When I left my small home town at the tender age of nineteen, I all but tossed a match over my shoulder as I drove that UHaul out of town. I was leaving great friends, people who loved me, and a lifetime of memories, but I was also running from a path of destruction that had just about killed me.
I had spent my whole life there, short of the very first nine months, and it was pretty much all I knew, but I knew that if I stayed, I wouldn’t be able to uncover myself from the rubble of my family’s implosion. The heartache was too big, the damage spread too wide, and the ashes were too thick for my to see past. My dad had moved away and remarried, my mom was dead, and my depression was building a fort around me. I knew that it was impossible to run away from heartache but I knew I needed to start fresh and build something new on new land. I needed a new frontier to forge.
Chuck and I started our life in Texas because it was familiar to the both of us. I had spent at least a quarter of my life in East Texas, visiting my mom’s family, and he had spent his formative years in the Houston suburbs. It was a fresh start for both of us but not in completely new territory. His parents were here and their friends were here, he had some old friends who had stuck around or left and returned as he had. We settled in and started building a life together. We bought a house and had kids, and found our church family. We didn’t make a trip back to my hometown for eight years.
That first trip back was hard for me. I had two babies in tow, we wanted to see friends, and it was our ten-year high school reunion. The ten-year reunion is funny because half of the people have married and started families and the other half are still finding their way in the world – foot loose and fancy-free! We saw old friends, held each other’s babies, and went to Sunday Worship at my old church. We were in and out so fast that it didn’t feel real.
But over the years we started making trips back, not for specific parties or reunions, although those happened, but just to visit. We stayed with friends who had stayed in touch over the years. We would sit on back porches and watch the sun set together as our kids chased lightning bugs across the yard. We hiked trails and boated on the lake and started making new memories on old stomping grounds.
My heart made peace with my hometown and it became a place that welcomed me, evening beckoning me when I spent too much time away. Eventually, I reached a day when I had spent just as many years living away from my hometown as I had spent growing up there, and my heart began to whisper that it was time to make peace with my old house.
I lived in a handful of houses over the years of my youth, but there was one house that held the most memories. There was one house that we moved into as a family when I was only eight years old and didn’t move out of until we weren’t a family anymore. It was the house that was home to hundreds of slumber parties and games of flashlight tag. It was where I cried the first time a boy broke my heart and where every single Homecoming and Prom picture was taken. The yard contained years of live Christmas trees, my mom planted after the ground thawed each year, and we have many pictures of Easter Egg Hunts in the back yard. The road next to the house is where I learned to drive and it’s the house I returned to after leaving the hospital when I had my first car accident. It’s the place I think of when I think of my family and it’s the place where my family disintegrated.
Several years ago, Miranda Lambert released a song called “The House That Built Me.” Every time I heard that song I would sob. I’m not talking about tiny tears to dab from the corner of your eyes. Sob. Like, pull over the car because I’m going to have to go home and redo my makeup sob. Quit listening to country music until this song isn’t played anymore kind of sobbing. At first, I didn’t make the connection. I’m slow like that sometimes.
But after a few years of visiting my hometown and falling in love with it all over again, my heart started to whisper it was time to go walk the yard. We had driven by it over the years but I knew it was time to go back.
I didn’t want to seem like a stalker and, since we have a dear friend who is a State Trooper, I knew the stalker activity would not bode well for me. Instead, we reached out to the family who lives in the house and it turns they are the same family who bought the house from my parents so many years ago. They invited us to come over, pre-warning me that they had changed a few things over the years, which I, of course, knew from the drive-bys.
When we pulled up, and they met us in the drive, they were so kind and welcoming. They immediately began apologizing for the changes they’d made and I, of course, brushed that back. It has been their house for more than twenty years. They’ve raised their family there, building a lifetime of their own memories.
They graciously allowed us to walk the yard, and I was able to show my kids a towering pine tree I had planted when I was in the fourth grade. I had brought it home from an elementary school Arbor Day celebration. My mom helped me plant it, all the while assuring me it would not make it through the winter. But there it stood, strong and tall, defying the odds of almost thirty-five snowy winters.
Most of the yard had changed; they had added a pool and a beautiful deck and the old weeping willow had died. Some of the Christmas Trees hadn’t made it. The corn field behind the house had been turned into a neighborhood of houses holding families making memories of their own. The pasture across the street, where cows had roamed, was also a neighborhood, more proof that life just keeps moving and changing.
After we walked the yard, this sweet couple tenderly invited us to come inside. We enter through the garage, which had been an attached car port when I lived there, and through the entry way I had entered every day as a child. We walked into the family room, sunken from the rest of the house, and saw the long four steps up to the breakfast area and kitchen. Those steps hosted a good deal of slumber party games and dance picture photo ops over the years.
They had changed out the fireplace and hearth from wood burning to gas, something my mom always talked about doing and never got around to in our time there. They had also expanded the kitchen. But for the most part, the bones of my old house were still there.
It felt smaller, which I have learned happens when you grow up and visit childhood memories. And although there were many differences, I still felt the love and grace that had been present over the years. The laughter and joy from my past spilled over to the places of heartache and soothed old wounds. The slicing and gutting of my family falling apart and causing us to sell that house and go our separate ways sealed up. I felt God’s hand on my back, gently caressing me, reminding me that He is bigger than any heartache; He is capable of making beauty from ashes.
When I left my hometown I was still a teenager. I ran as far and as fast as I could, thinking the pain I felt would never allow me to go back. But over the years God has worked in ways I never would have expected. He has been working a healing from the inside out. He has connected my heart and soul with people and places that remind me, every time we connect, of His generosity and grace. God rarely works in ways I would have expected. He rarely does things according to the plans I suggest. But He always surprises me with an over-abundance of joy I never could have seen coming.