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A house left behind, a good home life remembered

By Rex Huppke, Tribune Content Agency on

So I went home.

I wasn't sure why, exactly, but I went there, to the west-central Florida neighborhood where I grew up, back to the winding roads hugging a lake that once seemed like an ocean, past the ranch houses that went up in the 1960s and haven't changed much since.

I parked in front of the house -- my house. It was still white and burgundy, though the white walls looked dirty and the white-shingled roof was almost black with mold. The trees that flanked the end of the driveway, ones my dad and I planted ages ago, were still there, huge now.

It had been about a decade since I last saw that place. And for most of that decade, I had no desire to see it again.

You see, that house and I didn't end on the best of terms.

Growing up, it was a happy home, a sanctuary. I spent hours underneath an orange tree in the backyard, sniffing the sweet-smelling leaves. I'd crawl up a ladder and onto the roof to soak in the sunshine. I'd tromp barefoot through the garage and feel sawdust from my dad's woodworking under my feet.

I eventually left for college and started my own life, but I always came back to that house. I knew every corner, every step -- could close my eyes no matter where I was and walk through the living room, through the brown swinging doors to the family room, down the short hall to my bedroom and hear the hum of the air-conditioning unit outside my window.

But things changed.

Most family's narratives take a sharp twist or two, often in undesirable directions. Mine was no different and, when those twists came, they came hard; and I found myself back in that house, helping two of the people I loved most in this world sell off their belongings and leave the place behind, an empty shell.

There was no joy left in that house. It had fallen into disrepair and chaos. It felt dead, and I was angry. Angry that I couldn't control the narrative. Angry that there was nothing left to do but leave and drive off in the Florida heat.

I didn't look back. I said, "To hell with that place," and I buried it and moved on.

Until last week, when I went home.

I honestly don't know why I went there. It wasn't something I looked forward to -- quite the opposite. Even the night before I left, my wife was asking if I was sure I wanted to go.

"Yeah," I said. "I need to."

Since my dad died in June, I've wrestled an odd mix of grief and vivid, wonderful memories, darkness and light, sometimes one right after the other.

Dad loved that old house. I was in Florida on vacation anyway, so I felt compelled to take a look at what dad called "the old stomping grounds." I owe it to him, I told myself. I guess I couldn't admit it was me who needed to return.

My mom went with me. We stared at the house for a bit then drove down to the lake, to the swampy inlet where I used to fish. I remembered days when little mattered.

I followed the road through the development, turning right, left, right, right and left again and winding up at the house where my best friend used to live. I drove on muscle memory along the path my bike had carried me hundreds of times.

I retraced a miles-long walk a friend and I took one steaming hot day as kids, an adventure that marked the farthest either of us had ever strayed from home.

I saw the neighborhood pool, still glistening in the sun, and remembered jumping into my dad's arms, and the taste of chlorine and mom wrapping me in a towel when we were done.

And on the winding drive back to the old house from there, I remembered the rhythm of the turns, how even if I was dozing in the backseat of the car, I always knew when we were getting close to home.

Home.

I didn't think I would ever be there again. I had left it dead, and in my anger over life taking turns I didn't like, I buried a treasure of memories under a pile of sorrow and spite.

Maybe that's why I went back. Maybe after losing my dad I was searching for something to make me feel whole again.

It helped. I'd recommend it.

We're all going to lose control of some part of our lives at some point. We're all going to get angry and bury things.

But maybe, after time passes, we're better off digging them up again.

As I stared at the aging, white-and-burgundy ranch house, I noticed the sloping driveway. As a teenager, I would run at night, looping through the neighborhood and finishing back at the base of our driveway, sweaty and exhausted. I'd lay down on that slope and look up at the stars, feeling the day's heat radiating up from the concrete.

Then I'd go inside, my mom and dad would be there, and I'd be happy.

I had forgotten that feeling.

It felt good to remember.

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(Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a noted hypocrisy enthusiast. You can email him at rhuppke@tribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @RexHuppke.)

 

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