Saying goodbye to our house

We said goodbye to our house on Friday, July 10. It wasn’t going to be ours anymore, so we wanted to see it one more time when it still was. We had been saying goodbye in one way or another since we’d gotten back from Mongolia last July. We knew we only had one more year before we would move. That year was full of the “last time” moments: the last end of summer vacation, the last first day of school, the last Halloween, the last Thanksgiving, the last Christmas, the last winter rain, the last spring flowers, the last baby rabbits and squirrels, the last arrival of the orioles, the last early morning coffee on the back patio, the last evening walk, all coming down to the last morning of waking up in our house.

All of those lasts were there from the moment we first moved into the house. I bought it in June 2011 because it seemed to be the thing to do after having sold my parents’ house out in Palm Desert. I had more or less decided to stay in the San Diego area for a while because we had friends there. I had owned a home and five acres of land before in Alachua, Florida, when I was in graduate school there back in the early 1990s. But that was a misadventure with an ex-boyfriend. This was the first house I was buying on my own for my family. I wanted Emma to have a little more stability than she’d had in the first five years of her life. We had moved from the grad student apartment I’d lived in before she was born but had to vacate when she was just over two because I’d finished my PhD. We somewhat illegally sublet someone else’s grad student apartment for the next year, and then moved into a temporary situation with a roommate before I took a last-minute postdoc in Pittsburgh, PA. We left Pittsburgh just before Emma turned four, and stayed in my parents’ house for the summer before spending a year in an apartment near UCSD. The house would be Emma’s seventh home, and I wanted her to be there for a while. It turned out to be ours for nearly nine years when we decided for sure we were going to sell it and move back to Mongolia.

There was a bit of time in between, when it was still ours, but we were getting it ready to be someone else’s. By the time we moved out, the house was nearly empty. It already felt alien. When I’d started getting serious about getting it on the market in May, when we were still clearing it out, I’d arranged to have the interior painted and the carpet replaced. When I first saw the house back in 2011, the interior had been painted a warm, soft light brown, which went beautifully with the dark brown faux hardwood floors in the family and dining rooms, and the white trim. That brown color became the backdrop of our lives in the house. When the painter came, I told him I wanted a similar color but a bit lighter, to make the space look bigger and brighter. He suggested something called “Swiss Coffee,” a color I knew from having my parents’ house painted before selling it back in 2011. I remembered it as being white, but he said that it would make the rooms all look bigger and brighten up the second level of our house, where the family/dining room where we spent most of our time was. It faces west, but the hillside blocks the afternoon sun, so it has always been a bit cave-like.

They painted the house while we were still living in it. The painter and his family came early; they had moved the start day from a Thursday to a Monday because they had finished another job early, or the job had fallen through. It was in the earlier part of the pandemic when things were still shut down and we were trying to stay home and minimize our exposure to other people. Having painters come and go made me nervous, but we couldn’t move into the apartment yet because I had trouble getting the WiFi set up there (the previous tenant hadn’t cancelled her account and it took several tries to get my own service established). We couldn’t be without WiFi because of school (hers and mine). Besides, I was trying to get the house on the market, and the painters had their schedule. It was a family operation; Luis and his wife and some combination of their kids came every day for four days, and then the house was white on the inside.

Emma’s reaction was strong and immediate. Ben wasn’t Ben anymore. (She had named the house Ben when we moved in. She was five. Now, she wishes she’d named it something else, but we when we talk about the house, we call it “Ben.”) I didn’t like it either. I think because we were both used to the brown, the white seemed cold and institutional. It helped us to emotionally distance ourselves from Ben. The day after they finished, we moved out, so we didn’t have to stay in not-Ben very long. After that, I drove back and forth to the house to finish clearing it out, let the carpet installers and cleaners in, take care of the yard, and fill the bird feeders and bird baths. Then the house officially went on the market, and I was spending less and less time there, days going by between visits.

Once, we brought the dogs back up with us. I was worried about how their transition to apartment living would go. They are older dogs, but they are still plenty energetic, and when we lived in the house they would tear through the family/dining room and out into the back yard in a crazy figure-eight, over and over again. In the mornings, they looked forward to bursting through the smallest opening of the sliding glass door to chase the rabbits and squirrels and whoever else was back there, often barking their heads off. In the afternoons, they would lie on the cement walk in the sun, baking. In the apartment, the outdoor space is tiny, a small, shaded patio. There are no patches of sun for them to lie in, except for an hour or so in the late afternoon. There are lizards to chase on our walks, but the dogs are on their leashes, so there’s no more tearing around, except for a bit inside the apartment when they come home from their morning walk.

So, I thought the dogs would love a chance to run around the back yard one more time. Projecting, as we humans always do, my feelings of loss onto them. We drove them up and took them out into the back yard. They walked around, sniffing, looking suspiciously at the now-empty back patio. Didn’t there used to be a table there? I imagined Tito thinking as he gazed at the bare concrete for a long time. They didn’t run. They didn’t chase the birds like they used to. They gave the yard a thorough but dejected sniff-over, and then lay down on the walk for a bit like they used to, waiting for us to take them home or let them back in the house so they could curl up on the sofa that was no longer there. The whole thing left me feeling inexplicably despondent. The next day, Mussolini was in a funk, and I thought he was coming down with something. He had no energy. Emma thought he was depressed from being back at the house. I’d learned my lesson about projecting my feelings onto the dogs, but maybe she was right. We didn’t take the dogs to the house again after that. It was too sad.

By the time it was our turn to say goodbye, we had been in our apartment long enough that it was feeling like home. The closing had dragged out two weeks longer than my realtor and I had hoped for, but it was imminent. Papers had to go back and forth between Carlsbad and North Carolina, where the buyers lived. We all thought that Friday would be the day, so we drove up on Friday morning for the last time. We did a walk-through of the house to make sure there wasn’t anything left inside that we wanted. I could see it as it was when we were still there, full of our stuff and our animals. Our home. I was already blinking away tears by the time I got to the back yard.

The inside was no longer Ben, but the back yard still was. The orange and green rocking chairs we’d sat in during our pandemic spring lunchtimes were gone, as were the hammock we’d tried several times to spend the night in, the tortoise’s dog house, which Emma had painted parts of red once, and the potted milkweed I’d grown for the monarchs (which have gone to some people down the street who love monarchs as much as I do). But the yard was still ours, with its effusive lemon trees, haphazard landscaping, and birdfeeding stations, now sadly empty. (Feeding the birds had been one of my great joys there, but I didn’t always have time to do it, so the empty birdfeeders were nothing unusual. That spring, though, I’d managed to keep the feeders full, ordering bird food online from our local bird food store even when things were shut for the pandemic, so we’d had continuous birdsong from March to May.)

As I looked around, my archaeologist’s eye could see traces of past times. The small circular bare patch where Mr. Tiggywinkle’s water bowl had been. The California desert tortoise we cared for had been responsible for the first modifications to our yard, a low wire fence stretching part way across its middle making a cordoned off rectangle because I wasn’t sure how he’d be with the dogs. Eventually that got taken down as I realized he was intrigued by the dogs and they were slightly scared of him; he would follow Mussolini in particular around the yard whenever he saw him. Tig is living in a friend’s yard now.

A low raised line, a larger bare patch, and a few deep depressions in the lawn mark where our trampoline and our chickens used to be. We had three chickens, Fluffernutter, Fluffkin, and Fluffess, who came from Emma’s first art studio, Carlsbad Art Farm, at the end of one summer. We had them for a while, until it turned out Emma was allergic to chickens and I got tired of taking care of them myself. They also moved in with friends, but I could see the signs of the run we had built for them underneath Emma’s large rectangular trampoline. The deep depressions in the grass were from boards we put down one rainy winter to help us walk back and forth to the coop without going ankle-deep in water and mud. The girls, as I called them, often had the run of the yard when we were home, and I can still picture them running up to me when I came out into the yard to feed them, especially Fluffkin, our big red partridge cochin whose lumbering stride evoked her dinosaur ancestors more clearly to me than any other bird I’d ever seen. But when we weren’t home, they had their coop and the trampoline to protect them from predators, and of course they spent the night locked up tight in the coop. The coyotes sure knew they were there and would sometimes watch them from the hillside, but they never jumped the fence to grab themselves a meal.

The trampoline had been a large part of Emma’s childhood. She had been on it almost every day before we moved to Mongolia, bouncing and playing imaginative games where she was a hunting animal, crouching and then leaping across to catch imaginary prey. We had played a game she called “trampoline tennis,” even though it was nothing like tennis, where she would bounce on the trampoline, catching and throwing a big plastic ball that I then chased around the yard to throw back over the net to her. We had to catch it with only one bounce for it to count as one point, and we eventually played up to 500 points sometimes (which honestly made me die a little inside; it wasn’t my favorite game, though it gave her great pleasure to watch me running after the ball). The trampoline was also a feature in birthday parties and sleepovers for all the years we had it, until after we came home from Mongolia. She no longer went out to bounce while I was making dinner or brought her friends out there when they came to sleep over. When I realized she probably wouldn’t use it anymore, I advertised it on Facebook and helped a former colleague of mine from UCSD take it away for his kids to use. I always felt a little sad that our year in Mongolia had broken off Emma’s relationship with the trampoline, but maybe it would have happened anyway.

The last thing I took out of the back yard was a low wire fence we’d put around the side of the yard towards our neighbors to the south, to establish a neutral zone between our dogs and theirs. They had a Rottweiler and a German shepherd, and when they were out, our dogs would make a beeline for the wooden fence and bark at them through it. With the neutral zone in place, they didn’t do that (though sometimes one of them would get into the neutral zone and bark until once of us went out and got them out). It also gave the rabbits who came under our fence to eat our grass a bit of a buffer when the dogs would chase them and they couldn’t get out under the wooden fence right away. We eventually extended the neutral zone partway across the back of the yard to prevent Mr. Tigglywinkle from digging his way out through the rabbit hole under the bird of paradise bush. We blocked off the hole eventually, but he would dig and dig there. The rabbits and squirrels could go still back and forth through smaller holes under the fence which he couldn’t fit through, but that hole under the bird of paradise was a bigger opening, and he’d gotten stuck in it once.

Looking around that Friday morning, on what I thought was my last day of homeownership, I could see all the traces of these past changes we’d made and adventures we’d had. I remembered Emma going through the gate in the back fence, up onto the hillside with a plastic knife in one fist and a bow in the other, arrows slung in a case across her back, dressed in leopard print from head to toe, off to hunt or ambush bad guys. I heard echoes of joyous laughter from the time she figured out how to set the sprinkler up on the trampoline for a cool and slippery bounce on a hot afternoon. I remembered her mud wallow under the birch tree, both now gone. She’d run the hose and cover herself in mud from head to toe, sometimes playing with her plastic dinosaurs. I’d hose her off afterwards so she could get to the shower without making too much of a mess. I found one of the smallest plastic dinosaurs recently, one of those little monochrome ones we got in sets and gave out as party favors at her dinosaur themed birthday party in first grade. I imagine there may be one or two others, locked in the dirt that will, in enough time, become rock. One spring, the gardener had spread mulch over her mud wallow. She was upset, but declined when I offered to dig the mulch out. Now she says she thought she’d been outgrowing it anyway.

It felt almost anti-climactic to leave the yard, to close the gate for good, get back into the car and head home to the apartment. I was crying, and I’ve cried several times since. Emma said she couldn’t cry; she doesn’t cry much, though she did for a few moments after her eighth grade graduation, and when we drove home from dropping our house rabbits off at the House Rabbit Society for re-adoption back in April. The moment when you finally leave a place for good, especially a place you’ve lived for a long while but even one where you’ve only spent a short time, is a strange one. On the one hand, it is a separation, a tearing away from a part of yourself that will never be physically manifest again, as much as you may recall it in your mind. On the other hand, it’s just a moment in time, one of a seemingly infinite number that pass by as you move closer and closer to the end of your life. Each arrival carries the seeds of a departure. There will always be that last moment in a place, sometime in the future, set from the moment that you first arrive, just as there will always be that last breath drawn, inevitable from the moment you draw your first. I remember my mother once saying, when I had broken up with my first serious boyfriend, that the end of a relationship is like a death. I find it’s true of leaving places as well.

At least our leaving was calm and planned, known well in advance. Unlike so many departures from home that happen amid chaos or unbelievable loss. I still often think of the Hooded Oriole family that lived in the shaggy Mexican fan palm in the corner of the neighbor’s yard, so close to our driveway that people often thought it was my tree and would advise me to chop it down or trim it. I had a dedicated oriole feeder, for jelly and nectar, that I would fill each spring when the orioles would return from their migration south to spend the summer in our area. This year, because we were staying at home, I’d been conscientious about filling the feeder and at one time saw three pairs of orioles feeding from it. One pair stuck around, and I eventually saw them coming and going from the fan palm. They raised one family in it and had started on their second. One morning I stopped to listen to the baby birds as I was getting out of the car, and I watched the parents coming and going, feeding them. At that point, we were already living in the apartment. The next day, I came back to the horror of a bare trunk; the new owners of the house next door had had the tree trimmed, and the baby orioles had gone out with the old fronds. I watched the parents calling and hopping up and down the trunk, searching the crown of the tree, hoping in vain to find their family again. I never saw the female oriole after that morning, but for several days I saw the male return, calling and looking for his lost children. I wept in my side-yard as I watched him, whispering “sorry, sorry” to him as he continued his search, wishing I could give him back his family.

I thought of the orioles again as I drove away from our house for the last time. Later that afternoon, I got a call from my realtor that the house was still mine and would be for the weekend. The pieces of paper that needed to come from North Carolina hadn’t made it to the escrow office in Carlsbad. They were somewhere in between and wouldn’t make it until Monday morning. This wasn’t the last such call from him; the deed wasn’t recorded until Tuesday afternoon, so on that Friday, I still had four days of homeownership ahead of me. But we’d said goodbye to the house, so in my head and heart it was no longer ours, and we didn’t go back. Anything we left there could stay there. We had what we needed with us, including that last bit of time in what is now someone else’s back yard.

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