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Second Place - "Heart's Home"

1995 Anne Horton Writing Award
Second Place
"Heart's Home"
Karen Cook

When I walk through the back door of my sister and brother-in-law's home, I am always struck by the chaos. The back door is the only door ever used by anyone, so you might think that the long, low-ceilinged, enclosed porch would be kept neat and clean. Your thoughts, or mine, on this matter of cleanliness obviously are not shared by the occupants of this house. The mess contained herein is an ever-changing muddle of stuff anchored by a few never-changing constants. Don't get the wrong idea. Virginia and Phil, my sister and her husband, are not dirty people. They're just busy and a little messy, and since Virginia, at age 68, is trying valiantly to keep the inside of the house clean, the mess ends up out on the porch. I think their biggest problem is that they don't have an attic, basement, or store room in which to keep all the things they've spent a lifetime accumulating.

People are always giving Virginia and Phil things in return for favors done, and these gifts add to the eclectic mix. For instance, the gas grill just to your right as you enter the porch was a gift from three neighbors to thank Phil for mowing their yards every week and plowing their driveways out after each snowfall. To the left of the door against the long wall leading to the inner door, there stands a soon-to-be antique refrigerator full of pop and wine coolers. Virginia and Phil don't drink them, but somebody might. They, as gracious hosts, are prepared for anything. Next to the refrigerator is a six-foot-tall cabinet that Phil built. It's very country primitive. I'd love to get my hands on it. The two tall doors are sometimes open, revealing Christmas paper, Halloween decorations, neatly stacked newspapers, an Easter basket, empty gift boxes, candles and a large ceramic basket filled with pine cones. I guess the cabinet is a seasonal store-all. Across from the cabinet, in front of the long floor-to-ceiling windows, is a pair of chairs, upholstered in orange, yellow, and brown flowers. In the 1960's these same chairs sat on the owner's enclosed front porch in Freeport. Virginia and Phil sold their Freeport house when they retired in 1986 and moved to this weekend place on the Mississippi River to live full time. There is an end table with a tall lamp between the two chairs. Between the grill, table, and chairs is an odd assortment of Phil's Mr. Fix-it tools. Some of the tools are in boxes, while some decorate the table or serve as floor accents. Being a creative kind of guy, Phil is constantly changing the patterns he creates with his tools. Before gaining entrance to the house, you can't help but notice two more things. The bookshelves, three floor to ceiling ones, are to your left, and the world's largest chest freezer is to your right. The book shelves are very interesting. They are packed with a garage sale library of smutty paper-back books, the kind with pirates and half-naked women on the covers, interspersed with cook books, medical encyclopedias, how-to volumes, National Geographic magazines dating from 1981 to the present, and hard-back books that Virginia, a voracious reader, has received as gifts. The huge white freezer to your right just hums. Even the door leading into the dining room is exceptional. Mediterranean in style, with raised panels painted beige against the dark brown painted steel, this is an impressive door. No door knob could do it justice. Instead it is equipped with a giant thumb latch. In the middle of the door, just at eye level, hangs a tiny pink door harp, another gift from someone in return for a kindness done.

After running the gauntlet through the aforementioned wonderland, you might expect more of the same sensual overload upon opening this door. You will not be disappointed. As the door swings to your right, you are greeted by a dining room table the size of King Arthur's feasting board surrounded by eight brown real leather upholstered easy chairs on casters. Above the table hangs an eight blade fan light with a ceramic black poodle pull chain. The table itself always has a large seasonal arrangement and candles in the middle of it. As you scan the room left to right, you see that the far left wall is composed of louvered doors concealing a washer, dryer, dishwasher, canned goods on pull out shelves, folding chairs, candelabras for every occasion, and pans too large to fit in kitchen cupboards. In front of you is glass, a whole wall of it, looking out to a tiered garden containing sand and weeds growing up from bird seed spilled from the many bird feeders hanging from the wide roof overhang, from the cylindrical see-through feeders hanging from the giant fir tree in the middle of the garden, and from window boxes full of seed. The garden is also graced by the presence of a cement Buddha, a Saint Francis of Assisi, and the obligatory bird bath. To your right in the corner stands a brass wine rack containing dusty Mogen David wines and one bottle of a great Bolla wine which turned to vinegar about six years ago. What a waste! Virginia and Phil are not big wine drinkers. Along the right wall crouch two mammoth identical buffets. Together they are about twelve feet long, and while their tops are littered with yesterday's mail, a never-used cassette tape player, an ornate metal box containing old family photos, piles of neatly stacked napkins, and framed portraits of dead relatives and new babies, through the glass doors beneath, you can view arrangements of glassware, serving dishes, and all the other accouterments of entertaining. To be a guest in this house is truly a privilege, but a privilege extended to all.

There was a time, not long ago, and lasting for many years, during which I thought I was above this place. Things weren't just right. Things didn't match. The house was cluttered with life's memorabilia. I didn't need that in my picture-perfect home or life. I was embarrassed by the casualness of it. Now this place is my heart's home. Now I understand that a perfect appearance in anything has no importance in life's dance. A safe harbor is what is important, is vital for our souls to grow. Cleanliness is not next to godliness. At best cleanliness is next to law and order. There's nothing wrong with order, but sometimes my heart needs to kick its shoes off and sink into a big soft chair and share, or listen, or laugh, or cry. Those things are what this house was built for, sharing, listening, laughing, and crying. The people who live in this house are far too busy caring for and about other people for them to worry about appearances. If someone gives them a gift that doesn't quite fit in, they don't mind. That gift has its place in plain view with all of the other memories. This place is full of memories.

Family birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings, and Easters are recalled around this table. Quiet late nights spent talking, laughing, and crying, my father spending his last months on earth here in one of these big chairs, reading or just watching and listening, come to mind. I can see him now, sitting in front of the windows, a small man, smaller by the day, his 92 years perched on his shoulders like the weight of the world. He loved this place too. He lived with Virginia and Phil for only about four months, but their house became his heart's home in that short time.

This house is not home just to family. Neighbors congregate here too. There's always plenty of room for everyone, and I'm proud to say that my sister and her husband both have their doctorates in hospitality. They know how to make anyone feel at ease and welcome, because they really do feel that anyone is welcome in their home. I want to learn to make people feel like that. Maybe if I stay around them long enough, whatever it is that they have will rub off on me. I don't know how else to learn true hospitality. I've spent far too many years in a "perfect" house with my "perfect" family avoiding anyone who might not fit the "perfect" picture in my mind's eye of what life was supposed to be--"perfect."

When my "perfect" life became foul, dirty, common knowledge rubble around me, I wanted to die, but I had kids to raise, so I couldn't do that. Instead, I ran. I left Indiana and came to Virginia and Phil's house because there was nowhere else to go. Their house was not my first choice of places to go because my daughters had been convinced by their father that my sister and her husband were common people who didn't share our values or beliefs, namely that money and position were the only things to be desired in life, and they also believed that Virginia had an intense dislike for them, thanks also to their father. They were afraid of Virginia and of what her life style might somehow do to their own values. They were right about a couple of things. The life style is different, and the girls' views were profoundly affected by the difference. I have had the privilege of watching two thoughtful, accepting young ladies grow out of two scared, judgmental kids who were embraced on Virginia's back porch one year ago. We lived with Virginia and Phil for two months while our apartment was being remodeled, and I believe that time was the most fortunate two months of our lives. Old lies were dredged up and exposed for what they were, walls built by suspicion fell, memories were passed along, tears streamed, hugs were exchanged, I love you's were said for the first time. A family was reborn. My daughters learned in this house how a family works and what it means to be part of a family. They learned, while I relearned, how good it felt to be loved for themselves. We learned genuine acceptance, and we learned to love ourselves. My daughters and I have made gigantic changes in our lives in the last year. I'm very proud of all of us, because not one second of the last year or two has been easy. We've had to withstand a great deal of pressure from my ex-husband to resume our former submissiveness. We might have given in to the pressure before we hit that back porch, but now we'd die first. Self-love and the empowerment it brings is a formidable weapon against seeds of unworthiness. We will never again feel less than anyone else, because we know, we really know, that somebody loves us just as we are, not for what we can do for anyone. We are lovable just as we are, and nobody will ever be able to convince us otherwise, because we heard and felt love sitting at my sister's dining room table, where only the truth is spoken.

Every time I walk through the big back door into Virginia and Phil's dining room, memories lap like little waves at my consciousness. Still-life photos are there for split seconds and then gone. Tiny bits of my life come back to me, bits that were long buried, out of sight, out of mind. Living was less painful if memories were buried. I pass those memories along to my girls and pray that someday they will pass them along to their children, because, after all, the memories we pass on to our children are what give life meaning. I wish every family had a memory care-taker, like Virginia, and a gathering place for those memories to congregate where they are always welcomed home.