I have said it a million times: The most important four letter word in the English language is not love. It is home.
It’s a lesson I learned in the days, weeks, months and years after Katrina. Home – less as a physical property than an emotional foundation – was what we all clung to, hoped for, dreamed of and set about our lives to rebuild.
And it is a lesson that was driven home to me (pun inescapable) these past few weeks with blunt force trauma. I said goodbye to my home. Forever. And what a heartbreaker finality can sometimes be.
Let me explain. My dad died in 2013. My mother passed this January.
This is not a cry for pity, nor sorrow. Dad was a month short of his 90th birthday; mom was 94. They were married 63 years and lived rich, full, active lives, socialized often, traveled the world and had a bunch of kids of whom they were proud.
In short, they crossed off everything on their bucket list. Including their final wishes: To die peacefully in their home. Our home. My home. They brooked no talk of assisted living facilities or hospice as they grew infirm over the years. And so they both stayed. And they both died peacefully, in that house.
My dad bought our house in the little Town of Somerset, MD., in 1963. It was a three-story Victorian with three porches, seven bedrooms, a den, two living rooms, two kitchens, five bathrooms, four attics, God knows how many closets and an enormous underground basement that would sometimes flood up to a foot of water after heavy rains.
It had a big yard – the greatest Whiffle Ball field ever created by man or nature – a swimming pool, huge old trees and an old rickety garage where the previous owner had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Needless to say, taking out the trash late at night when I was a kid used to scare the living bejesus out of me. But otherwise, if I didn’t make it clear enough: It was a kid’s paradise. So much fun we had: My parents, grandparents, my brothers and sisters, our cousins, aunts and uncles, and all of our friends who walked through that front door.
And, as of last month, the house even had the same phone number for 54 years: Oliver6-0149.
(Remember when phone number began with words and letters? You’d have to be of a certain age, to be sure. As in….old! Trivia fun facts: The Ricardo’s phone number on “I Love Lucy was MUrray Hill5-9975; Rob and Laura Petrie’s number on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was New Rochelle6-9970.)
Well, that’s all I’ve got now. We sold the house this spring. My remaining family members gathered there last month to clean it out and rummage around for stuff that all seemed meaningless – or even invisible – during our childhoods, but suddenly all seemed so precious and invaluable.
(Side note: If you ever want to find out who the true assholes in your family are, wait until your parents die and leave a house full of stuff behind!)
Yeah, it wasn’t pretty on all sides. Me, I’m no prince, but I also wasn’t up for a fight over a piece of furniture. I packed some old photographs, teacups (my mother collected them), sea shells (my dad collected them) and just some other small random things that struck me:
The decks of cards my folks used once a month for 50 years to play bridge with their best friends, Larry and Ellie Lillienfield. Small engraved brass and wooden containers and boxes and other delicately painted tchotchkes and souvenirs that my parents gathered from their dozens of cruises and exotic travels over the years.
Rooting around in drawers and closets, I found my old stamp collection, my grade school report cards, (not so good), my grade school class portraits (worse!) and a trove of books, toys and just plain stuff accumulated from my youth, my nostalgia, my formative years. My life.
And then I walked out of that house for the last time in June, just a few weeks ago. Pulling the door closed behind me left another small piece of my heart somewhere in the irretrievable past. And then I flew back…..to my home. In New Orleans.
Funny, how in New Orleans, if you weren’t born here, custom, ritual and plain old native stubbornness never lets you claim this city as your “home.”
Well, I’m an orphan now. And I’ve put in 33 years of time, service, triumph, failure, laughter and forgetting here. It’s where I raised my kids. And it’s all I’ve got left.
I’m really home now. For true.