A Place I Called Home, and a Piece of My Heart

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

As the daughter of an Air Force retiree, I’m no stranger to empty houses.  To moving out and moving in.  I’m well-acquainted with the hollow sort of feeling that emerges from tracing my fingers along bare walls while my mind fills the space with the ghosts of memories that colored it with laughter and love.  And although these tangible reminders of the life I was leaving behind tended to make me sad, I usually took solace in an assurance that “home is where the heart is,” and the knowledge that the people with whom I had built a home from shared meals and holiday gatherings and Nintendo Mario Kart tournaments would stay with me, ready to wield this special power on a new, unfamiliar locale.

But sometimes the loss of a house is linked to the loss of a person, of one of those memory makers.  And far from that person being present to continue to making memories with you elsewhere, the loss of a place seems to slice that last tenuous tie to them.

My grandpa just sold and moved out of his house in San Diego.  To provide some context, he’d owned that house since the early ‘80s, when my mom started high school there and my aunt was in Los Angeles for college.  And though he and my grandmother had vacated and rented it out during stints in Germany later that decade and in Laguna Hills, which took them through the turn of the 21st century and both of their retirements, they moved back about 15 years ago, and so I’m still tempted to think of it as their house.  And I suppose I’ve spent enough Thanksgivings and Christmases and Easters and summer vacations (and even some nights in college, when I’d seek refuge there from hectic campus life), to consider it my own as well. 

My grandma passed away in September of 2008 from ovarian cancer, and so I know that after seven and a half years of going it alone in a house that once was theirs, my grandfather maybe feels it’s time for something that is just his.  Something that is free from so many whispers of her memory: in the Post-It written in her elegant handwriting that’s been taped to a kitchen cabinet for a decade, bearing reminders of when to wind the grandfather clock in the living room; ornate Russian lacquer boxes she’d handpicked on trips to St. Petersburg; collections of porcelain and china acquired throughout the decades by her top-notch taste.  I don’t think you’re every really done grieving for someone, but I do think the process takes on different shades as the years progress.  And perhaps for my grandpa it’s reached a pale, calm shade of acceptance and the decision to move on.

But it’s still hard for me.  I so vividly remember her in that house: sitting on the bed in the room my sister and I always inhabited when we visited, staring intently at a thin white pipe creeping down the wall; rushing in to allay our concerns when we heard a suspicious, tinny sound coming in from outside in the middle of the night; serving me ice cream as we watched the 2004 Summer Olympics on the couch in their newly remodeled family room; watching my sister and me take turns jumping into the pool; attending fastidiously to the finishing touches on Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners on the granite kitchen countertops.  Saying, “I love you,” to me for the last time when I kissed her goodbye on the forehead in the family room two weeks before she died.

It’s so difficult to imagine my grandfather saying goodbye to that house, because in some ways it feels like I’m saying goodbye all over again to her.  It’s a feeling my mom echoed when she said, out of habit, she’d dialed the house phone (still labeled “Mom and Dad” in her contacts list) after he’d moved out and was told the number was no longer in service.  “That was my mom’s phone number,” she said, and we both tried to bite back our tears.  Because that’s how it feels sometimes, when you want so badly to reconnect with someone you’ve lost.  That they’re “no longer in service.”  Cut off.  Gone. 

Of course, I choose to believe that my grandmother has become a guardian angel to me, and the guidance she’s orchestrating from heaven is more than she could give me on earth.  But more often than not, I feel this is a weak substitute for her physical presence in my life.

This is normally the part of a blog post where I would transition into some kind of deep, resonant message to provide my readers with a poignant takeaway to mull over.  But I can’t really sum up what I’m feeling into something that would suffice, and besides, I think that any aphorism about how “our loved ones never really leave us” or “at least memories can’t be taken away from us” would trivialize what I’ve been reflecting on here.  I guess the purpose of this post was more just to share something that’s been on my heart with you, dear reader.  To let you know that if you’ve every felt this way about losing someone or something, you’re not alone.  And that’s okay.  It’s okay to miss someone and feel sad.  And I’m here for you, because I get it.  And you’re loved.        

And I love you, Grandma.

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