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Requiem for a House

by Mary Stack

How is it that we assign qualities or character to an empty space? But we do. Safe, solid, spacious and sacred - these are the words that I would use to describe my old house.

438 - the longest that I have kept an address anywhere in the world and the only place that I could possibly hint at belonging. Maybe the nearest place to a home that I have ever known? No wonder then, that I grieve its loss.

No, it's not a person who is passing from my life but the cleaving is just as real. As Darius Rucker's lyrics say, "something has come and gone". But can a house really possess such energy?

Well, in my experience a house seems capable of responding to its owners' needs with energy that can be good, bad or indifferent. I remember once seeing a BBC drama, "The Stone Tapes" about cellular memories embedded in the walls of a house.

So, what will I miss most? Well the light and energy of that old farmhouse delighted me, and it was good to know that others had lived and loved there before me; I often pondered who these people were. Knowing as I do that we are all just temporal keepers of our dwellings, stewards of the space to which we lend our hearts and minds, dreams and aspirations.

Over the years, if we are lucky, we are able to make the place our own – customizing each corner, and loving each odd little nook and cranny. Blindfolded, we know which floorboards creak and which baseboard will rattle and we can even take comfort from the house's familiar noises during thunderstorms.

These thumps and grunts are strangely reassuring, not unlike living with an old dog, even though we understand that a house cannot breathe – it's inanimate, after all, right?

Then there are the wondrously assorted sounds and smells of the house. I will miss laying up in my room with its church-like ceiling, looking up at the full moon and galaxies of stars, whose incandescence would light everything up like floods at a baseball park.

From my big bed I could daydream, read or just admire the old beams rescued from a Connecticut barn, feeling rather like "The Little Prince" gazing up instead of down at the planet.

I could hear the rush of the ocean and always knew if there was a high tide or storm imminent. In the mornings, this wall of sound might be replaced by seasonal birdsong – in the fall, the plainchant of a lonesome chickadee while in the springtime, a wonderfully cheerful blackbird would serenade me from the top of the tall pine tree with his melodic rhapsody, delighting us both.

At night, I never worried about walking around my magical garden even when it was past midnight. In the early hours before dawn there was little evidence of human activity other than the sound of a solo bartender, driving home after closing time. But much more interesting was the odd collection of wildlife visitors who frequented the house and grounds.

One night, I encountered two raccoons fighting over a trash bag on the porch – they stopped, looked at me and promptly left. I once walked into my kitchen to witness two deer, one a magnificent stag, looking in the window. I was mesmerized by their striking poise and elegance.

Occasionally, one would sight the ghostly apparition of a grey fox hurrying through the yard, and of course there were daily visitations by rabbits and possums.

I soon learned to distinguish between the patter of a field mouse and the steps of larger rodents in the attic. Sadly, I was to become a reluctant expert at squirrel extermination after a family of critters decided to take up residence in the wall behind my bed!

Skunks lurking under the porch were a bigger challenge, especially when one feisty specimen sprayed Chewy, my beloved golden retriever. Despite the use of every traditional remedy to eradicate the persistent pong, I swear it lasted a full week!

Strangely enough, I actually love the musky odor of skunks when they are just passing through the yard – but being doused by one is another matter entirely.

Scents have always held an incredible fascination for me. From time to time I would start suddenly from sleep, to the pervasive smell of smoke. Yet, upon walking around the house to inspect the cause of the conflagration, I would never find one.

Less disturbing was the intoxicating perfume of the beach roses, which I planted beneath the kitchen window; their scent would waft into the house chasing the heady incense of night stock.

This sensory pleasure was matched only by the joy of walking through the tall columns of colored cosmos and asparagus at the height of summer, when the humid air would be suffuse with the smell of ripe tomatoes, mint and basil.

There will be much to miss; the sound of church bells on the hour intertwined with the train hooting in the distance. The creak of the old swing set, the reassuring crack of baseballs meeting wood and the yelp accompanying a home run or perfect catch!

I will try to hang onto the cellular memory of my son's songs on the guitar, my daughter's piano practice, or the beautiful crescendo of her voice rising up through the steam of morning showers.

Christmas carols playing in the kitchen, the sacred calm that would descend on the house during snowstorms followed by energetic shoveling and car tires skidding.

Summer breezes that made porch doors slam, dinner parties and the clinks of empty wine bottles, which mixed with the seasoned after-burn of barbecues. Beach outings that peppered the wooden floors with sand and salt.

The rich aroma of birthday cakes cooling on racks interspersed with the sound of kids' laughter as candy contraband was sorted after Halloween.

But putting down my rose-colored spectacles just for a moment, I must also acknowledge that there are many things I will not miss about the house. Digging out from under 17 inches of snow; masterminding the "fixing" of myriad problems including broken pipes, leaking roofs, defunct pumps, blocked toilets and fallen trees.

The drudgery of constant maintenance was a chore – cutting the lawn, weeding the garden, raking endless piles of leaves and then dragging assorted debris to the dump.

When my daughter was quite young, I would ask her where she had walked the dog and she would simply say, 'Bittersweet and back". I understand this completely and now, well, it really sums everything up quite nicely.

Mary Stack is a dual national. Born in London, her background is in producing network documentaries for British TV and writing for The Guardian newspaper, Elle and Newsweek.

Mary has worked in a variety of places from Heidelberg to Havana but has resided on the South Shore for nearly 24 years. She currently co-owns and works for Write Right Now, an SAT tutoring business.

Currently writing a memoir and dreaming of anchoring her own women's radio show, Mary would love to secure a bolt-hole in Europe, meet the ideal companion and solve global warming – but who doesn't?

Her kids are grown and successfully launched, currently leading vital, productive lives in NYC; maybe this is her biggest achievement. Oh - she still loves poetry and holds gatherings as often as possible.