Home is Where the Heart Is
In 1986, we moved from the only home I’d ever known. I was thirteen and cried for days prior, believing my life was over. Even at that age, I felt utterly connected to a place as if my life force was somehow tethered to it. In the days before the big move, I visited all of my favorite spots, trying to memorize every little detail. Never again would I ice skate on the pond next to the house or hurtle myself down the giant hill at the end of the cul-de-sac where I, and the other neighborhood kids, cut a broad run into the hillside. I’d never climb up to the top of my red and white jungle gym so I could listen to Joan Jet belt out “I Love Rock and Roll!” on my pink boom box. Everywhere I looked, I saw places that were important to me, that I loved like a person, that I felt connected to.
For most of the years of my early life, my maternal grandparents lived across the street on this tiny, rural road that did not have curbs or sidewalks. It was as idyllic as one could get. I loved my grandparents fiercely and spent countless hours helping my Italian grandfather, whom I called Poppi, fix things, grow things, and putter around their house.
Once, I ran away from home. I packed a bag and took my black Labrador Retriever named Sam. I walked across the street, not even bothering to watch for oncoming traffic. When we arrived at my grandparents’ door, my grandmother or Mimi, as I called her, winked and said with that wry smile on her face I loved so much, “I can’t let you in. Your mother will kill me. Go home, unpack your bag and come over later for ice cream.”
The physical location of my first home held so many incredible memories for me. Terrified I’d forget all of it once we moved away, I spent my final days trying desperately to memorize every last detail. Our front yard had the perfect grove of Mountain Laurel, where my beloved climbing trees were worn smooth from my hands and feet. My home held secret hiding spots, beautiful wide-open fields and cool, damp woods where I could disappear, run wild, and feel connected to something great and powerful. It was also the first place I ever kissed a girl, but that’s another story for another day.
My grandparents moved away first because they were older and felt the rural location too isolating for them. Not long afterward, we moved because my dad was sick, and they didn’t know what was wrong. We moved into a condominium with too many other people all around. To say I hated it would be an understatement. I felt confined. I couldn’t breathe. Sam and I had nowhere to run, although, by that point, Sam was an old dog whose running days were over.
Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, my parents told me that my dad wasn’t sick after all. And, apparently, my parents didn’t exactly love condo life either. They took me to a large lot for sale nearby. I remember walking around this magnificent three-acre property with my parents and grandparents. My parents already had plans for a custom ranch. They pointed to where the house might sit, where I could have a basketball hoop, where the gardens might one day be. My dad told me we could fish together in the ponds. My grandparents fell in love with the property, too.
After two years of hard work, we moved into our new home. I was seventeen. I remember my prom date had to climb a ladder to our front door because my dad hadn’t built the front porch yet. Together, my parents and I installed kitchen cabinets, laid hardwood floors, sanded, and sweat to make this dream home. In between basketball practice and homework, I operated rototillers to clear the ground for the lawn, helped my dad build rock walls, learned how to hang drywall, and properly paint the trim. One evening after we had finished working, I remember walking around the side of the house toward the tree line. I looked up at a magnificent Oak tree that was perfect for climbing. I wished Sam was by my side. He loved a good run in the woods. But I felt too mature to run in the woods and climb trees, and Sam died a year before. I looked down at the yellow Labrador retriever puppy named Willie as he rolled in the grass at my feet. He possessed all of the requisite puppy energy. I laughed as he ran around the massive backyard with what we always referred to as a “screw loose.” I knew he already loved this place the way Sam had loved our last home. I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel that connected here. After all, I was a teenager preparing to leave for college soon. This wasn’t my home, it was theirs.
That was thirty years ago. Now, my elderly parents still live in this house. My eighty-five-year-old father can barely walk from one end of the house to the other. He hasn’t done a thing in the yard in three years. All of the work of maintaining this incredible property has fallen entirely on me. I knew this day would come. I remember camping in upstate New York one year thinking ahead to my life, knowing the time was fast approaching when I would be needed to help them more. I didn’t imagine that help would mean actually caring for all of their massive property.
To be perfectly honest, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of spending fifteen hours a week or more at their house mowing and weeding, trimming trees, pruning shrubs, and keeping their house tidy. I stopped looking around to the gorgeous views and started to resent my time there. I felt burdened by the house and the constant merry-go-round of repairs as if someone had tied bricks to my feet. It became difficult for me to travel, go hiking, camp, write, or do any of the things I wanted to do because all of my free time was spent caring for their house.
I half-joked with my wife and friends that I had launched a yard service called “Tits and Grass.” I still care for our house and property (also with a huge yard) and our second home in Provincetown, so caring for my parents’ home felt like another job I did not want. My parents put the house on the market two years ago, hoping to downsize, but the real estate market in Connecticut for homes this size stagnated, and we decided to take it off the market a few months ago. I know their hearts are in this house and leaving it, even for something smaller and more manageable, would break their hearts, and possibly mine, too.
Yesterday, I spent the entire day at their house mowing their lawn, fixing broken things, trimming and pruning, weeding, and cleaning. Although the sun felt warm on my face and arms, the air held the scent of autumn, of falling leaves and chilly nights to come. I turned off the tractor and looked around me. Dozens of mallard ducks quietly quacked as they waddled across large swathes of the yard to eat from the Russian olive tree my dad and I planted together at least 20 years ago. Ducks have lived on this property since I can remember. Generation after generation nested and raised ducklings as my parents continued to feed them cracked corn winter after winter, year after year. My beloved yellow Labrador Retriever, Willie, is long gone, but my labs, Jessie and Maggie, love this place, too. I always find it interesting that they love to lay under the same trees Willie did. The land holds memories of a happy dog, and my dogs feel it. It’s another reason why I love animals, too. They can sense all the things we are often too closed off to realize.
I have touched every tree in the yard, my hands helped create the lawn I now mow. Our sweat is baked into every inch of this house and property. When my parents do pass, this house will be their legacy. The custom bookcases and crown molding my father created with his bare hands, the gardens tended, the rock walls built, the birdhouses made from scrap wood, the patios, and porches, paths and walkways – all of it created by us, tended by us, loved by us, known intimately by us.
A while ago, I drove by the old house I spent my early years in. As the car coasted down the hill, I remembered what it felt like to do the same on my banana bike, the baseball card in my spokes clicking, my legs stretched out in a V so I could fly fast down the hill to our house. When I turned the corner and saw our old house, my breath caught in my throat. The home I had loved so much was no longer loved by anyone. It looked like it might fall in on itself any minute. The land was ripped up and scarred. A backhoe sat where the pool once did. Trash littered the yard. Junkyards look neater. I looked across the street at my grandparents’ old house, and it didn’t look much better. Gone was the vegetable garden. The physical locations of my childhood memories had vanished. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough as the anger and hurt surged from deep within me. How dare anyone not care for the place I still loved so much?
I have always been a person who feels connected to places, sometimes more than people. I think it’s because we can be our authentic selves on the land. The land accepts us as we are, all our beautiful bits and broken bits. All of who we are can simply be on the earth. And feeling connected to a place helps us feel tethered to something greater than ourselves. It reminds us how small we really are.
I’ve wondered lately if feeling tied to the land means we should remain on it. If we sold the house, I could spend more time in my beloved Provincetown. I could explore and maybe find another place where I feel connected. Life is about change. People like to say the nothing stays the same, but sometimes the land does. That’s why it can be so appealing. If I close my eyes, I can’t imagine anyone else living on that land but my family. Would new people feed the ducks? Would they mend the fence but leave space for the deer and wildlife to pass? Would they tend the gardens or talk to the trees? Would they love it the way we do?
I don’t know what the future will bring, and if I will spend the rest of my life caring for this beautiful place the way my parents’ have. I sometimes daydream that I’ll turn it into a creative writing haven and animal sanctuary. Sometimes I dream of selling it all and buying an RV to tour the country. But for now, I am content with riding the tractor, mending fences, shoveling snow, and keeping up this place that is still very much a part of my parents and me.