On Place

View from bedroom windows, Lower Farm

Our family spent the holiday at my mother’s house in Florida—presumably for the last time, since it has been sold. This is the house in which my father spent his last years, a home to which we all are deeply attached for sentimental as well as aesthetic reasons. After my parents bought the house, my mother had it razed with a bulldozer—an act that freaked us all out but turned out to be visionary. This was roughly a decade ago, when my father was starting to lose his mind and his bearings, and the house my mom designed and had built from the ground up is a humble homage to serenity. A work of art. A true sanctuary not just for my parents (or, now, my parent, singular), but for all who visit—whether for vacation or even just for a meal or game of bridge. Underfoot, big white stone squares span from terrace through central wide-open living space, where sumptuous white couches and ottomans are clustered around pots of white orchids atop stacks of books with ornate spines. My mother’s grandmother was a sculptress, and in order to display some of her sculptures, my mom had well-lit recessed shelving built, painted hydrangea blue in this otherwise white airy breeze of a space.

I love that place, in a way that feels like loving a being, not an inanimate object. I love the smell—of the jasmine and oleander, love the feel of cool flat stone under bare soles, love the short balmy walk to the beach. Time after time, I have arrived there contracted from the cold weather of the northeast, or otherwise rattled by life, and unfurled amidst the tropical jungle, found peace in this cozy uncluttered place. Even as I paced the white stone floors with my dad as he rapidly lost his lucidity and dragged the furniture around, repeating that he had to go, had to get out of here, at least we were surrounded by beauty. That meant something. It gave us something.

Before all that, we lost another place, one even more dear to me. The Lower Farm was our homestead built by my father on 180 acres overlooking the white mountains of New Hampshire, on land so remote and pristine it felt like we’d been airlifted there. Moose and black bear drank from the pond, in view of our bedroom windows. All eight grandchildren of my parents were born during the twenty-year era we grew attached to the Lower Farm, sinking emotional roots into flinty New Hampshire soil. Then my father suffered a calamity, and two forms of dementia prematurely set in, causing him to lose all his savings as a casualty of losing his mind; he made rash, spurious investments, and they had to sell. When we drove out of the Lower Farm driveway for the last time, seeing the view of the white mountains and the pond out my minivan windows to the left, and to the right the rows of blueberry bushes lining the spot where my husband and I said our marital vows, I howled. Like an amputee. The nephews who happened to be in my minivan with some of my children for this departure might have been afraid by my primal bellow, but they all joined me in that sound of grief. It was infectious, the pain of the loss, of the final goodbye.

Then we attached to the small place in Florida, and now we are saying goodbye to that—because my mother has to downsize again. Life is all about attachment and loss. We get attached to people, places, things, and then we lose them. Coping with this cycle of attachment and loss requires astounding reserves of resilience. Even the luckiest of us, people with lives referred to as charmed, cannot escape the inevitable cycle. Some people try, by not getting attached in the first place, the cost of which is isolation—its own form of perpetual loss. It’s a risk to attach. A courageous act to love. When we attach, our lives have a mind-boggling amount of loss in them. Which is why so many of us turn to substances and activities to numb and distract our minds—the aspect of us that lives presumably in our heads, that is so often boggled.  

Some places in our lives are less memorable than others. Some do less holding, less nurturing of us through a passage of time. Some do more. More cradling. When we lose our cradles, it can be brutal. As if we are leaving not just the place but the self we were there—for that time, in that place. Each chapter of self inevitably passes. But as we leave that past behind—and when necessary, the places that held us—we make room for what’s new. Whatever that may be.




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