Jul 30, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
Where the Heart Is
I’ve already confessed to being a country fan, so it should come as no surprise that Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” has been stuck in my head a lot lately.
The song is about a woman returning to her childhood home and trying to explain to its current owners that the “handprints on the front steps” are hers and that her “favorite dog is buried in the yard.”
As much as I love New Orleans and count it as my home, when I think of the house that built me, I think of the sprawling split-level house my parents and my brother built in the late ‘70s in Midland, N.C. (Denis Leary famously joked, “They say marijuana leads to other drugs. No, it doesn’t; it leads to f***ing carpentry.” When my dad heard this, he laughed for about five days –– because although Leary’s joke refers to building bongs, my parents built an entire house.)
The house was already finished by the time my parents brought me home from the hospital in September 1980, but they added little touches for me over the three years we lived there –– a much-lower handrail nailed to the staircase wall, a sandbox on the deck. I had a pony while I lived there and a goat named Hannah and countless ducks and geese and chickens. My tiny 3-year-old handprints are there in cement by the greenhouse, and more than one beloved pet is buried in the yard.
We left North Carolina in 1984 and moved back to New Orleans, where my parents had met and fallen in love, but we still went back every summer to that house, and I would revert back into a country girl, catching water bugs in the slow-moving tea-colored creek, drawing in the red dirt with a stick, eating peaches off of the tree my parents had planted in the yard.
I especially loved that peach tree because it had split somehow and was actually two trees growing out of one stump. I thought it was fascinating; my parents thought it was romantic. They used to say that it was symbolic of their love: two people, one common base.
But my parents divorced in the summer of 1989, and Hurricane Hugo hit the Carolinas in mid-September that same year. My dad drove to check out the damage and called my mom to report: “The house is fine, Pamela, but the peach tree split in half.”
I didn’t want to believe him –– even at 9, I got the symbolism –– but when I went back to visit with him over spring break, I saw that he was right. Just one side of the tree was left standing, half of the stump exposed and bare.
After the divorce, my parents rented out the house to a series of tenants, and we never went back to visit anymore, but the house remained a part of our lives. We talked about it often, and on my nightstand, I kept a picture of my parents (and me, in my mom’s belly) standing in front of the house.
When my dad finally decided to sell the house, I was 22 and in the midst of planning my wedding, caught up in the minutiae of personalized matchbooks and cake flavors and unity candles … too busy, I thought, to care. But then, out of seemingly nowhere, the sale of the house hit me hard –– the house and I were the only real, tangible evidence of my parents’ love, and now the house would be in the hands of strangers. And what I saw as kind of the final blow to their marriage came right as I was about to promise forever to someone myself; it forced me to stare the reality of the divorce rate in the face.
On my wedding day, my dad gave me a handmade drum with a note that read, “This drum was built with wood from the house where you were made, and as you make your own home, I want you to always remember where you came from and always have music in your life.”
I have moved that drum from house to house since then, and even though I have never been the musical type, it is one of my dearest possessions. There will always be wood from my first house inside of my current residence; there will always be a part of my first house inside of me.
As sad as I was when the house left the family and was sold to someone else, I also know I’m luckier than many because I really could go back one day and knock on the door and explain to the owners that the handprints and the handrail are mine. The house is still there, occupied by people who love it (at least that’s what my father told me –– however, he also told me, when we had to sell my pony and move to the city, that Blacky was going to Hollywood to be a pony movie star, so maybe I should take that with a grain or two of salt).
But Hurricane Hugo only destroyed a symbolic peach tree in the yard of “the house that built me”; Hurricane Katrina destroyed “the house[s] that built” thousands of people in this city.
We all know what it means to literally not be able to go home again, but we all also know, better than anyone, that home is something that you can carry in your heart.