In my classroom, we always talk about the power of words, about denotation (the literal meaning of a word) as opposed to the connotation (the emotional effect or appeal) of words. To begin the lesson, I ask my kids to write down the difference between "house" and "home". Inevitably, most of my students get it right away. They'll tell me that a "house" is just walls, a floor, a roof. But a "home" is all of the things that make this structure into a place of comfort. "Home" means family and memories and holidays and friends and love and warmth. A "house" is just a shelter, but a "home" shelters your soul.
One of my best friends has a house around the corner from me in my neighborhood. At one point, almost all my friends lived in the same neighborhood. One put down roots first, then another, and another, until finally about 7 years ago, I gave up and moved to the 'hood as well. Since then, the first moved out, then the next, and now we've arrived at the last. Laurie got married about a year and a half ago. She has tried, in vain, to sell her house for 18 long months, and on Monday, she'll close at last. So tonight, after a very long and tiring day for us both, she still had to go and finish cleaning out all of the things she left so long ago. She's been working for a week now, with her husband, and she's arrived at the last few things. You know, those things that clutter the shelves with their sentiment and possible use. And because she'd do (and has done) the very same thing for me so many times, I walked around the corner for one of the last few times to help her come to a close of a different sort.
See, this is the friend who has constantly been the primary caregiver and ceremonial figurehead for our little group. Laurie hired us all at camp 17 years ago and eventually became our friend, taking us and all of our twenty-something childishness, letting us crash upon her couches and floors, did our laundry, fed us when we were too poor to eat, blended our margaritas, and helped us figure out how to be adults. Over the course of those last 15 years, the two houses she's lived in naturally became the gathering point. Maybe because she had complete sets of silverware or the softest floor or the best blender. Maybe because we were all so used to doing whatever she said at work that we just let her continue to boss us around outside of it as well. Either way, her home(s) have always felt like our home(s). Her first house sold in two days. She decided on the house around the corner in a spur of the moment, walk in to an open house and "just know" kind of decision. And the move from the first to the next felt natural. Her first house was new construction, in a new development, and the only history it held was her own.
But this house, the little house around the corner, is different. Built in the 20's, it holds several lifetimes of memories. The abandoned treehouse in the backyard. The glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling in the front bedroom. The concrete engravings. Sometimes the ghosts of the past would creep past us, not to haunt but to welcome. As we cleared out bathroom shelves of expired medicine and threadbare towels or made decisions about which pile to put her hundreds of CD's in or questioned where to put her dozens of quilts, I'd stop and look around for a minute. And I'd wonder. I'd wonder what ghosts we were leaving behind.
This is the house where we drank hundreds of margaritas. We shared at least 10,000 laughs and probably half as many tears.
This is the house where the back porch is famous for Heather leaning back in her patio chair until she eventually/nearly would tip over backward. Where Courtney's infamous snort-laughs and my infamous cussing, blue-streak rants would ring throughout the neighborhood. Where Laurie would get the giggles so intensely, we feared she might stop breathing. Where we ate many meals. Where we cried many tears. Where we sat, amidst clouds of mosquito spray and talked the night away more times than I can count.
This is the backyard where Angel (the sweetest-cranky dog ever) ruled the possum population with an iron fist and an equally strong bark. It's the house where her circus dog, Lady, was taken too soon, and where the world's greatest cat, Mellie, held on too long. Where Courtney coaxed Sammy and Doodle into her lap so that they could one day live the life of luxury far from the harsh reality of the life of a stray. The porch where Crisco the cat would make her escape to the great outdoors and the house where she brought home the smelliest kitten with the world's biggest ears to bathe in the sink. Where Big Sam, the camp dog, made his first big city home after leading a lonely existence on the family ranch. Where the animals in the house loved Laurie almost as much as we do.
It's the backyard where we talked Laurie into buying a horrendous, inflatable, above-ground swimming pool which we used exactly four times. They were a pretty fun four times though. It's the porch where Courtney told us she was pregnant with her first baby. It's the porch where Heather showed us a picture of the son she had chosen. It's the porch where Laurie first told us about the man who would someday become her future husband but that she, at the time, viewed only as a friend. That is until we got the giggles and said, "Girl, that man is flirtin' with you!" And it's the back porch where I first sat down to decide whether I thought he was good enough for Laurie, and, in turn, if he could put up with all of us who came with her. Laurie's friends are kind of a package deal. Turns out that he was, and he could.
It's the birthplace of Girls' Night where we'd place our bets and roll our eyes at the latest season of The Bachelor. It was the meeting place for a few snow days. The Lotus Cafe that produced chicken spaghetti, Laurie's "everything but the kitchen sink" salads, and the world's greatest guacamole. It's housed dozens of birthday cakes, Rock Band parties, and card nights. It's where we all gathered to pass out Halloween candy to the neighborhood kids. It's where she held the "EscapeYour Family? Come on Over" Christmas night party. This is the house where my darling friends threw me a 30th birthday party, special not only for its "Trivial Pursuit: Deana Nazworth Edition" party game but also because it is one of the last times I can remember having my brothers and my mom and dad together with me in a happy and peaceful moment.
It's a place where we stated our opinions and defended our points. It's a place where sometimes we all argued, and then sometimes had to swallow our pride. It's been a place to fight but also to forgive. It's been a place of love and friendship and warmth and comfort. It was a home, even after we all got our own homes. It gave shelter, and it sheltered our souls.
Laurie essentially moved out of that house the day she fell in love with her husband, but even after her clothes and shoes and pets found a new address, we'd still gather there, meet for dinner, come back to catch our trashy reality t.v., and sit on the back porch to laugh and snort and rant. In the last few months, however, we've begun to meet elsewhere, landing at new restaurants or in the backyards of other's homes, including the home that Laurie now shares with Pat. Not shockingly, no matter where we are, the laughter and love and comfort has gone with us (and we didn't even have to pack it in boxes).
I'm glad that the stress of selling this house will soon be over for Laurie. I'm happy that she and Pat are making their new life together (and graciously inviting us all over to build new memories). That little house around the corner is adding another lifetime to its collection, and for me, the girl who battles change and grips sentiment in her fist, it is bittersweet. As we packed up tonight, our voices and laughter echoed through this empty shell, and I realized that this is the moment that a "home" becomes a "house", and I said my goodbyes.
But hopefully for the new owners, we left a little echo inside, a ghost of our strange and wonderful little family of friends who loved this house and the life it all lent us, to whisper a welcome home.