“Everything can be taken from us but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
- Victor E. Frank
The day finally came last Friday to let go of our homestead in Sumter County. The 11 acre plot my family had carved out of a dense forest - now in the process of actively reclaiming much of that land – and the home we had built in its midst was signed over to new owners.
The white concrete block home my best friend’s father designed and built is now empty. It awaits carpenters who will remodel the interior and the refinishers who will return the honey colored hardwood floors, now hiding beneath carpet faded with age and spotted by spills and accidents long forgotten, to their once lustrous glory.
The yard, with its banks of azaleas under sprawling live oak trees, awaits the attention of those have the time and energy to tend it once again, beginning with the removal of the remaining debris from last year’s hurricane.
Irma, whose weakened but still potent eye came very close to Bushnell, was particularly cruel to this magical place, leaving downed trees and utility lines. It took my Brother and I four hours with a chain saw to reopen the block long entrance road to the house last fall, all the while holding our breath regarding the soundness of a house whose insurance had expired the same week as my Father.
Miraculously, the house was untouched.
The seven acres surrounding the maintained yard, once the home of cattle I fed each morning before school and the occasional deer who leapt barbed wire fences to visit at sunrise, awaits clearing once again. Perhaps black Angus cows with names like Snowball and Blackie will once again roam the fenced acres behind our family home.
My Mother is Smiling…
This day came at the end of a long, drawn out process of readying the property for sale. Photos and books had departed by the handfuls, then bags full, many of them now occupying the floor of my home in Orlando. Food beyond expiration date went into dumpsters while the pots and pans in which it would have been prepared ended up at the Salvation Army. The furniture was divided up among the three of us, some of it going to my two siblings, the remainder going to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and the local Hope Ministries which will provide them to the many needy families in the area.
I know my Mother is smiling knowing her beloved furniture is going to help others. It was she who taught us that poverty was no shame and that if we were able to help others in need, we had an obligation to do so.
My Father’s genealogy materials now lie in piles in my living room, office and library. They await time for me to list their titles to check with the local library to see if any of them are materials the library doesn’t already have and thus can find a new home there. And then there are the tons of photographs going back into the mid-19th CE awaiting sorting and cataloguing into the family histories I am working on for my siblings. I can see my Father nodding his head in approval as I undertake this work to preserve the family memories he had assembled of which I am now curator.
A Warmth That Remained
Thursday was my last day alone at the house. I came over from Orlando early in the morning before the heat of the day to say my goodbyes. I walked through my beloved yard taking photos with my new Nikon camera to remember the place.
Of course, the photos can’t capture the symphony of birds I once took for granted every morning, the chorus of frogs and crickets who signaled the setting of the sun each evening, the smell of rain coming in dark gray clouds scudding across the western horizon, storms rumbling into Sumter County full of thunder and lightning fresh off the Gulf of Mexico. They also don’t convey the sound of mosquitos, emboldened by the rain from the night before, buzzing in my ear, the burning of the stinging nettle on my bare legs or the sweat dripping down my forehead from the ungodly humidity even this early in the morning.
I carried a shovel along with my camera. Here and there I found the last few plants I wanted to dig up and bring to my home; azaleas which rooted themselves from low hanging branches, shrimp plants emerging from the dead stems of last spring’s surprise freeze, lilies spreading into the centipede grass lawn from beds around Japanese magnolias and bottlebrush trees. I didn’t take all of any given plant, always leaving behind the main plant for the new owner, taking only babies and offshoots. They will join the hundreds of shrubs, trees, bulbs and ground covers that have already been assembled in my beloved jungle in the heart of Orlando, piece by piece.
As I walk through our empty home one last time, the sound of my own footsteps on wooden floors is like a knife through the heart. In bedrooms that once contained twin beds of active teenage boys, they echo off walls once adorned with posters of Jimi Hendrix and Hair, reverberating with the sounds of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarkesville,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Marakesh Express” and “Magic Carpet Ride” of Steppenwolf.
The kitchen from which once emerged incredible smells - my Mother’s pot roast and lasagna, our Nanny Henrietta’s peppery pork chops and collard greens with sweet pot liquor - now empty. Cabinet doors and kitchen drawers stand ajar revealing that they are bare, their yellowed shelf paper now in the dumpster out front. In the adjoining room, the sounds of family gatherings around the dining room table have grown faint, dying away.
But not yet completely gone.
At the closing, the wife of our purchaser, spoke about what had sold her on the place. She said she had been ambivalent about the purchase at first until she came and sat with the three of us in our living room to discuss it. She could see the family portrait over my Dad’s chair, the beautiful view of the woods out the picture window in the living room that my Mother insisted be part of the house plans. But more importantly, she said she could just feel the warmth of the family that had occupied this place and the woods surrounding it.
And thereafter she was sold. And so was our homestead.
An Unbroken Circle Finished in Beauty
Just before the closing, knowing we were leaving behind our family homestead for the last time, my Brother’s wife took some final photos of the three of us in front of the house and under the branches of our beloved 300-year-old Grandfather Tree. Then, I called my Brother, his wife, Ruthie, and my Sister to stand together in a circle, joining hands. After observing some silence, I invited each of us to offer their goodbyes to this place. Not surprisingly, all of them came in the form of prayers.
We thanked G-d for the good fortune to have been born into an extraordinary family, full of love and talent, who deeply loved and engaged the world and one another. We thanked the land for its sheer beauty and the many things it had taught us. We thanked all the animals who had been our companions there and the sheltering trees who offered us places to play as children and rest as adults. Finally we thanked the house for its lessons in hospitality to us and to all the many people who had come to visit us over the many years
When we finished speaking, I led the four of us in a chorus by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was a sappy little tune popular in my childhood but it has always spoken to my soul of the deep connectedness of all living beings. The four of us lifted our voices and sang:
Will the Circle
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye.
There’s a better place awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky.
To conclude our goodbyes, I offered the gift given to me by the Native American parishioners whose wisdom nurtured me into priesthood in my parish in San Jose, CA so many years ago. I thanked all my relations for their many gifts, concluding with the final words of the Blessing Way of the Navajo:
It is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty. Amen.
And then it was time to go to the closing.
Damp Eyes Around the Room
I imagine most people don’t cry at closings of real estate transactions. Generally these are electric scenes of excited new owners looking forward to owning their own homes and grateful sellers ready to let go of property they no longer need or can maintain.
This day all three of sellers had a difficult time maintaining our composure as we signed the closing documents transferring our family homestead to the new family. My sister wept openly as she signed each document and passed it back to the closing agent.
Fortunately, I had done my crying earlier. Those many long, hard evenings in our home over the year and a half when I was cleaning it out for sale had provided me a lot of time alone to grieve. It also provided the opportunity to mourn both parents whose presence was so palpable in what had been our family home. And as has always been the case since I was a young boy, rejected by a small town that never fully accepted me, the woods I loved so dearly readily comforted me in my grief.
It was gratifying that almost everyone at the closing had learned to drive from my Father at the local high school. Most had known my gracious Mother as well. They knew what that springtime riot of azaleas in bloom in front of that house looks like. And so they knew how hard it was for us to let go of our nearly 60 years in that place.
Truth be told, ours were not the only damp eyes in the room.
Finally the moment had come. With tears brimming in my eyes, I signed away the title to this land in which 56 years of my life was invested. The time had come to let go. Amidst the sadness, I felt a sense of relief that my obligations as oldest child, the family lawyer and executor of the estate, had now been fulfilled.
I Never Thought I’d Miss It….
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
- Robert Frost
On the long drive back to Orlando that night, I found myself musing at my strange sense of somehow being homeless with the sale of our homestead. I remembered my initial feelings of shock and apprehension when we came to that little town in 1960, a first grader from an urban center suddenly transplanted to the middle of farm country, a place with a history of massacres in the Seminole War, a land of rattle snakes, floods and wild hurricanes. I smiled as I remembered wondering that first night how long we would have to stay there.
Little did I know.
Then my thoughts fast forwarded to the day I graduated high school 11 years later, only too happy to leave that little town for college, never to permanently reside there again. I remember my relief, my excitement about my new life which lay outside its bounds and my sense that I was finally free.
In all honesty, I never thought I’d miss it.
Yet, even as the little town was never fully home for me, it offered me many lessons along the way to adulthood including some values that I cherish to this day. But it was the woods we cleared and the house we had built for us in its midst that always spoke to me of home. No matter where else I lived, that was the place that in my deepest doubts I knew I could always come for solace. And it was the place that in my greatest moments of accomplishment I always came to celebrate.
At an everyday level, the sale of a home is simply a real estate transfer. From the completely materialist perspective of a consumer society, that’s all it was. But for the three of us, it was clearly something much deeper. I let go of a chunk of my soul last Friday. And I suspect the same was true for my two siblings.
A New Home Already Brimming With Happy Memories
Popular culture would have it that “home is where the heart is.” Fortunately, last Friday night I had a wonderful home in the heart of Orlando awaiting me at the end of that long ride home.
Like our family homestead, our Orlando home, New Coverleigh (Coverston + Moberleigh, Andy’s ancient family name) is a place we had to clear before a wonderful home could be rebuilt in its midst. It also was redeemed from a hurricane’s wrath, its now fully grown trees and shrubs coaxed and babied to emerge from stumps left behind by debris clearing bobcats.
This, too, is a magical place, this corner lot in the heart of a city within view of a beautiful urban park surrounding a lake, this jungle crammed with plants and trees from all over the world, many transplanted from our former homestead in Bushnell. And though we have only lived here 23 years, four of them in exile watching our house being rebuilt from Hurricane Charley, it now is the place that I can call home.
It is a place already brimming with happy memories of gatherings of family of birth and family of choice. And it is the place that houses cherished relics of a family homestead which now exists only in our memories. There is much sweat equity and life energy invested in this new place called home. And a whole lot of love.
This night, for all of these memories and for the gift of this new place called home, I am deeply, deeply grateful. Truly, this chapter of my life has now been finished in beauty.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2018