The House That Built Me
It's been five months since I last wrote a blog post. The prior one is dated in August, four months after my mother, Pearl crossed over. I've been coming to terms with the completion of karma that comes with that. I've been dealing with the absence of a person who witnessed my spiritual awakenings and listened to my realizations, the one with whom I lived for so many years since then, the person who loved and believed in me the most.
Now, I am left with my individual life. And a very quiet house that day by day is becoming emptier; the only noise inside of it comes from the relentless buzz of the refrigerator, the ticking of the pendulum clock balanced on the fireplace mantle that is lined with pictures of people who are now crossed over.
Because it is my responsibility, I'm tasked with putting all kinds of affairs in order, even though I was initially paralyzed with grief, stationary for five months asking for discernment about where my path would take me next, laying on the couch in the dark with the TV flickering in the corner of the paneled living room. I wondered how I might keep my mind straight and my spirit nurtured while the whole time the notion of the house that built me was beginning to skew, shake and crumble beneath my feet.
One day, while immobilized on that same couch, an urgent voice pierced through the veil. "PAULA! PAULA!" it yelled. The tone was thick with admonishment. It was my mother's voice, delivered through The Holy Spirit. A torrent of energy came through me head to toe and it shook me through and through. My torpor lifted. I sat straight up and got off that couch.
Although if I thought I could swing it, I might stay in this modest 1960's cape house. I instead, in order to sell it I am left with having to paint its interior and do all manner of repairs. I must clean the whole place and go through every crammed nook, dusty drawer and cluttered closet. While doing so I think, How did things become so grimy? When did I get so used to things being so decrepit and disorganized? Why couldn't I have fixed this sooner? Why didn't I make it all better, nicer, for my mother?
All of my "woulda shoulda coulda's" are only making the process more illumined and are reminding me that we cannot grow too busy, lazy, forgetful, preoccupied, or perhaps resentful to show another person we care. We cannot take for granted the sacrifices others make to provide for our comfort.
I need to sort through my parents' every photo, noticing for the first time it was my mother who was at the center of most all of them. I see her age progress, how she kept her beauty, the expressions on her face radiating love toward the camera, while others signal moments of frustration, embarrassment, pride, giddiness, surprise, pensiveness, caring, sarcasm, dignity.
I must decide what to do with every significant vase used for birthday flowers, every endearing needlepoint wall hanging, cute Hummel and bird figurine, every adored Christmas ornament and holiday china cranberry sauce dish, every sweet lawn gnome, stick of scratched colonial furniture, every hand painted piece of folk art, handed down flowered tea cup, kitchy travel souvenir, crocheted doily and hand~sewn frayed quilt. I must find a way to get rid of my father's every book, tool and piece of machinery. I must run across my mother's favorite purple sweater that still smells strong of Kashmir Mist perfume.
And I must confront everything that triggers a memory of times past where things were good and happy and not so happy or so good but somehow perfect and flawed and safe and insecure and in order and terribly messy and everything in between.
My parents came from nothing and made something of true substance between them. The truth is, I am dismantling the life my parents created together. And then I must move or be moved somehow to a different destination. I must leave this place, with quite literally not much more than my and my family's lifetime of memories. And then I must move on.
I find the most revealing things as I am cleaning, like love notes my father wrote in greeting cards to my mother while he was deployed in the U.S. Navy. In a gray metal lock box in their bedroom, I come upon a tattered and yellowed valentine embossed in cloth flowers. Inside, penned in his unmistakably expressive scrolling letters are the words, "To the only girl I'll ever love." On the back of it, he hints at the chance he took when he and a friend went AWOL just to visit her for a few hours. "We got away with it," he reveals. I recall her telling this story several times and saying how infuriated she was that he might get in serious trouble. Tucked in his heavy green tool chest in the garage, I find a small spiral pad of paper. On one page is doodled, "Pearl. Pearl."
That same day, I discover a shoe box in her closet filled with birthday cards that family and special friends had given her over the years. I find two of my baby bonnets stashed in the top drawer of her dresser. One is white lace dotted with tiny buttons and other pink corduroy outlined in ruffles and missing a ribbon tie. I think I might want to save these items, so I wash them, only to have them disintegrate in my hands while doing so. I find the baby book her mother Natalie kept, detailing special gifts received upon my mother's birth, like "rattle, blanket".
I locate my father's former military papers, and see listed under his medical exam on one that he was hospitalized for a collapsed lung. I dig up his father William's military medals and papers, learning he was a mess cook at some point during the war in the European arena. My father spent over 22 years in the U.S. Navy, serving on destroyers in WWII, Korea and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the 60's, he retired from the military, got a job at Pratt and Whitney Aircraft as a machinist and afterward brought our family to small town Colchester, Connecticut. He worked until almost the day he died at age 61. My mother said she was originally sold on the town because it had a center green with a nice gazebo that gave her a good feeling.
I was elected my dad's primary helper on the weekends...holding his big flashlight to shine on his projects and handing him the tools he needed while he repaired and built things. I even helped build the garage, so I know how to pound a nail, spackle and wall, paint and remove wall paper. I can joint compound and screw in a screw and wrench off a bolt ~ the basic things. And so I decided that I could handle painting the interior of the house, not fully knowing what I was getting myself into. Not understanding how exhausting that would be at my age. But I have my parents in me sometimes, and coming from blue collar roots, I wasn't so daunted by the prospect of hard work it until I actually started to do it.
In the first few weeks, after continued labor to remove two layers of impossibly glued wall paper, I was so spent that I stood in the center of the kitchen and screamed at the ceiling, "I can't do it. I can't!!" But as the weeks progressed, I could feel my spirit crystallizing and growing more determined. While I was working, I took to listening to play lists on YouTube, and I probably played Miranda Lambert's "The House That Built Me" over a hundred times because it resonated so much with my life.
I know they say you can't go home again. I just had to come back one last time. Ma'am I know you don't know me from Adam. But these hand prints on the front steps are mine. Up those stairs, in that little back bedroom Is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar. And I bet you didn't know, under that live oak My favorite dog is buried in the yard.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it This brokenness inside me might start healing. Out here it's like I'm someone else, I thought that maybe I could find myself If I could just come in I swear I'll leave. Won't take nothing but a memory From the house that built me.
Mama cut out pictures of houses for years. From 'Better Homes and Garden' magazines. Plans were drawn, and concrete poured, And nail by nail and board by board Daddy gave life to mama's dream.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it This brokenness inside me might start healing. Out here it's like I'm someone else, I thought that maybe I could find myself.
You leave home, you move on and you do the best you can. I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it This brokenness inside me might start healing. Out here it's like I'm someone else, I thought that maybe I could find myself. If I could walk around I swear I'll leave. Won't take nothing but a memory From the house that built me.
In my early 20's, my father told me, "This is your house, too. Whatever happens to you in your life, you can always come home." Maybe he was having an epiphany when he said that, because later in my life drastic conditions would cause me to need to do that. You see, some of us can go home again, to do the healing and receive the understanding and forgiveness that was destined all along.
I used to complain too much to my mother about being stuck in my small town, and off and on I yearned to live someplace else, anywhere else where there was more health food, more music, more vistas, more bodies of water, more distractions, more. And now that I am faced with leaving my house, I feel my resistance sticking my bones to what's familiar, to what was quite enough all along. It's true that sometimes, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you can truly find yourself in your own back yard, and you can find realization in your own bedroom.
In addition to going through the remains of my parent's lives, I must re-experience and release parts of mine. There is a drawer in my bedroom bureau filled with mementos I have kept since grade school. It takes me ten hours to sort through, for I decide to re-live the stuff that I thought was significant enough to keep. I spread it all out on the carpet and find a snapshot of my best friend and confidante from high school, the one in which she looks wise and serene. On the opposite side she tells me, "I hope you get out of this town someday." And although there were some years in which I did, well, I was given the chance to come home again, and like the song says, just be myself.
I could have taken the contents of that drawer and just dumped it in the trash unseen, but I made myself go through it hoping to take a passage through time to view my triumphs, hopes and ambitions. But I also knew I would face my failed dreams, lost loves and old flames, hurts I caused people's hearts, disconnected friendships, mistakes and wrong turns, near death conditions, the chances I could have taken but did not, and the ones I did take but perhaps should not have. All the stuff of fate and destiny.
It can be horribly gut wrenching, this kind of sorting through one's difficult past, or it can be liberating. Even as I view my history ~ where I came from, who raised me, the house and neighborhood and town that framed and built my life conditions, I have had moments of sheer lucidity of how my past delivered the correct conditions for my unfolding, the ones that caused me to take the spiritual path.
Understand that the past might hold keys to our brokenness but it also shows us doorways to healing. Are any of us truly fixed composites of our pasts? Can we not evolve by choosing to be Present, no matter the karmic conditions of our history? For truly in an awakened life, the charge of yesterday will surely lose its control over us if we just remain in the here and now. The key is to see the past as cycles that do not have to stop us from unfolding.
In my early childhood, I had a recurring dream that a massive, threatening, hairy black monster arose from a small pond in my back yard just as the sun was dawning. While all the other people in the dream were fleeing, I stood in front of it, silent, terrified, struck with awe.
My move from my house is only weeks away, and I still don't know where I will find myself next, nor do I know how my next huge Realization will discover me. This departure is proving to be the most challenging one to date; it looms in my consciousness like an unknown and mysterious Leviathon I must not be afraid of, but instead, try to praise.
In my deepest Presence, I can only trust that when the day arrives to leave my house for good, I will be carried toward peace and acceptance and change. I will honor what transpired in my own back yard and I must believe that deep down, I am not separate from the same Mystery that rises from the depths of my psyche to inevitably bring me courage and grace. I must emerge from my small pond life, empowered by a new dawn. But, I suppose, first I must I live through the approach, the ending and the completion of the house that built me.
Paula Dianne Upton's book, Signs of Infinity is available on Amazon and Createspace.
Songwriters: Allen Shamblin / Tom Douglas