Building History


We are new to an old place. We live in a rambling, white farmhouse with a porch that wraps clean around it, upstairs and downstairs alike. It was built in 1888, or something near. When we first met this house, the woman who showed it to us told us it was haunted, but we felt peaceful inside of it.  A family had lived here for years, that of my new neighbor, an elderly red-headed woman who used to read in the upstairs window seat when her own grandmother lived in the house. Her name is Miss Katie, and she laughs and tells me there were sixteen red-headed children here, bursting out of the doors and windows and that she loves to see it full again with a new batch of ginger-haired kids. We left behind us in Atlanta the only house we ever built. It was full of books. Love had poured into its very construction. It was a home from the start, the Last Homely House.

I am a House Person. I love a cozy fire and a leather chair and a couch with children’s marker sketches, rubbed off but not fully. I love the marked up wall at my Mom’s house, where I can see that I’m still the height I was in ’97. Leaving that home, where I grew up, and leaving our home in Atlanta ring with the same notes—sadness, hope, and a grateful looking back.

I miss The Last Homely House. This new old house is always too cold or too hot. The copper kitchen countertop requires a maintenance that I don’t understand and that overwhelms me. The rooms are cavernous and hard to furnish. This house has a name that I did not give it. Here I am again, the anti-Anne Voskamp, counting my not-blessings. I will try my best not to spend this year looking back in constant comparison, aware only of what I leave behind.

We had our dear friend Father Nick come over and bless the new place. A Catholic house blessing is serious stuff—not the stuff of Precious Moments figures, but serious prayers and blessings, nearly exorcism-style. We walked the house with holy water and blessed salt and we prayed for the release of any trapped souls, repentance for any violence perpetrated on these vast grounds, and other such things. Ain’t no joke.

Blessing a home speaks of the permanence of our legacy, and also to the possibility for change and building new on top of old. When I lived in The Last Homely House, I had only my own things, which I have tried to curate for truth, goodness, and beauty. I cannot curate this new old house, as what is here has long been here. I am living in someone else’s history, among their trees and within walls that housed a family not my own, with the lingering dust of their goodness or badness. Blessed now, this house is cleaned and empty and ready to be filled fresh and new with the things of our own life within it. I love that I have landed inside of someone else’s family history. I wish my family had a “place,” but I’ll happily join this one.

There is something wildly special about old things. I have none that I can think of, so I am creating them. A secret: our gumbo recipe is not really “our gumbo recipe.” I lied to people—I have told them it’s an old family recipe, but it is my own. It is not generational or passed down from my Cajun grandmother. I don’t even know if she made gumbo, ever, but I make it from a roux as I learned from an Emeril LeGasse cook book, and I stir with a wooden spoon in a cast iron skillet that I bought from Cracker Barrel. My family was not full of traditions, and I struggle to make them as my own mother struggled hard—and successfully—to make what looked like a familial disaster into a strong home life for us all. My mother had to put her energies into drawing up a bit of firm clay to stand on. Now I have a footing, a foundation she built almost ex nihilo, from nothing, on which to create traditions, to add rhythms and shape to the raw material she salvaged and handed on to me.

So I find these traditions now in books and on Pinterest, and I claim them for our family. My sisters and I and our children write our thanksgivings on a tablecloth we use each year. It isn’t old yet, but it will be. We wear birthday hats on birthdays, always. We eat mac n’ cheese that my Gran Joyce used to make and we play football in the yard, which felt very put-on at first. I was faking it till we made it, and we made it. My brother, who never comes around, seemed so hurt by this the last time he came to a family gathering. “It’s so fake, so ridiculous,” he remarked, and it was. We had to start somewhere. Now we play football in the yard while the dog runs around, and it is real, and it is family, and it is tradition.

We began counseling this week, Stephen and I.  We have an uncommonly happy marriage, but we both came to parenting with tool boxes that were mostly empty. I think of what the kind of family we are aiming for, and I know I ought to be gentle with us. One generation at a time. We build the foundation; we do not build the castle. I want to guide our children as well as I can, and it seems we need some outside help. Our children are not well-behaved in Mass. They don’t like to pray. They don’t seem to feel compunction, ever, and some of them seem to lack compassion beyond what seems normal to me. I know I am responsible for much of this, and I don’t have any idea how to remedy their ills, because those ills are my own. I am saddened by the legacy I have passed on—a lean towards diabetes and heart disease, endometriosis, bipolar disorder, and my own direct-handed, overly harsh discipline that alternates with overly accepting non-discipline, anxiety, and depression. My visiting priest friend remarked, “Every family has that,” and I felt a huge burden lift—every family has these things. I have passed along only the human condition. And that could not be helped. All is not lost, though.

When I pray (less often than you’d think), I pass across verses that remind me that, while I am looking for a home I’ll never find here, I am meant to persist in looking. A seemingly endless searching journey. I am looking for the City of God, but I will not here find it. I see ephemeral shinings that hint at it, that hold some but not all of its essence. Maybe this is some of what brought me to join the Catholic faith as a young adult. I belong, by my choosing, to a many-chaptered story, the spiritual flesh and blood of the Church Triumphant and the storied saints who people it.

At night, my mind races and races and I turn on the blessed TV to something always benign and never upsetting so I can drift to sleep from the easy comfort of someone else’s world—Ray Romano or Jerry Seinfeld, or the vapid but happy crew from Friends. Lately, it’s The Gilmore Girls every night, and I see my old ‘hood in Stars Hollow. Luke’s is The General Store or The Daisy, where I ran for coffee and everyone knew everything. I am village-less here, because I am new, yes, and because this town where we now live is not built to be a village.

The City of God is, maybe, like Stars Hollow—not a huge and impersonal heaven, and not a long, unending Mass where we are all focused on the eyes of God and cannot even see one another (as an old professor of mine once suggested, causing me a load of dismay).  The City of God is, maybe, a town, where a friend pours my coffee and chats with my children, and people with dogs wave as I pass.

I do believe that you can begin a new legacy. You can salvage a lack of history. You can borrow the legacy of another family and create a home inside of theirs. The Last Homely House can be your own outpouring, your own creation, if you do not have it passed down from generations. If you cannot find it, you can make it. I am set firmly on layering a good legacy on top of my own family’s story, in which my own mother and father have set things right as best they knew how, and on the unknown-to-me story of the family that grew on the land and in the house where we now live, so that generations from now can make my gumbo with my old skillet. The dust of our legacy will be all goodness to them and hold no sorrow, if I can help it.

We had to get used to our house. We had to get used to our place. It takes years—maybe it takes longer than a lifetime—to know a place, especially if you are getting used to it as a place to live and work, and you are getting to know it by living and working in it. But we had to begin.

— Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

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