The garden of my new house, my rental house, surprises me each day: bleeding heart, tiger lilies, lungwort, coreopsis. Unpredictable, because this is not my home backyard, and when I say home, I mean the house I spent the last fifteen years in, tearing down faux-Victorian wallpaper and painting sunnier colors. That backyard was often filled with desultory weeds, persistent mosquitoes, and the combined poop of two Labrador retrievers. My ex-husband and I were lazy about landscaping, preferring travel over staying put, or lounging in a lawn chair with a book over earnest tending. We had spurts of homeowner energy: ten garbage bags of weeds and brush, another of dog poop, mossy rocks scrubbed, swingset de-spider webbed in under an hour. Then nothing for weeks. Even though the yard was the size of a postage stamp, it was overwhelming (in upkeep) and underwhelming (effort + time did not = results). One of our great tricks was to dump massive amounts of mulch over everything every few months to hide the forsaken landscape.At my rental house, because there are no dogs, a rabbit frequently hops around the yard to the great delight of the kids who have named it Stacy. And there are cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, and hummingbirds that fly in low and peck around in the grass. Landscaping and maintenance? Hired help descends weekly to mow the lawn, pull weeds, and trim bushes into manicured shapes. But as marvelous as these surprises are, I am still struck dumb every day by the fact that I am not home. I don’t actually mean the physical structure of my former house, but home—a place, a space that is meaningful, that allows for stability and shared mutual purpose. Because this is a rental house, everything feels transitory. I’m afraid of leaving my imprint on the space as my landlords would deduct the damage from my deposit. Nothing feels like mine and everything feels like not mine. I go out for a run or walk and often have to remind myself that this house is coming up in the middle of the block. Or put my key in the lock and am astonished that it opens.
I live here and yet, I don’t because everything is impermanent. Am I even creating present memories? In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes about home being a space for dreaming. The only dreams I remember have to do with my previous, wedded life and I am awake half the night anyway, my gut gnawing at itself with anxiety over where my life is headed. Do my kids, who live here every other week with me, consider this their half-time home? Or is it more like a bed-and-breakfast, a place to stay, with me, until they return home to their father? Of course, they reassure me that they love it here: there is the long, double-lot yard where they can play Nerf gun war with their friends, and they love taking evening walks around the new neighborhood—it is serene compared to the traffic that rings their other home, and then, I have central A/C which means they no longer have to sweat through the nights.But do they long for here when they are back there? Which gets at the real question: do they long for me when they are gone every other week? Because I always considered myself inextricably home for them, as they are for me. Which is why everything feels transient: I don’t have a partner to call home anymore. On the weeks without my kids, when I walk from the garage to the house, I feel overcome by emptiness—there’s no one waiting inside to welcome me back. On these summer evenings, when the light is long and late, I often am eager for the dark, and bed, and Ambien. And then I remember to lighten up; it’s summer!—I no longer have to shovel three feet of snow from the sidewalk each morning nor walk through the snow tunnel in the backyard. So I take my dinner outside (yes, usually a lame bowl of cereal-for-one) and sit in the lawn chair, watching the birds, and the rosy sky and remembering that the life that is coming back to me may surprise me yet.