During late April and all of May in 2010 – the 5.5 week period during which my oldest child lay dying in the hospital here in Knoxville – my mother was finalizing the sale of her house 175 miles away in my hometown of Bell Buckle, TN. It had been for sale for about a year when she finally got a solid offer and was able to close the deal. The timing was rotten; the last thing she wanted to be doing while Henry was hospitalized was dealing with a house closing, closely followed by moving out, but that’s how things worked out.
The timing also meant that my brother and sister and I had to figure out a way to get all the furniture and family memorabilia out of our mother’s house - the great stuff she was giving us as she downsized with her big move – during a brief window of time during which we we were all intently focused on being at Henry’s bedside. Again, bad timing, but it was what it was, and with the help of amazing and wonderful friends, the furniture and special items that my mother was giving me – including a huge baby grand piano that originally belonged to my great grandmother – were all moved from Bell Buckle to my house in Knoxville without me ever having to leave the hospital for even one moment.
My mother’s move in the spring of 2010 made perfect sense. At age 65, she was retiring from a 43 year career, capped off with her tenure as the PR and media flack for the Tennessee Supreme Court-slash-state-judicial system, and she and the great guy she had been with for more than 5 years were planning to build their own home together on a beautiful lake lot about halfway between Knoxville and Bell Buclkle. The house my mother was selling – our family home – was HUGE, and very old, and utterly impractical in every single way for one person to live in alone, plus my mother had spent her entire adult life longing to live on the water, and now she was about to get her wish.
I understood all of this intellectually, but emotionally, her decision to move out of “our” house and leave Bell Buckle behind entirely hit me way harder than I thought it would. I wanted her to stay in the house I knew and loved, in the place I knew and loved. My grandfather and father had both died in the 36 months preceding my mother selling her house, and my grandmother was very near death as well. Everything that had been familiar and predictable for my whole life was in transition – something that happens to all of us as we hit middle age – and I was attempting to get my bearings, including adjusting to the idea that my mother was starting a whole new life in a new place.
And then, my teenage son died the same week my mother moved. That’s not something anyone expects or should expect to happen in middle age. Henry had loved my parents’ home in Bell Buckle with his whole heart. In fact, Bell Buckle was pretty much his favorite place in the world right up until the time he died. If I close my eyes, I can see Henry happily running up and down the stairs at my parents’ house, and being tossed in the air by my father in the backyard. He loved to climb the giant magnlia tree in the front yard, and watch for frogs in the little pond my parents had built in their backyard. He danced with my sister at her wedding reception in the backyard, and he loved running right across the road to his “extra” family’s house – the Abernathys – or dashing up the street to play with his cousins, or spend time with his great-grandparents, aunts and uncles. For all three of my older children, Bell Buckle has been their happy place throughout childhood, but Henry was able to enjoy that experience the longest before things shifted and changed.
I knew that Henry would have been very sad to see his Nanny’s house sold, but he never knew that it happened because he was hospitalized with a terrible brain injury. And I am glad he never knew. But it did make E and J sad, and it made me sad that because of when it happened, I never got to walk through it even one final time to say my own goodbyes to a life that’s gone forever now. Because of when the sale took place, the next time I saw our family home in Bell Buckle, a few months after Henry died when I made my first trip back, another family was already living there.
And in the two years since, every time I walk past the house when I am visiting Bell Buckle, I feel a little pang of sadness. Sometimes I almost hear Henry and his little brother and cousins calling out to me from the branches of that magnolia tree as I walk by on the sidewalk.
But while I have been trying to shake off the grief I have around how the house was sold at exactly the same time I lost the boy who loved it so much, I am thrilled that my mother’s hopes for her new life have come together wonderfully. For almost a year, she and Jim lived in a barn with an apartment on their new lake property while they oversaw the construction of their house – a brand new house which for the first time in her whole life my mother got to design exactly the way she wanted, right down to the cabinet pulls and the mantel. They’ve had a great time with the project, and when they were done, they moved in and moored their boat at the marina down the hill, and they began asking us to come visit.
My two teenagers – J and E – have been to Nanny’s new house several times now, and needless to say, with the lake and the boat and the awesome deck and the golf cart they get to drive around, they love the place. (Understatement) And of course for my two youngest children, 5 year old C and 2 year old G, there won’t be any memories of any other place that their grandmother ever lived besides the lake house. But I have hesitated to visit for many months because I was afraid it would make me sad. I knew this was kind of silly of me, and I am genuinely thrilled for my mom and Jim, who just love their new life at the lake, but I just worried that I’d fall apart. As silly as this sounds saying it out loud, I worried that it would feel like the new house would represent moving on and forgetting Henry and the life we had as a family for 18 years before everything changed.
But this past weekend, it was time. I felt ready. And we all spent the weekend at my mother’s lake house – located deep in the woods of middle Tennessee, and sporting a view so spectacular that no photo does it justice. My sister is still too ill to have come with, but her husband Ray and her three kids were there, plus my brother and sister in law and their four little monkeys, and Jon and I had all four of our kiddos there as well. And it was fantastic. I wasn’t sad one bit being there, as I’d feared I might be. I just love Jim to pieces, and seeing how happy my mother is in her brand spankin’ new house with her flowers and hummingbird feeder and water nearby….it’s just absolutely lovely.
The kids feel like Nanny and Jim’s house is a resort. My mother feeds them huge quantities of tasty food while they are there, and Jim drives them all over the lake in the boat so the big kids can tube and waterski, and all of us loved hanging out on the porch with the breathtaking view. Danger Toddler did attempt to destroy my mother’s screen door, and we had to watch her carefully to prevent her from climbing off the deck and flinging herself down the hill to the lake, but she had a great time too, fighting her nap all day until she finally conked out in a recliner with her babydoll.
Now that I’ve actually been there to visit, and the sadness I worried would be really overwhelming didn’t actually materialize, I am feeling much more at peace with the “old house” being something in our family’s past. The memories we all shared there remain, and there are new memories for my children to make and enjoy at Nanny’s new house. Change is hard, but it opens the door for the great things that still lie ahead. Without letting go of the past, the future can’t unfold. This is one of the great lessons of this searingly painful season of my life, with its massive, seismic shifts and evolutions. I’m trying to learn this lesson fully, take it to heart, and remember it next time inevitable change comes calling, as I know now it certainly will.
Here are some photos from the wonderful time we all had at my mother’s lake house last weekend (THANKS MOM!). I’m not in any of them because I was the photographer… I think you can see on their faces how much the kids love it there.
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So how about you? Have your parents sold “the family homestead?” Or maybe your grandparents? Did you struggle with a feeling of loss over that transition? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
READ MORE FROM KATIE OVER AT MAMAPUNDIT (HER PERSONAL BLOG)
*Credit for the song lyric in this blog post’s title goes to the band Semisonic.