I lived on my own for the first time during my freshman year in college, occupying a two bedroom apartment in a not-so-great area of town near campus. (I have huge regrets about not living in the dorm that first year, but that’s for another post). I was so ready to start my life away from my parents, away from my father, away from my past struggles, away from the things that I felt defined me. I had no idea that so much more was ahead of me that I was not equipped to deal with. The shaky foundation of my family proved to be poor preparation for the next stage of my life. I had no idea.
Everything I saw ahead of me for college and especially that first year fell apart within the first semester. I was already dating the man I was certain I was going to marry, that I had met just before the end of my senior year in high school. He was also my first love, my first real relationship. It was innocent and burdened-- lovely and flawed. Looking back, we never stood a chance because I had no idea who I really was or why I had so little faith in myself. I had not yet begun to define or heal the wounds that were taking a little more of my happiness every day. I had planned on a lifetime with him. We didn’t make it to Christmas.
Having been an honors student in high school, I thought I would repeat that success in college. I never worried about my academic abilities, and had no idea how emotionally trying it would be to sit in a huge lecture hall of hundreds of students I didn’t know, trying to figure out where I fit in and why nothing seemed to make sense. The weight of it all was smothering me. Nothing I thought I could depend on was lasting or working out. It all fell apart so fast.
I wasn’t equipped to deal with such independent choices, a serious relationship, or living on my own, and I certainly wasn’t equipped to deal with losing it all in a matter of months. All the things I had looked forward to, the things I had banked on that were my light at the end of the tunnel, were mirages. At the beginning of my life as I saw it, I had lost everything.
The worst part was that people judged me so harshly. I was viewed as this unstable girl who fell apart after her boyfriend left her. In part, that was true. It became a joke in the circles I had traveled in, my classmates. I was laughable, ridiculous. I will never, ever forget how that felt. I was so confused and felt so alone. The words others said, many of them people that I had come to regard as close friends, still ring in my ears at times of doubt, this many years away from all of that.
I am sure it was a foreign thing as a young person who had grown up in a stable, supportive family to watch someone like me disintegrate…or worse, seem fine one day and a wreck the next. We were so young. No one is supposed to be wise and enveloped in the capability to see the big picture and the real reason behind such things. I know all of that now, but it still hurt and took me so long to understand. I had a few close friends during college, one I had known in high school, another I made during my freshman year that were the exceptions and somehow had that wisdom. I am forever in their debt for the support they gave me during that first year and the years after at that time in my life.
When I go back in time in my mind, or when I reread a journal page as I am rearranging a bookcase, in the same way a song or a scent can transport me back to a singular moment…the place I lived during that first year in college is as clear to me as the four walls I am looking at now. I can see the marked, scuffed wooden floors, the metal blinds that made constant noise when I had the windows open, the bathroom with the black and white checked tile that crawled up the walls, the two small steps that led into the kitchen from the backdoor that I must have walked up and down a thousand times. The pink phone that hung on the wall in the hallway, and the countless nights I sat in the floor just below it, twirling the cord in my fingers, talking to close friends that I missed desperately who were far away at other campuses. The pieces of furniture that a teacher and friend gave me to help me make my start in the world. The way the sheer curtains in my bedroom blew in the breeze at night and floated above me as I laid awake.
I cannot believe the perfect still pictures I have in my mind of that little apartment that was nothing extraordinary, except that it was a beginning for me, and a place that honestly, to this day, brings a physical pain when I think back.
I started a tradition then, quite by accident. When I was moving out of that apartment once my lease was up, I had just finished putting the last small items in my car. I had cleaned and scrubbed and was taking one last walk through to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten any detail or left anything behind. I remember it was getting dark and I just kind of froze. I remembered that a year before, I had walked through this empty apartment in such a different place in my life. I was full of hope, so ready for the next chapter. I was so excited about every doorknob and window screen because they were mine. Now, as I stood in the hallway, I started to cry, to really weep, over all that I had lost. Over all that had transpired in one year of my life. I lingered in every room and made a note to remember all the happy things, the first moments of the life I had imagined, the despair I felt and the tears I cried in those rooms. It was such a huge thing for me to lose that first relationship, and I said goodbye to more than just a rented apartment, I said goodbye to a huge part of my innocence and hope.
I stood in my bedroom, next to shadowy marks on the floor left behind by my brass bed. I said one simple last goodbye, walked out the door, turned the key for the last time and took a deep breath. I made a decision right then to try and leave all that sadness locked in that place. To let it stay there and somehow suffocate in the tightly closed rooms, with nowhere to escape. It was silly and dramatic, but it helped that young, lost woman that I was put one painful chapter behind her.
Without ever planning it, I followed that same ritual everywhere I lived after that. After everything was cleaned and packed, when the sound of my footsteps echoed in empty rooms, I would take that final walk through and really remember everything- the good, the bad, the minutes and moments—all of it. I would do my best to say—That was me—here. That’s done. Onto the next place in my life.
The only place I didn’t do that was my childhood home. I was so ready to fly away when I left—and there was plenty to want to fly away from. Maybe it was because I knew I could come back to that house from time to time, but even when my parents announced they were selling the house and moving to another state, I had no desire to go and say goodbye. Maybe that was a mistake, because there are things that I still haven’t made peace with. Maybe I needed to shut it all away in the rooms of that house like I did the other places I lived later in life.
Today, a picture caught my attention on Pinterest, and I clicked through to find the story of this piece of a house in the middle of a field that had intrigued me. A woman had mourned the necessary loss of her childhood home, and all the dreams she had tied to it. The house, along with other buildings on the farm, had to be burned down for safety issues after years of deterioration. In the ashes, she remembered how she, as a child, was certain she would return to this house to raise her own children. Her memories moved her to erect a monument of sorts in the same spot where the house once stood. I so connected with her relationship to a place, a home, and the hope that grew inside it.
We all walk through the rooms of the places we have lived in one way or another I guess. The places we have lived become a part of who we are, what we were, and what we remember.
As I sit here tonight in a home that I know is filled with love, I have found the hope I had when I first walked through the halls of that tiny apartment in North Carolina in 1988. I could have never known how many years it would take to get back to that place of hope. Every place I have lived, every address change, every risk, heartbreak, and choice has led me here.
I am finally home.
Please visit the site for "If We Lived Here" and Paula Rebsom’s work by clicking the photo below, which inspired this blog post.