JIM DODSON: One Last Look, Then Goodbye
Over the past year, as prospective buyers traipsed through our house, opening and closing doors, flushing toilets, and poking their inquiring noses into closets, I played a private little mind game, trying to imagine what sort of things I might take with me when the moment arrived to finally say goodbye.
This was the only house, after all, I've ever owned. I built the place -- much of it, anyhow -- with my own hands. My children, now either in college or headed to it, grew up here, each year's measure of growth marked and dated on the inside jamb of the utility room door.
I found the wide pine plank floorboards in a barn in New Hampshire and laid them myself with antique iron nails. I designed the side porch to catch the summer sunrise and the afternoon sea breeze on our forested hilltop, the second-highest hill in town. From the peak of the barn, where a copper angel points her trumpet in whatever direction the wind is blowing out of, you can just make out the edges of Merrymeeting Bay, where Thoreau bird-watched on his way to Mount Katahdin.
I cleared the site of the abandoned farmstead where our house sits with an ax and chain saw, rebuilt the ancient stone walls and added new ones, lavished far more money on the gardens each year than I realistically should have, grew hosta plants the size of Volkswagens, battled black flies and thin glacial soil and too many damned Nor'easters and blizzards to recount. I used to joke that the property owned me more than I owned it.
A decade ago, after the worst ice storm to hit Maine in a century, I sat like Silas Marner by the house's wood stove, feeding split hardwood to the fire in order to keep the place reasonably warm and the pipes from bursting during a fortnight of minus-20 nights. While waiting for power crews to find us, I taught myself to cook on the wood stove and read by candlelight before turning in an hour after darkness fell sharp as an ax. I suspect my rural Carolina antecedents would have been highly amused, and possibly pleased at such Emersonian self-reliance.
Slightly Off in the Woods
My garden, a poor man's Monticello, was modeled on Jefferson's idea that a garden should be nature's stage play, presenting a new act and burst of beauty with each few passing weeks. Thus, in my so-called philosopher's garden first appeared daffodils, tulips and a blooming Sargentii pear. That was followed in due course by the crab trees, rhododendron and early irises, then the roses of my Redneck Roman pergola, after which English clematis, French lavender, catmint, and hostas erupted in a profusion of blue blooms, prelude to the dozens of exotic lilies and late-flowering phlox.
Some years ago, I gave my faux English garden a nickname -- "Slightly Off in the Woods." Last summer, for the first time ever, but better late than never, it all came off like clockwork, prompting a potentate from the local garden club to ask if I would consider placing my house and garden on the local summer garden tour. "I've never seen hostas quite like yours," she declared. "What's your secret?"
"The dogs pee on them," I answered truthfully. She looked at me like I was slightly off in the woods, too.
Part of me regretted having to tell the woman I was just about to place the house up for sale, my poor timing and a once-unthinkable proposition. As a parting consolation, however, I dug up a few of my "dog pee" hostas and gave them to her.
Truthfully, I always thought my own ashes might someday wind up as mulch in my own garden. After all, I buried two dogs, three barn cats, and countless stray animals that wandered up and expired in unmarked graves on the property, creating something of a peaceable kingdom. Or at least my very own Stephen King pet cemetery.
The same pair of swifts came every April like true snowbirds, restoring their winter-ravaged nest under eaves of the porch before laying their eggs. For years, a young bull moose would hang around the back meadow, snorting haikus in search of a mate.
So if and when the day ever finally came to pack up and say goodbye to a place so spiritually invested with my family's life and my own good blood and sweat, I reasoned, I would be fully entitled to take along anything I chose to either dig up or pry loose and cart along -- something just to remember the place by.
'Let It Go'
I was both relieved and saddened when word came that a nice retired couple from Massachusetts had made a cash offer on the property.
Two other buyers had also made offers but failed to sell their own houses and lost their bids. One young couple from Connecticut wrote me a four-page letter expressing their admiration for the house and gardens, noting how it was exactly what they dreamed of owning.
Even so, in the midst of the worst housing collapse in half a century, I was relieved that someone was going to buy the place and continue what I'd begun -- as I rationalized to anyone who couldn't believe I was giving up the place.
Several weeks ago, I finally met the new buyers and was happy to discover they'd owned a similar post-and-beam house in Massachusetts. The woman, Bobbi, was an ardent gardener who couldn't wait to get her hands in the soil. I can't tell you how comforting this was to learn.
The only sadness came from realizing that my own day of departure was suddenly at hand.
Friends gave me advice on this subject. A cheerful Buddhist friend reminded me that life is full of sacred leavings. "It's good training for leaving this life," he said. "Not to get too attached -- just love what's before you and let it go."
"Just pack up and leave and don't look back," advised another older friend who left the home she and her husband built and were certain they'd never leave in Michigan before relocating to the Sandhills a few years back. "You've got to be ruthless about this sort of thing. Just go and don't look back."
Last week, my wife, Wendy, a woman who could reorganize the National Archives given a full afternoon, zipped up to Maine and spent two days clearing out the storage rooms and boxing everything up for the movers.
I followed her up the East Coast by two days and arrived just as she was finishing up her detail work, leaving the garage and attic for me to confront. On Sunday morning, she left to head back this way, and a cold spring rain began to fall.
Mementos for Each
My teenage son helped me clean out the attic, chatting about his pending high school graduation and the college he'll be attending here in North Carolina come fall.
"Dad," he said from the far end of the attic, "check this out."
He was holding up a plastic rocking hobby horse whose motor had finally croaked after two crazed toddlers wore it out.
"I loved this thing," he declared with a note of clear nostalgia, suddenly sounding much older than I remembered his being. "Can we save this?"
Each of our four children, in fact, expressed interest in having something to remember the place by. Maggie, the oldest, our college girl, wanted lamps and her bedroom end table and stuffed animals -- a ragtag collection her Scottish grandfather, who picked them up at yard sales market stalls from Virginia to Istanbul, had nicknamed the "Stardust Fan Club."
Liam, the youngest, wanted to make sure we had all of his baseball and basketball equipment, even the stuff the dogs had chewed up.
Connor, middle boy, wanted his fabulous rock collection, the bounty of many summer excursions to our favorite beach, especially the rock that was shaped remarkably like the state of Maine.
Now Jack, the oldest lad, had laid his claim, too: a rocking horse with a burned-out motor that retired to the dusty quiet of the attic years ago.
"Not a problem," I assured my assistant. "It'll probably look great in your dorm room."
Meanwhile, I found boxes filled with my old magazines, 30 years of my newspaper and magazine work, a vacation home for field mice. I also found boxes of books I'd never quite gotten around to reading -- collected, I suppose, for the Jeffersonian library I never got around to building.
Over the next two days, as the attic work yielded to the garage and the cold rain fell, I ferried carloads of old books to the town library for the big summer book sale, made countless runs to Goodwill and the Salvation Army store to offload old bikes, rarely used exercise machines, camping gear that would never be used again, bags filled with clothing, furniture pieces that wouldn't be making the journey South, old record albums and stereo equipment.
My neighbors, Pat and Peggy, were pleased to take various garden tools, ladders, the old wheelbarrow, and other things I knew would never make the trip home to Dixie.
"You should dig up half the pretty plants and take 'em with you," said Peggy.
"I'm thinking about that," I admitted.
By then I was pretty much alone in the house save for whatever domestic spirits lingered and the echoes of 20 years' worth of dinner parties and birthday celebrations and rowdy Winter Solstice gatherings, waiting for the movers and house cleaners to arrive, watching the cold rain beat down the spring flowers and looking through a dusty box of letters and photos I'd found stashed in the back of my office store room in the barn.
In it I found a love letter from my dad to my mom, written from England a few days before he shoved off for the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. I discovered several family photographs I thought had vanished years ago. I found the first two books I ever read, too -- "Timmy and the Indians" and "The Illustrated Robinson Crusoe."
I swept out the garage and turned my attention to the garden shed, where my dad's old office desk was used to store fertilizers. It seemed to have grown into the floor. I decided to leave it where it sat.
One More Sunrise
I spent my last night in the house sleeping in my daughter's bedroom. Around 3 that morning, I woke and went downstairs and sat on the porch and watched the sun rise for the final time. The skies had cleared and the stars were out.
The movers came at eight sharp. By then I'd finished my sweeping and begun raking out the philosopher's garden. By lunch, the movers were gone and the finest day of the year was making my garden explode with new life. The Sargentii pear erupted with pink blooms, and you could almost see the dog-pee hostas growing by the minute.
I finished my raking, filled the bird feeders a final time, and sat on a blue bench in the garden to wait for the house cleaners, still trying to decide what I would take to remember the place by. In the afternoon stillness, I heard the school bus arrive at the end of our road, same as it has for 25 years.
My eye fell on a mythic piece of wood rising from the hostas, an ancient pointed hemlock limb worn smooth by time, something I once found on a hike through the forest. I was sure it once belonged to a unicorn. Northern hemlocks are going the way of the unicorn, they say.
The cleaners came and did their job. "What a beautiful house," said the young woman in charge. "My husband and I dream about owning a house like this for our children someday. It looks like a place well loved."
I thanked her and confirmed this impression. If I could have, I might have given the place to her on the spot.
A short time later, my son and his girlfriend arrived. He didn't say so, but I knew he wanted a last good look, too.
After they'd left, I went through the house saying my private goodbyes to things well loved -- the wood stove that saved our skin one brutal winter, the big claw-foot bath tub where I soaked away my aches and pains after a long summer day in the garden. I said goodbye to unfinished closets, the nicked floors, the scuffed walls, the house I never quite finished building but never stopped loving.
I was standing on the side porch watching the swifts rebuild their nest when the new owners arrived. We walked around the place, and I showed them a few things I thought they ought to know. I could see Bobbi's eagerness to get into the garden.
We shook hands, and I gave them a key. West and Bobbi seem like wonderful people. They graciously invited us back any time we cared to come.
In the end, I took only a small clump of my dog-pee hostas and the unicorn's missing horn I found many years ago deep in the woods.
I really don't need much to remember the place by, I realized.
But even so, I paused and took a good look back before I drove away.
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, the Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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