, after all), just as somebody else would work through sadness and loss in their own way. When I first left behind life as I’d known it for two decades, the sadness would catch in my throat many times a day, every day. But then it softened, and grew quieter, and the intervals between weepy episodes stretched out longer and longer. What’s left is a muted but dissonant hum I’ve just about concluded will never resolve entirely, but is after all part of what makes me or you or anybody who we are. And there is no time like Christmas to drop the needle on that record, sometimes with the volume cranked up way past ‘hum,’ whether you’re of a mind to listen to it, or not—every unboxed tree ornament, moth-eaten stocking, Advent or Christmas carol, and cookie recipe has some memory attached to it, and there’s no sidestepping any of them. (Maybe you shouldn’t try.)
On most Sundays I attend an intermediate-level yoga class that challenges me, occasionally humbles me, often leaves sweat dripping from my nose and chin, and always makes me feel better. The most wonderful and thoughtful teacher of this class finishes each Sunday morning the same way, with these hopeful words I shall now leave with you on this eve of Christmas Eve:
Lift your hands in prayer, and place your thumbs on your forehead as a sign of gratitude to those who love you, for there are many.
Place your thumbs on your chin as a sign of gratitude to those who have taught you and those yet to teach you, for there are many.
With your hands at heart center, open your palms and bow your head as a sign of gratitude for this and every day, for we all hope there shall be many.
And as you go on with your day, know that the light in me honors and cherishes the light in each and every one of you.