Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Drawing On The Walls

In 2004, I sold the house where I had lived for 13 years and moved with my wife and kids into a friendly intown neighborhood. The purchaser of my property was a developer who bought it along with several others on the street in order to level the land and build a tract of townhomes. Since there wasn’t a need to leave the house in a livable condition, I gave both kids magic markers, cans of spray paint, and permission to write and draw anything they wanted on the walls. It turns out there was a lot to say.

Here’s some history: I bought this house when I was still a single guy, and in many ways it reflected some of the core elements of my personality and lifestyle back then. It was the last house on a short dead-end street, across from a municipal water tower surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. I was originally attracted to its proximity to my office and the extent to which it offered seclusion while being close to major thoroughfares. Like me at the time, it was essentially hidden from sight.

After Gina and I married and became parents, the house gradually became less of an asset and more of a liability to my emerging lifestyle. Since we were not part of a neighborhood, the kids were more socially isolated than either she or I wanted them to be. We had to get in the car any time we wanted to visit another human, and there wasn’t even a concenient way to take a simple evening walk. So it was a blessing the day a smiling broker drove up the long driveway and asked if he could interest us in working out a deal to sell the place.

The sales contract was contingent upon the purchaser successfully petitioning the local county board of commissioners to rezone the area to allow townhomes instead of single family residences. This process took well over a year. During that protracted time period, we stuck with our decision not to put any money into the house for upkeep or repairs, even though it increasingly needed a lot of both. It therefore became a sort of snail’s race to see if we could close the deal and move before the house fell in on us. We just made it.

Even though it was a definite boon to relocate, each of us grieved the loss of this residence in our own ways. I hope it makes sense to say that although Gina never liked the place, she loved it. After 13 years, it was the longest she had lived at one address in her life. It was where we held our wedding reception, where she breastfed both of the kids through many long nights, where we ate thousands of short, it was where we lived out an incalculable number of life's varied textures. I'm remembering now of how my wonderful Great Dane Java died in my arms in our living room and how I felt her spirit pass through my heart before I wheeled her body in a wheelbarrow to the back yard and buried her with her bowl, leash and favorite toy. One year to the day later my first child was born.

Then in the blink of an eye ten years had passed and I was helping my kids prepare to leave the only home they had ever known. Lincoln had to go from being student body vice-president (the most prestigious position a 4th grader could have) to entering a school where he would simply be known as “the new kid”. At least he had a theoretical understanding that this move was ultimately going to be good for us all. Casey, poor thing, was too young to know anything other than her world was changing and that she didn’t like it one bit.

As the time for the closing of the sale grew nearer, I went around the acre announcing to the various little species around me that soon their home would be gone too. I figured the squirrels, rabbits, possums, birds and other creatures had a right to be treated with at least that much respect. On the day the deal finally went through, a tree fell across the back yard fence. The basement had already begun flooding every time it rained. I could feel the house's ambivalence toward its impending destiny, and like the admonition in Dylan Thomas' famous poem, it was not going to "go gentle into that good night".

This remembrance is bringing to mind the Shel Silverstein fable of "The Giving Tree", in which a tree gives a man what he needs from youth (a branch to swing from), to adulthood (the wood to build a house) through old age (a comfortable stump for sitting). In our case, what was once 7935 Benwell Drive gave us the chance to move into a real neighborhood, put away money for our kids to go to college, and build some retirement savings. A dearest friend couldn't do more.

In retrospect the recognition that drawing on the walls could be an act of catharsis seems like an inspired idea. It allowed each of us to embrace and celebrate the house by adorning it with our feelings and memories about how it had held us through the years. Slowly, aspects of our life story began appearing in different rooms. I started by writing “We cooked a lot of good food in this kitchen”, even though our oven had a habit of varying wildly in termperature, turning something as simple as a batch of sugar cookies into a mystery adventure with a surprise ending every time. Both kids drew pictures of themselves in their rooms. Lincoln touchingly wrote “This is the room I lived in for 9 ½ years.” Casey drew a larger-than-life girl with giant tears streaming to the floor. Like Ray Bradbury's "Illustrated Man", every picture told a story. Some of the most intimate ones were left to the realm of invisible ink where only Gina and I could see them.

We were able to take our time moving after the deal closed, but finally, by mid-December we had almost completely vacated the property. As a final act I climbed onto the roof and spray-painted in giant letters: “SANTA WE MOVED TO DECATUR”, underlining the words with a large arrow pointing toward our new home. With that, we were done.

Every few weeks after our move was completed I would drive by the old property to see if the house was still there. Then one day, it was gone. The image was surreal: where my home had been was now just a giant hole in the ground. The real shock came several weeks later when I drove by to find that the entire property had been bulldozed. Every tree was gone. I thought at least a couple that had been encircled in red ribbon would be left to stand, but nothing remained, everything was leveled.

In the ensuring months, 42 units were built, sold and occupied where once three houses stood. Benwell Drive is gone, and in its place stands Telfair Gates. For a brief period I wondered if I was contributing to something essentially destructive, but I got over it. People tend to decry such infill as overdevelopment, but they generally only do this after their own house has been built. The new residences have increased property values in the area and increased the tax base for the community. And less quantifiable but even more meaningful to me is the fantasy I maintain that the people who live there sometimes experience a sense of inexplicable well-being, contentment and joy for no apparent reason, and that this happens because the spiritual legacy of my family continues to occupy that land.

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