The first thing I saw was an American flag flying from a pole attached to the roof of the porch. My heart lifted. It wasn’t patriotism that buoyed my spirits, but a sign that the new owners of our old house had changed its appearance.
I had dreaded returning to the place where Tommy and I, and our golden retriever Buddy, had lived for 13 years. Because my departure wasn’t spurred by happy events, but by my husband’s death in 2012, this visit was stained with sadness.
When I first received the invitation to share the graduation celebration for a neighbor’s children, I told my daughter, “I don’t think I can go. The party house is right across from ours. It will be too painful.”
As I spoke those words I envisioned our blue-trimmed house with porch steps that needed painting, the flowerpots that Tommy hung each summer, and the decorative bench that sat along one side.
I conjured images of Buddy and I seated on the top step. When my picture included my husband on his red Schwinn rounding the corner heading towards our house, I couldn’t stop the tears.
“Do you have to go?” my daughter asked. “I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“I love the graduates and I believe they’d like me to be there,” I said. “Maybe I have to think of them instead of me.”
On the day of the graduation party, I rode the familiar Blue Line train to my stop. The cars were filled with passengers and luggage on the way to the final destination of O’Hare Airport. Going home, I thought to myself. These travellers were likely looking forward to their return, while I was worried about my reaction.
I could have walked on the opposite side of the street, but was drawn towards my old house, where the sight of the flag eased my passage. When I arrived at my address, a large black dog raced down the steps to greet me. “Sorry,” said someone on the porch as he tried to move the dog that was now happily being petted.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I love dogs. This used to be my house.”
He reached out a hand. “Hi, I’m a brother-in-law, let me get the owners.”
When he went inside to retrieve them, I introduced myself to people sitting on the porch. My apprehension was evaporating as I witnessed how much this beloved spot was being appreciated by others.
A couple, likely in their 40’s, were exuberant in their greetings. “We’ve heard so much about you from the neighbors. We’re happy to finally meet you. Would you like to come inside?”
I hesitated. I was doing okay so far, hadn’t fallen apart, but could the interior send me over the edge? “Have you changed the inside?” I asked. “If it looks different, I think I can handle it.”
“Come in,” they said. They led me inside and were as tender as if I were returning to a long-ago childhood home, rather than one left a mere four months ago.
Several of the former white living room walls were painted bright colors. The wooden floors had been finished in a darker stain. The stair bannisters were now white. In the kitchen, the oak cabinets had also been painted white.
I couldn’t recognize this house! There was no repetition of the many pieces of art we had hung on our white walls. A large sectional had replaced the facing couches that cushioned Tommy and Buddy on one and me on the other.
“Do you want to see upstairs?” they asked. I was growing confident.
“Sure,” I said. More painted walls, a crib in the smallest bedroom, an alcove there once stuffed with extra bedding had become a closet for baby clothes, new carpeting in all of the bedrooms. I was as delighted as if I had been the contractor who had performed the renovations.
I cooed and praised at the remake. It wasn’t so much because I admired their decorating choices but because everything looked completely different!
We shook hands when I left. “I know you’ll enjoy the house and the neighbors as much as we did,” I said.
“We love it already,” they said.
The party was sweet; the neighbors were grateful I had attended. When I left, as I walked back to the Blue Line on the opposite side of the street of my old house, I stopped for a final look.
“Goodbye,” I said. With just a slight mist blurring my vision, I put two fingers to my lips and blew my old house a kiss. Then I continued my journey home.