As an habituated writer, on any given day I sit down to the computer–or pull out a notebook if I am on the go–and start writing without much brainstorming. Words are conduits through which clues for tales arrive to stimulate forward movement. If the story is fiction, my mind becomes a space akin to an open doorway. I see someone traverse a room or street, their hair or feet, perhaps settling back into a bus seat or panting on a steep mountain trail. Crying on the edge of a bed. Eating ice cream as storm clouds gather. They are always up to something even if silent.
Nonfiction can seem more elusive. Patience is needed to seek a topic that grabs me, even though I could choose any topic and write until I am bored of it. Ideas are everywhere to note. And I can research things as needed. I love to learn while writing, not matter the genre. Writing is an act of gathering points of reference and insight, of defining personality and place, giving the story’s innate depth and breadth more air and light. It records life as it unfolds.
But this is a day that resists my laboring and inquisitive nature. I have other matters on my mind, events and people with no useful place in a narrative now. I pull out and stare at a list of writing prompts received at a workshop. I’m not big on verbal prompts although I do use visual ones. Yet I am stuck on this list, perhaps due to its simplicity. Or so I think. On second and third look, each one unearths deeper things. Which is the intent. I seem to gravitate to this:
Write about what got left behind.
Possibilities draw me in: people, places, creatures or objects. And what comes forward is all the houses I have lived in, all the rooms and yards and neighbors and pets. The five children raised there.
Starting at age twenty, I resided in thirteen homes in sixteen years, followed by one house for seven years, then three more places after that. That is a plethora of experiences, with something left behind at each stop, I am certain.
It was related to marrying, unmarrying, marrying again and where the work took us. Employment tends to dictate habitat. My first husband completed a Master’s degree in sculpture and ultimately had a construction business. Sometimes that industry required moving to more booming areas. My current husband worked his way up the corporate ladder, which meant he was transferred by companies or he accepted better positions. Inevitably it meant moving closer to the next job. (My career began in my mid-thirties. Luckily, I always lived near my place of employment.)
So: what got left behind?
The question reverberates as I review homes. There was a college abode that required patience and humility: a combination renovated chicken coop-shed painted a dull yellow, minute square footage currently qualifying it as a trendy “tiny house”. The roof slanted so we had to stoop to move from kitchenette to couch to sleeping area. A couple more early marriage/student housing locales were rented. After college and two children we found a townhouse with wonderful woods and playground. Then a Texas apartment with a pool of aquamarine water where we cooled and relaxed daily though we went broke. Next up: a solitary Michigan ranch house surrounded by fields and deer. The business eventually improved, but our marriage had come apart.There was a transition period during divorce where I, with two children, found a renovated two-story carriage house on an old estate while I took more college coursework.
Second marriage and three more children: a two-story blue house with a wide front porch on a quiet street. Then to a modern glass and cedar house on rolling country acreage with central wood stove and a red barn the kids took over; we also had a field mice infestations in the lovely place. We moved to a ranch-style house with lilacs that enclosed the yard, a fireplace that crackled with cheerful flames all winter. The split level house by a small nature preserve called Dinosaur Hill was next. And there was a perfect-sized Tennessee A-frame house that reminded us of northern Michigan. It offered an acre for a garden and a pond that attracted cotton mouth snakes, worth avoiding. Then came a house that once had a hair salon in the basement lined with mirrors. Our daughters practiced jazz and ballet dancing there. And at last a house with green shingles and a hilly back yard for sledding where we managed to live for seven years. After a Northwest move, there was a spacious, airy home, a favorite place with French doors to the living room and a sunroom that became my very own writing room.
Perhaps it was not the usual way to live for one who was middle class, moderately upwardly mobile. I had lived in the same comfortable childhood bungalow for eighteen years. But I wanted to a different way of liviung, to escape the strictures of the home town. Have adventures! I was drawn to the impermanence of a somewhat nomadic existence, the spontaneity of it with curious contrasts of life lived on the fly. There was a challenge to finding new jobs, houses, neighborhoods and companions. I didn’t often feel regret as we packed up to move again. Our children seldom complained or not for long though it wasn’t easy to change schools that often. We discovered the plastic nature of resilience, how we could readjust ourselves with every new demand. For example, when we couldn’t locate a suitable house after one move we resided in a state park lodge and then cabins for two and a half months. And enjoyed much about those times. (This is shared in another post.)
Our five children are close in age. I think they would have suffered more (if they suffered, at all) if they had not had one another to play with, rely on, fuss at and care for. We stuck together as a team, from playing games to homestyle musical concerts and plays, to art events and museums and quick week-end gababouts. They found friends as did I. I enjoyed meeting people, navigating new territory so made my way. It was never boring and gave rise to more creative activity: more stories, poems, drawings, music. Education galore for the children.
But, in the end, what got left behind?
1. Friends, first of all. Each new place brought the opportunity to find at least one or two folks who could become a good friend. Monika, Steven, Jerri Jo. Betty Jo and John. Carol. Kurt and Madonna. Kenneth and Jane. Noreen, Judy. Deborah, Nikki. The list grows as the years come forward and faces pass before mind’s eye. When you move from one city to another, one state to another, those friends become harder to hang onto. If I let myself feel this procession of friends come and gone, I can admit to having known homesickness–not for much for a place but for certain, once-close friends. The pain could go deep and remain long. Sometimes phone calls and letters–before computers were common–made my yearning worse. One learns to love and let go. Move on.
I especially remember Jane, the receptionist at the lodge who became my treasured friend in an insular town where I felt like an alien for a time. I was slow to understand her rich Southern accent, often asked her to repeat herself as if she was speaking a peculiar language. It took me a few seconds to even decipher her name at first: Jaaahhhien. Jane had lived a rough and tumble life but her graciousness was generous, her heart wide open. She found the best in others. Our settling in was aided by her food and laughter and tips about how to understand our locale and its inhabitants. Jane shared the area’s history, educated us in differences between harmless and dangerous snakes and insects, told me where to shop and what dentist to try, how to cope with incipient racism and a pervasive anti-northern sentiment. In time, we gabbed as if we were meant to be sisters. Saying good-bye was arduous. I can still feel her hug, see her standing with hand waving above a wobbly smile. I wanted to load her up with my family. In the following year we lost track of each other. We were given to each other as friends for only a short season.
2. Dogs. One died from parvo virus, two were given to others for safekeeping, to love. There was Max, a mixture of various big dogs; Twiggy, a miniature grey hound; Buddy, a Brittany springer spaniel. They all should have been country dogs. Two of the three were. The last was shipped out to the country when we moved. I really liked Buddy but hope to never again try to raise much less catch a springer spaniel. Our big family likely felt like a crazy zoo to his nature. He would lie in wait for the door to open even an inch. He zig-zagged like mad across streets and parks, engaged in a serious hunt that only he could discern. He liked us, yes, but he loved his freedom far more. I empathized at times.
But it is a vignette about a neighbor’s dog that sticks with me. When we locked the door to one of our favorite houses–one purchased–the very last time, a muscular, unkempt but handsome German Shepherd bounded over to us. Tag had often visited, chasing around the kids, given to barking at us along with anything else that moved or made sound. He watched us plant vegetables in neat long rows and weed the garden that ultimately failed–partly due to his digging habits. He was powerful and friendly, sometimes stalked bugs and snakes with us on humid summer evenings. I wouldn’t say we were so close to him that we thought he was counted as also ours yet we appreciated one another a great deal. For one thing, his presence meant we didn’t have to get another family dog during our two-year stay. I admired Tag. And I love dogs that stand high enough for my hand to graze their fine backs and heads as they trot beside me.
On moving day we had said our goodbyes, cleaned up after ourselves and were ready to try to beat the moving van back to Michigan. The house was hard to abandon to someone new but time to move on. Then my eye was caught by Tag’s race across the open land separating our two houses. He skidded to a stop, jumped up on us, licked each of us enthusiastically, big paws on our chests. And my husband and I, well, we wept as we hugged him.
3. Back yards. I miss them more now, as we reside in an apartment (large enough, comfortable for us) with only a balcony. I daydream about them, remember them with the glowy sensation of someone in love.
There have been all sorts of yards, some far better than others. How can I not recall the three yards that were really fields, where wild creatures came and went, along with shy deer and foxes and scores of birds, bold raccoons and quiet opossums. Rasping cicadas and tree frogs and bull frogs making their good racket. One rural house was across the road from a small river. I took the children daily, learning about wildflowers and plants each spring and summer, tromping through snow in winter, pulling two little ones on sleds. I chopped wood at three country houses for wood stoves that provided excellent heat. Clothes on clothes lines snapped in the breeze, smelled of far away winds. Sunsets and sunrises engulfed the sky. Those yards felt more like a giant campground.
But another comes to mind now. It belonged to a home that we perhaps liked structurally the least. A two-story bungalow, worn at the edges, it was crowded with seven people though it had four bedrooms. We stayed there the longest as four of our kids entered and exited adolescence. The village, as it was known, was one square mile in size, located between a couple of Detroit suburbs. Our tree-lined street meandered towards another community known for residents and businesses with exclusive attitudes and tastes.
But our own back yard was quite good enough for barbeques right near the door that led up to three stairs into a too-small kitchen. Tulips and irises popped up along the lawn. My husband planted another vegetable garden. There were large maple trees providing shade and beauty. The uneven yard sloped gently to a back alley that the kids loved to use as a short cut to everywhere. A jungle gym on flatter ground served them well–they practiced daredevil acrobatics and swung too high. Neighborhood kids careened in and out, biking down the hill, my son building and sharing daily his skateboard ramps. There were more outdoor games, sledding, building snowmen, raking and jumping in vast leaf piles. It had a sweeping view of neighbors and vibrant clusters of treetops. It fully worked for us; it matched our easy style of living. I counted my blessings as well as worried and wept over life’s woundings in that back yard.
At least, I would like to believe we left something decent and true of ourselves in every place. Each child’s distinctive personality and deeds had some effect on others, just as their classmates’ and buddies’ did. Who they were in essence is reflected in who they are presently; strengths and talents they developed at each juncture have held. And they still keep in touch with special childhood friends, now adults with complicated lives like theirs.
As for me, I shed my youth and many illusions. A compact person, I lost more weight as I burned energy as if on fire. That winding road provided some treacherous turns and suspenseful times alongside excitement of discovery and spontaneous joy, those serendipitous meetings and little dawnings of broader wisdom. I suffered from mistakes and healed with love and faith. I gained gravity, a coveted element for a poet-seeker at heart.
I learned about myself in ways may never have been realized had I remained in my childhood town. Every time we started anew I was called upon to stretch myself, often beyond reasonable expectations, but what needed to get done was done. How does one find a new home–often rental–for seven when the main breadwinner has gone ahead to the new job or is too overworked, himself, to participate much? Research and phone calls. Repeat. Visits to places and presenting my best self. Repeat. It was a sales job. Talk quickly with friendly confidence: no, my kids don’t destroy things (not often); no, no pets will join us if we can’t have one; yes, I manage the household, husband is an engineer (or whatever the title became) who often travels. Too much to relay and examine and make deals about, perhaps, but that home had to be won and signed for in time.
Speed often mattered those days; so did thoroughness. It was critical I knew how best organize our children as well as material possessions, how to coordinate timelines and rapidly changing priorities. I, an introvert who likes people yet a creative sort who’d rather dream and write or sing in a quiet corner (when I could find one) than chat up strangers at a tedious business dinner, just adapted. Once everything arrived at the new house, it was another list of “To Dos”: school info, medical resources, parks and playgrounds, afterschool classes, introductions with neighbors, find the fastest route to the grocery and other marketplaces. And as for the slow unpacking: does anyone know where the cheese grater and toilet paper went? And who stole my sweater and jeans this week?
I know I gave care to my friends. Enough? Much time and thought to my work with people whose needs required patience, insight, compassion, problem solving. If I left anything with them, I pray it was gentle acceptance and hope, a desire to live deeper, more happily. When I had to leave my job overseeing services for homebound disabled and elderly clients, their phantom lives followed me. I dreamed of them, missed their talk, wondered from afar if someone kind was listening to them so they were fully heard, reading aloud their letters. Giving them a gentle pat on the hand and minding their meals and medicines well.
I used up my youth, I suppose. And hooray, as what is it for but to be lived inside and out? I didn’t notice it slipping away amid all that love and chaos. Growth happened when I wasn’t paying attention. Sleeplessness and surprise when I was fully alert. By the time I was forty-two, four of my children were out of high school. Those of us left moved to the Pacific Northwest and there were more changes than ever before. Middle age became a well-earned haven, mentally and spiritually. Life has become calmer, clarified, streamlined, sparked with new meanings. It’s been twenty-two years here and I can barely believe this: I have lived in one home for nineteen years. I may not leave, at least for a time. If I do, I hope I go once more without a backward glance, eyes wide open, shoulders back, head high. Something good will come of it, I just know it.
What did I finally leave behind, then? A lifetime inhabited with my intense committment, for good or not. But that’s all. I carry what I want here, in my heart. New moments and memories are being made as I type these last words.
(Note: This writing prompt is taken from Jessica P. Morrell’s “Brave on the Page Writing Prompts”.)