Friday, February 18, 2011

A Tour of the House that Was...

      When we left for work Wed. morning, there was a house next door. When we came home - there wasn't.  The entire lot had been swept clean - no fence, no Crepe Myrtle tree, no rose bush, no shed, no storage building, no carport - no house. Just wide open space, a cracked concrete drive leading no where and fresh dirt brought in to make the yard even with the drive.
     But the memories were still there; both good and bad.  And certainly, there was no lack of either.  For the first 15 years of our marriage, a retired preacher, Cecil, lived there with his second wife, Thelma.  After we had our son, Cecil became "Pap-aw" and Thelma became "Granny" and they certainly lived up to their names!
     As I think about them, memories speed by.  Coming home from the hospital with our newborn son  and going straight to their house so that Thelma and Cecil could see him.  It was the first of many visits our child would make over there.  In fact, it was in their living room that David took his first steps. And it was there that he learned to wrestle with Pap-aw. Cecil had heart disease and diabetes and couldn't get down on the floor so he would pull David into his recliner and that's where they would "arm-wrastle".  It was a toss-up as to who enjoyed it the most.
    Thelma was a fanatic about cleanliness.  When David was still just an infant, she decided their old carpet had to go. I told her the carpet they had was just fine for when David started crawling; she insisted that the decision to get new flooring had nothing to do with the baby but we all knew that wasn't true.
    She also cooked for us.  Sometimes I would come home worn out and she would greet me with the words, "Come on over! I've got something for you!"  The "something" would turn out to be an entire meal cooked from scratch.  David grew up loving her homemade sweet pickles and her PBJ sandwiches - which he begged her to teach me how to "cook"...:( 
    But I guess the main memory I have is of going over about 8 in the evening to say "good-night". By this time, Cecil had moved to Heaven and Thelma was alone. So every day after school, DAvid and I would go over to check on Thelma and almost every evening, we would go over to give her a good-night hug.  As we approached the house, I would see her through the window. She would almost always be sitting in her recliner,  large print Bible open on her lap, reading.  She had had to drop out of school after the third grade in order to  work in the cotton fields so reading was tough work for her.  Yet every night, before retiring, she would move her finger across the printed page while her lips silently "sounded out" the words. I read all the time but never with the discipline and devotion that she applied to the task.  
     All things come to an end.   In  2001 she had to sell the house so that she could move closer to her daughter and to this day, I still miss her. 
     In the summer of 2001, a middle-aged man and his 19-year-old daughter moved next door. She was expecting her first child and about to be married, a really beautiful girl who was excited about the changes in her life.  She had her son in January and by May, she had abandoned her husband and her baby in order to run off with a drug-dealer.
   From the summer of 2002 until Feb. 2010, this girl cycled in and out of her father's house and we soon learned to dread her appearance next door and I'm not kidding. She never came alone and she never came without first wearing out her welcome elsewhere.  I can't ever remember a time when she or her current boyfriend weren't wanted by the police. And somehow, though it seemed impossible, she always managed to find a worse boyfriend than the one before.
   Now, the house next door was characterized by traffic coming and going  24/7, by police raids, by violence, and eventually by prostitution as the daughter descended deeper and deeper into drug use and eventually had to ply the streets of our area in order to pay for her "highs".  Over the years, the utilities were constantly being turned on and off and during the times when they were off, we were routinely asked for water, for the use of our phone, and even for electricity -during one bitterly cold snap my husband ran an extension cord over to their house so that they could run an electric heater.  Eventually, whenever I went to Sam's Club, I bought some extra food and water for them.  What else could we do?  I couldn't see them starve and Phil couldn't see them freeze so there we were.
   And then there were the times when father and daughter would abandon the place temporarily and the girl's "friends-turned-enemies" would break into the house and as the dad would later lament "clean him out".  Phil and I lost track of the times the door was kicked in one summer. The dad would come by long enough to assess the damage and put the door back up but nothing stopped the thieves from coming, even when it seemed there couldn't be anything left to steal.  Finally, when they pulled the copper tubing out of the place, they were done and the dad moved back in with his daughter not too far behind him.
    And then there was the trash.  A yard that hadn't been mowed  in forever - grass knee high.  Broken furniture, dishes, debris spilling out of the back door into the backyard.  Unbelievable.
    And then a year ago in Feb., we came home to find about 10 emergency vehicles blocking our road while various agencies were mopping up a sting operation.  They netted three meth labs and one homemade bomb. The daughter had just been released from  prison a few weeks before all this came down.  Where she went after the drug bust, we have no idea.  We just know that we were so grateful that A) our house didn't get blown up. (The police said the house contained enough combustible materials to blow up our entire street) and B) that the city took over the property.
    When it was put on a list of condemned houses and slated to be torn down, we felt nothing but relief. Then the construction workers came out this past Saturday to gather whatever salvageable material they could before beginning the demolition.  There wasn't much to salvage - basically the siding and the  carport roof and that was it. But to us, it was a signal that the beginning of the end of an era was finally here.
     Once we knew it would be a matter of mere days before the house disappeared, we both had mixed feelings about wanting to go inside it one more time. It had been years since we'd walked in the living room and somehow, I kept seeing David taking his first steps from the coffee table to the couch.  The construction people had said we could go in - that they had already been through the house and didn't want anything in it -  but we weren't sure if it was the right thing to do or not.  When it was still standing Tuesday evening, we decided we'd try it.
     All I can say is that Thomas Wolfe was  right..  you can't go home again.  Once inside, even though we thought we knew  what to expect, we really didn't.  We expected trash everywhere but hoped some remnant of Cecil and Thelma would somehow remain.  What we encountered was the complete physical and moral wreckage of what could scarcely be called  human lives. We didn't linger.
      There were however, two things that caught our attention. The first were plastic looms that had belonged to Cecil.  He had ordered them through the mail and used them to make place mats.  Unbelievably enough, after all these years, they were still hanging on the wall where he always kept them. I still have the place mats he made for us and now I have the looms as well. They probably cost about 20.00 all told and I may never figure out how to use them., but inexplicably, I'm glad to have them.
    The only other object that  stood out was an old photo album.  It had pictures of a little red-headed girl, first as an infant, then as a toddler,  then as an elementary student, and finally as an adolescent.  It was clearly the  girl next door, taking milk from a bottle, holding a fishing pole with a fish dangling from it, playing on a swing, and then  looking like she was decked out for her first prom. I thought her dad might want it - although the chances are remote that we'll ever see him again.
    I don't know how things can go so wrong.  Sometimes as a teacher, when I think of the wasted life that once lived beside us, I just want to shake students who joke about drug usage. Even more to the point, I want to bring them over here and take them on a tour of the house that was. Or show them a slideshow of a red-headed baby morphing over the years into a burned-out shell of a person before the age of thirty.
   But I can't. Right now, all I can say is that surely all drug dealers smell of fire and brimstone.
   Obviously,  the razing of the house next door has evoked some powerful memories - memories that have never been far from my mind this entire week.  Like taking a mental tour of Heaven and then of Hell.   I don't want to forget the love, laughter and blessings that flowed from Thelma and Cecil.  
    And I don't think I can forget the girl who lived next door and the mess that became her life. I don't think I have that luxury.