Almost forty years ago – man, I even hate to think it – in 1974, my parents stood at this corner of this house. There were trash cans in that same spot – metal ones then, of course. My mother peered inside one without a lid , and exclaimed that there was a chipmunk down there, stuck and scrambling.
Instead of simply tipping the can over to let it escape, she did something unwise – she reached down and tried to grab the animal. It grabbed her instead, clamping onto her finger with its little teeth inside its little mouth. It refused to let go until my dad put a lighted match to its nose.
And so a simple afternoon of house hunting turned into an afternoon in the emergency room, with a chipmunk in a box being sacrificed for a rabies test.
It’s rare that I see that corner of that house and don’t remember the chipmunk clamped onto the end of my mother’s finger.
Well, that’s done. Over.
This afternoon I went to the house for the last time, to check on the post-estate-sale cleanup. It’s all fine. Tomorrow, I sign papers and it’s gone. I’ll go back to just owning one home. Looking forward to that.
When I arrived, a guy was still cleaning. He talked to me about what was left, and what was happening to it, and then left me alone and went to get something to eat. I wandered around the mostly empty rooms.
What were my tears about? Hard to say.
No, not really. Not hard to say to myself. Just mostly no one else’s business, and there’s an art to taking those tears and making them into something interesting and valuable for someone who’s not living in your head.
Which is why they call it art.
My day began in Birmingham at the Cathedral, with some of that Art, as a matter of fact. Not for Mass (did that last night) but for an adult ed session on “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery. I wasn’t leading it, but when I can, I go to the sessions, listen and participate.
It’s a complicated story, underneath what might first strike you as just one more Flannery-brings-the-proud-intellectual-down-to-his-knees tale.
I was struck by a couple of points this time.
First (and I’m not going to recap – if you know the story, you’ll get it, but if you don’t, you can skip this part) , the fact that the two authority figures in the story – the doctor and the priest – speak to Asbury as if he were a child, the doctor pulling out the tricks he would use on uncooperative or fearful children, and the priest bellowing the Baltimore Catechism. Asbury, of course, being prideful and wallowing in the delusion of self-sufficiency, needs to be pummeled with the Gospel: unless you be as a child.
Secondly, the association of the breaking through of the Holy Ghost with coldness. A chill. An enduring chill. There are a number of ways to look at it, since the “chill” is of course a reference to fever, but this morning I couldn’t stop thinking about Flannery’s continual argument against the modern expectation that “faith” is what brings us contentment and satisfaction. In the Gospel today, Jesus says Peace be with You. But that’s after the crucifixion, you know.
Also on Asbury’s mind- primary, really – was his mother. How he blamed her for his own failure as a would-be artist, and how what he wanted to do most of all was make her see this. To give her an enduring chill that would be the result of her awareness of what she had done to him.
He would hurt her, but that was just too bad. It was what was necessary, he determined, to get her to see things as they really are. Irony, of course, comes to rest on him in the end as the Holy Ghost descends.
So I read and talked about this story about parents, children, disappointment, blame, pride and being humbled.
Then I drove up to Knoxville, alone, thinking about Asbury, about that Holy Ghost, about peace be with you and doubt no longer.
I drove up to see my father’s house for the last time and sign the papers so someone new could live there now.
Sadness that my father died six months ago, that my mother died eleven years ago, that my husband died three years ago. Sadness for my dad’s widow. But then tempered, as I stood there and surveyed the surrounding houses and realized that almost every person who lived in those houses when we first moved in, is also dead.
Remembering that forty years ago, my parents were exactly where I am now, watching the preceding generation begin to die off, absorbing their possessions, making sense of what they’d inherited – in every sense – and contemplating where to go from there.
There’s nothing unique about it. It’s called being human. Not existing for a very long time, being alive for a few minutes, and then being dead for another very long time.
And in that short time, we try. I’m not going to say “we try our best” because we don’t. It’s why we ask for mercy. Especially when we live our days under the delusion of self-sufficiency, placing our faith in ourselves and our poor, passing efforts, closed to grace…when we live like that…no, we’re not trying our best. We need it, that Divine Mercy. We need it, and as Asbury has to learn, we need it to give, not just to take.
The house? It’s sad to see it go – not because I associate it with decades of ecstatically joyous memories – I didn’t even live there very long – only four years. But because it’s just a big chunk of life that is over. One more lopped-off chunk that I will add to next year, and the year after that until I, too, have nothing left to hang onto on this earth. My whole life will be as this one house – I’ll drive away. I pray with joy, not clinging, ready for the One I’ve been seeking all this time.
So I have no reason to come to Knoxville again, the house is going to be transformed by someone else, all the stuff has been dispersed, and tonight, someone else is finding the perfect spot for my great-aunt’s cut glass vase, the mod paper-mache cat someone brought me from Mexico, and my grandmother’s hobnailed glass shoe.
I don’t want any of those things. I don’t want the house – if I did, I would have kept it. I didn’t want the house to sit up there, full of my family’s stuff like a museum. I will drive out of here tomorrow morning grateful for my family, mourning them, praying for their souls, hoping in eternal life, mystified by earthly life, and relieved.
I stood on top of that hill and took in the view one last time.
I looked at the basketball goal that all my kids wore out. At the big bush in front of the door that evolved into the spot to spread out swimsuits and towels after an afternoon down at the pool.
At the front porch – too narrow, but still, the place to sit after dinner and watch the kids play in the front yard. At that front yard where, as a teenager, I would sit – I’d drag a lawn chair right under the trees (there were more of them then) and I’d read. I’d also memorize poetry. I felt ill-served by my formal education so at some point,I decided memorizing poetry was something I needed to do. The only one I remember working on now, though is Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens.
An odd girl.
I stood there and remembered the good and the bad, the peace, the turmoil, the life and the death, and what I felt most keenly about life on earth at this moment was the need – as I perceived it – for a more substantial homeplace for us now – for me and my growing family (I have a daughter-in-law now!). At this point, everyone is still youngish and scattered and on the move, but with Knoxville gone, I think we’re all feeling a little uncentered and at sea, even though we’d not spent much time there over the past two years.
So I wondered about that, and felt badly about it, felt conflicted and inadequate for such a task, but was still stuck there, wondering about other things too.
I don’t want to go.
I want to go.
I don’t want any of this stuff.
I don’t want anything to change.
Heaven is our home.
We need more of a sense of home.
But you know…it really is death.
I could have stayed there a long time on top of that hill, wondering about it all, trying to figure it out all on my own under a light blue sky and a sun that all at once seemed quite warm.
It was as if I were planted there. Like the hickory tree that pelted the unwary with nuts, like the mint that took over the front beds, like the azaleas, their blooms brown and withered now. I missed their peak. I was like them for a moment. I just couldn’t move from my spot there on the driveway next to the empty house.
The phone I was holding in my hand buzzed and vibrated, jolting me. It was a text from my daughter up in college.
Is hummus bad for you?
I laughed out loud, not just because it was typical Katie randomness, but out of a rush of gratitude and a burst of hope.
The breeze picked up and whipped around me, up there on the hill. It cooled me down a bit. Just enough.
And I couldn’t stop laughing.
So I texted her back – carbs and oil – but the good kinds so probably not - got into my car – this time with no hesitation – and for the last time ever – ever - drove down the hill and away from my parents’ house.