The central character in a cherished worn and tea-stained children’s book I still own is a cheerful orphan. Befriending younger children coming to the orphanage after their young lives implode, the little girl is kind and generous with her heart. The child is good too, eating all her vegetables and meat without complaint before wiping her dishes clean. But in the evenings, when the ten-year-old child should be studying, instead, she sits on the window ledge in her attic bedroom looking past the orphanage’s black wrought-iron gates and flintstone orchard wall.
Her daydreaming spirals into an obsession until one day. The good girl resolves to see the other side of hunger. On her ascent, she scrapes her knees on the flinty stone before scrambling down the plump apple tree branches.
Curious, the child follows a grassy path through the woods, only to find an abandoned cottage. The girl sneaks through the orchard through the seasons and climbs the wall to visit her cottage each day. She pulls weeds and plants the flowers she buys with her pocket money, sweeps the creaking wood floors, and washes the windows in the room with walls made of seashells. The child, Mandy, has found the object of her desire – four walls she can call her own — nursing a private ache that she does not share with anyone, a longing she, herself, barely understands.
The first time I read the book, Mandy, I was on an airplane with my mother flying the well-worn path of my childhood from London to Chicago, finishing the last page as the sky lightened, and the plane began its heady descent into America. At the time, I was not an orphan like the central character though I think I was “the good girl” as a child, eating my meat and vegetables and diligently finishing my homework on time.
Maybe I was even a good friend to others before friendships became situational, often connected with jobs skating the surface like an early frost before history and loss began to chip away at my heart.
The book I first read on an airplane, worn from years of love and desolation, is one I sometimes reread when something triggers the acute hunger I have never learned to satiate. I keep this hunger close and do not tell those around me that after all these years, I am still looking for a place that truly belongs to me, one where I might finally banish the “ghost of belonging” from my cellular memory.
Like my fictitious heroine, I always wanted a house. A house of my own, not one owned by a relative. Not an apartment or a duplex either. Not a communal house shared in college with roommates I do not remember.
My late-blooming transformation between ‘worst home occupier/renter on the planet’ to tidy, organized, ‘borderline OCD homeowner’ materialized the day the ink of my signature on the purchase papers had barely dried.
I bought my first house at the age of forty-four and six months after my multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Unlike Mandy, I hired window washers and fumigators, painters, and stone workers to cleanse a house that may have been ours but one that still housed the previous owner’s remnants everywhere. Still, I scrubbed every bookshelf and kitchen counter, bought a new refrigerator and freezer, and labeled every spice container in the spice drawer.
When I cleared my mother’s apartment, I was reminded that she kept her clutter out of public view.
My mother’s hallway between the front door and the bedrooms was lined with floor-to-ceiling closets, each shelf, every inch of the floor locked in a war for space. In the ‘office supply’ end of the far closest opposite, my adolescent bedroom stacks of envelopes of every size leaned precariously. Inside, I found battery stashes and dozens of unopened scotch tape rolls, post-it note packages of every size and color packed into a cardboard box with the Union Jack on its lid. Paper clips and file folders, white and yellow padded envelopes, tubes of brightly colored Christmas paper scattered with images of scarf-clad penguins and bow-tied teddy bears, bags of bows, my mother saved for a day that will never come.
The home my mother had created gave her sanctuary from her memories of my father’s blind, war-induced rages, her loss of England, and the foundation for a new life. I plucked random objects infused with invisible memory: objects I lived with through high school and college. Still, others that my mother added later, ones that appeared during the years, I tried to put my own life in order, others where no memory resonated for me. In her absence, the once familiar vase or salt savor I held was strange to me as if instead, my hand stroked an unfamiliar object like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of loss away. Now, I was the one left behind to salvage an unfinished life.
In hindsight, I recognize that my false, manic transformation, obsessed with order in our new house, was misplaced grief. Grief over my mother’s death. Grief over my diagnosis.
In my past, apartments and houses were simply an address, a place to sleep, a refuge to lament another broken relationship; these structures were not places to make plans or dream of possibility.
Even the address of our house was promising on the first day I stepped over the threshold. Eldorado. The Lost City of Gold, the city of the Muisca chief who covered himself in gold dust and became king. The mythology of Muisca represents energy constituting creative power. Place. All that I have sought, to find a place of belonging, a place of meaning, a place of sanctuary.