“WHERE I USED TO LIVE (PART 1)
(Originally posted on the website Continuum…)
(This story is dedicated to Peter Martin*)
IN the picture accompanying this article (taken in April 2003), if you look through the fence, past the trees and across the river, you will see a road going up the hill through the leafless trees. Just a short distance from the crest of that hill is where I used to live – in another life, very long ago. It was seven years ago actually. I lived there before my second divorce. I thought I would tell you about it.
Seven years ago, there were seven people living in that house. J was 12 years old (the same year we discovered he had a seizure disorder), S was 10 years old (I have a cute picture of her as a Girl Scout that year), T was 9 years old (a cool kid even then), H was 2 (with the most beautiful blonde curls), and little M was less than a year (not even walking yet). Oh yeah, Sam and the woman he was married to were… older than the kids. (Did you think I’d give away my age? Ha!)
WHEN we first bought the house, the living room was “velvetted” with the lushest of 1970’s orange shag carpet. It was not “retro-70s.” It had really been there since the 70s. Also, the stains from the former occupant who used to change the oil of his motorcycle in the living room were a charming touch. The paneling was of a deep color I believe is called “Death by Mahogany.” The kitchen had a somewhat lighter paneling (“Suicide in Pine”), with an orange counter, which cleverly matched the chaos happening in the living room. Amazingly, the rest of the house was “normal” with white plaster walls and nothing-to-speak-of carpeting.
After a year or so of orange torture, we decided to remodel the living room. I removed the paneling only to discover orange walls! When I “dropped” the drop ceiling, what do you think I found? Unbelievable! An orange ceiling! Think of it! Orange above! Orange below! Orange all around! What were they thinking???
“I like orange. I just want to sit around all day, puff the magic dragon and listen to Led Zeppelin, while surrounded by orange.”
You idiot! They sang “The Lemon Song,” not “The Orange Song!” Yellow would have been more tolerable! Especially in a pastel! You had your bands mixed up. You must have had a Tangerine Dream 8-track in the old player when you were tokin’ on one! Man!
WITH the help of friends and family, I did the living room right. The kids were issued claw hammers and promptly went to work gutting the room. We stripped it down to plain old brick. Then I installed new insulation, sheet rock, and spackling. The walls were painted an off-white color. New berber carpet was laid. A stucco ceiling and ceiling fans added the finishing touches. Nice.
Even before the renovation, friends and family were often found in our home. Hospitality was the sign over the door. We didn’t care if we knew you forever or just met you when you showed up at the door. You were welcome. You were fed. You were valued.
For example, one of my fondest memories is of a time when our friends, Rich and Susan, were experiencing hard financial times. Without much ado or even a second thought, we headed to our big freezer full of groceries and filled a few bags up for them. What did we give them? The filet mignon! Damn right! Our mottos were, “It’s better to give than to receive,” and “Let them eat filet mignon!” (and cake only if they finished their vegetables)
In those days, we were Christians, actively involved in church and practical in caring about people. It was common for our living room to be filled with 20 or more people on a Friday night for times of informal singing and Bible study. (Imagine me with hair past my shoulders, an earring, jeans and a T-shirt, teaching from the Bible! Stranger things have happened! Remember the orange living room?) Afterwards there were always refreshments: tea, coffee, pastries. Hospitality was the word.
YET, somehow the weather changed. Cold winds drifted through and someone’s heart grew cold. The new walls lost their luster and the new carpeting offered no comfort. When I said, “I feel like I lost your heart somewhere along the way,” she simply laughed. Fall had arrived and winter was quickly approaching.
It was decided that we would move from Easton, Pennsylvania to Belington, West Virginia. The plan was that we would help my then mother-in-law with her start-up software company. It was a grand plan. I would be sent to school to learn computer programming. We would live with her on 40 acres of pristine West Virginia land. This would enable us to improve our financial condition and provide better careers for us.
The catch was that the three children from my first marriage were going to live with their mom in New Jersey when we moved. You have to understand how difficult this decision was for me. I had cared for these three children on my own for several years, due to alcoholism and drug abuse on my first wife’s part. I potty trained them. I made sure their immunizations were up to date. I saw them off to kindergarten on their first days of school. I fed them, bathed them, read to them, nurtured them. I baked the birthday cakes and wrapped the presents. I was Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy all in one. (One year “Santa” forgot to dispose of the extra wrapping paper. His explanation was that he wanted to leave the wrapping so that the children would have something to wrap gifts for other people in and learn how to be generous like he was. Whew! They bought it!) It was extremely hard to allow them to go live with their mother while I moved 400 miles away.
MY heart was not fully engaged in moving to West Virginia, as you can well imagine. I worried for my children. I worried about living with my mother-in-law who did not think well of me to begin with. I worried about the subtle eerie vibes I was picking up from my wife.
During Christmas break in 1996, J, S, and T moved to their mom’s house. On December 26, the day after Christmas, my wife’s brother and her mother’s boyfriend arrived with a rented U-haul trailer to move her and our two little girls to West Virginia. They almost left before I even got home from work to say good-bye. (In hindsight, that should have been one of several warning signals I should have picked up on.) I was scheduled to follow them a month later in order to put in enough time on my job to earn another full week of vacation. It was a lonely month. Everyone was gone. Even most of our friends had been alienated either by choice or by misunderstanding. I felt isolated. Alone. I remember one night, standing in the middle of that once congregational but now deserted living room, with tears on my cheeks and a sense of impending but unavoidable trouble. Yet, even then, I could have never imagined the upheaval and heartache that were soon to come.
I was left to pack up the house on my own. The scope of the job was daunting. The growing sadness in my heart made it burdensome. I am thankful for two friends who so kindly helped me at that point. LeRoy Magyar arrived one night and patiently helped me wrap china and Corelle dishes in old newspapers. Pete Martin came on the night before I was to depart for West Virginia and helped me load the house into a U-haul until 3 in the morning. We even ripped out the berber carpet, rolled it up and taped it tightly (then proceeded to clobber each other with rolls of carpet that weighed millions of pounds!).
I spent three months in West Virginia while things steadily deteriorated with my wife. It takes two to make a relationship work. But it can take just one to end it. Once one decides in his or her heart that they are no longer going to work to sustain the relationship, there is no amount of effort, sacrifice, begging, promising, crying or praying that the other person can do to make any difference at all. It is over whether you like it or not. At that point I was rather heartlessly advised by my wife to “just get a grip and deal with it.”
IN April of 1997, I was back in my home state of New Jersey. I was broken-hearted, bankrupt financially, separated from the three children I worked so hard to raise, 400 miles from my two daughters who were only 1 and 3, and isolated from my former friends. Some compared me to Job in the Bible. No, my children had not been killed by a freak storm. I still had my health. But for all intents and purposes, the seeming unfairness of it all was strikingly similar to Job’s. (In fact, my kids brought a gerbil home from school at that time. They gave him to me because they “didn’t want me to be alone.” We named him Elijah Job because Elijah was a man like any other man who prayed fervently and God heard him (James 5:17, 18). Job was a man who faced unprecedented hardships yet said, “Though He (God) slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” (Job 13:15)
I could go into details about this part of the story. (Maybe some day I will.) I could tell you how it felt to walk back into that old house in April of 1997. I could describe how it was haunted with the sounds of laughter and children’s voices. I could tell you of how I had to chop down the overgrown yard with the only tool available – a shovel – while tears streamed from my eyes and blood dripped from my hands. I could tell you of the humiliation I was forced to endure when I returned to my former place of employment. After holding one of the best jobs for 13 years, upon my return I was given a position of cleaning drains and scrubbing floors – for $2 less an hour than I was making just three months prior. It would take many pages just to recount the times I sat down and asked, “Why?”
However, I want to make the point that this is where I “used” to live. Now when I look back at that time of my life, it feels like a tale from someone else’s life, or a portion of an old book that I vaguely remember. There are more than merely fences or rivers that separate me from that life. Now that I am starting to experience the benefits of all those hardships, I sometimes wonder how I could have even shed one tear over any of it.
Of course, I know that it was only by going THROUGH those hardships that I was able to arrive at this point of my life. Seven years ago, something inside me said, “There is no other way but through.” I knew that I would cheat myself if I tried to go around the hard things that were handed to me. I could have retreated to alcohol or drugs myself. I could have shirked my responsibilities to my children with the excuse that life had dealt me more than I could bear. I could have tried to escape in any one of a million ways.
The Apostle Paul wrote that “all things work together for good to those who love God.” A theological view.
Napoleon Hill wrote (many centuries after Paul), “In every adversity there is the seed of an equal or greater opportunity.” An optimistic and practical view.
I am finding that they are both correct. Despite many misgivings and doubts, I am slowly but surely finding it to be so.
This is where I try to live now.
Perhaps I will elaborate on these things in the future. All questions are welcome.
(* whose friendship is invaluable and whose much appreciated bottle of homemade wine accompanied me in the writing of this article.
I need a refill, bro!)