Monday, January 1, 2018

A Home's Heart

A Home's Heart
By Michael Cannata     

           The face on the old house looked as sad and weary as any face on any person I had ever seen. Its roof sagged and the eves slumped under the weight of the years that had passed since it was built. It leaned tiredly to the left, supported by a tree not much older than itself; as though it had lost the strength and will to stand straight on its own.

            Like a frail, elderly person, once young, strong and vibrant, its frame now looked brittle and weak. The weathered siding had lost its color and the hue of the paint that had brightened its facade when it was new had long since faded away. Its exterior was covered with the blotches and blemishes of old age. What little color was left in the peeling paint was washed and faded. The layers of paint and varnish had cracked and flaked like dry skin.

            I stood and looked at it with curious wonder. I had walked these woods many times as a boy. The land was the vast acreage set behind my grandparent's home where I'd visited often when I was young. My grandparents were always wary of me getting lost, so I wasn't allowed to wander past the range of their voice. I loved to explore the forest and imagine myself a pioneer blazing a trail to worlds unknown, but I'd never wandered this deep when I was young and thus had never seen it before.

            After they had passed away, their small country retreat had been left to me. It'd been years since I'd last visited. I'd forgotten how much I loved the place. After taking stock of their house and property, I decided to take a long walk in the woods to reacquaint myself. It was late autumn, the leaves were still filled with color and the golden sun was slowly sinking. It was a reflection of the sun off one of the remaining windows that made its way through the heavy trees and caught my eye that led to the discovery of the old house.

            The aura of its past was immediate and powerful. I was overwhelmed by melancholy as I noted its dreary and sorrowful condition. It wasn't large, but it was a home that had obviously been used by more than one person. It was a family home... or at least had been long ago.

            In the low branches of the old tree were the remnants of a child's tree house. A single length of frayed rope that still hung from a thick arm of the tree with a board attached was evidence of a swing that had once been a child's plaything. Without knowing how, I was sure there had been more than one child who had played in the arms and shade of that tree.

            Abandoned long ago, years of disrepair and abuse from the elements had taken its toll. A few intact panes of glass in the empty windows were all that was left to hold back nature and its relentless assault. There was no sign of a road leading to the house. The path, if there had ever been one, had long since been reclaimed by the moss and plants that covered the forest floor.

            I found myself wondering about the old house and its mysterious history. My grandparents had never mentioned it, although the land had been in their family since before my grandfather was born. They'd lived on the property for almost 60 years. Who had lived there? When had it become empty and left to its fate in the woods? Why? What had become of the children that had played on the swing and in the tree house? Where had they gone to once they were grown enough to move on?

            I walked carefully up the porch stairs. The steps groaned and creaked as they held my weight. There was no door and so, cautiously and warily, I entered the house; certain that I was the first to do so in many, many years. Expecting it to be chilly, I found myself experiencing a feeling both warm and welcome, as though the house was glad to finally have someone to shelter once again. I imagined I could hear the sounds of the family that had lived there echo through its rooms and halls.

            Odd pieces of furnishings and debris littered the floors. The walls that had once been covered with bright paper by now had lost their color and patterns. There was a fireplace in the largest room and the mantle, while slumped and crooked was still there. On it was a single picture in an old frame. It held a black and white photograph that had no date. It looked to have been taken in the days just before or during the great depression. There was something unusual in its appearance but I wasn't able to say just what it was at first.

            I walked over and took the picture off the mantle. It was a picture of three people, a family. There was a woman and two small boys. The boys were smiling broadly and looking into the camera. The woman looked in the direction of the camera, but her eyes seemed to be focused on whoever was behind it. Her hand was raised slightly in a demure wave and her smile was one of shyness; as though she was happy, but uncomfortable being the subject of the camera's lens.

            The house behind her was new, straight and strong looking. It sported a fresh coat of paint, but I couldn't tell the color other than to note it was light and the sun was bright upon it. The flowers that lined the porch were in bloom. Everyone looked like they had just come home after a special family day. Someone, the missing father perhaps, wanted to capture their happiness so it could be shared with loved ones forever.

            It was the kind of photo that would have been the first thing packed away with cherished mementoes if the family had moved away willingly. Leaving it behind just didn't seem right somehow. It was a moment captured so clearly and lovingly that you could feel the love and warmth of the happiness their faces held. It wasn't a house they were in front of... it was a home... their home. It was where they belonged and where they would spend their lives together.

            And now they were gone. The decaying frame was just an empty, lonely house abandoned by the family it sheltered so long ago. Left alone for reasons unknown, never to become a home again.

            As I stared at the picture a voice, carried on whispering winds, seemed to echo through the trees. It sounded like my grandmother's voice did when she would call me home as I played outside. The sun had reached the horizon. The long shadows were the sign I always used to tell me when it was time to go home. The voice seemed to reach through the trees as it did when I was a child. Once again I felt the familiar need to go back to my home. I started to take the picture with me, intending to keep it as a treasure. I had taken one last look before tucking it away in my jacket when I realized what it was that made the picture so strange.

            The house and its rooms and floors were all weathered and covered with the dust and dirt of long time accumulation. The glass in the windows and the mirror over the mantle were dark with dirt and grime. Mysteriously, the picture frame and the glass were as clean as if I had just cleaned and polished it. The spot it had stood on the mantle was free of dust and the paint under it was still bright around the frame's outline. The photo in the frame was still bright with no sign of fading. It looked as though it was taken yesterday. The signs of passing time were everywhere in the house, except on the picture.

            It was as though, while the house and everything around it had grown old, the picture and the moment it captured hadn't aged a day. It was a moment that would never grow old and as long as it stayed where it belonged. Safe and sheltered in the home that shared the memory, it would never be forgotten.

            I suddenly understood, if I took the picture with me, the house would quickly fall and be lost forever. The picture would soon be stored away by me and the moment would be over and forsaken. The picture, the moment and the love it captured was the heart that had turned the house into a home. It was what had been holding the old house together. It was the source of the welcoming warmth I felt when I entered it. It was the love between the home and the family that gave it power. It belonged there... it belonged to the home.

            The family had never left the home. Time had taken them in its course. The family had started in the home. It had ended there as well. For them there was only one house... one home. For the home, there had only been that one family. The picture hadn't been forgotten. It had been left where it belonged; in the heart of the home that they had loved and that had loved them.

            I placed the picture back in its precious place on the mantle and left the house. I paused at the door and looked back at the picture. A shaft of setting sunlight came through a window and landed on it. Startled, it was suddenly obvious to me who the woman was looking at beyond the camera... she was looking at me.

            Her hand was waving at me with a mixture of thanks and well wishes. Thanking me for respecting her home and its heart. Her wave was the gesture that she would have used to welcome me to her home, as well as bid me goodbye. I felt foolish, but I waved in return before leaving. I headed home again feeling both confusion and comfort. I felt as though, while I would never meet them, I would also never forget them.

            I had found new friends who had shared a special secret with me. The house and I, along with the family, had forged a bond across time itself. I resolved to never disturb the home or the grounds again. I would let it stand until time itself took it away. I wouldn't try to find the people in the picture. I would never know who they were, but I knew where they were. They were alive still in the heart and soul of the old house. Still a part of the love it had shared with them.

            They were where they belonged. In the heart of their home.

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