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  • On Leaving by Rebecca Brewster Stevenson
    This is a repost. I wrote it in July of 2007 after our last visit to 1126 Carroll Lane in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, the house where my in-laws blended their families of sons when my husband was sixteen years old.
    I fell in love with my husband there in April of 1988. We brought our babies there for holidays and summer vacations. Our children honed their swimming skills in that pool and they sledded down that driveway.
    I wrote this to help myself understand my sadness when they sold the house, and I’m reposting it today as I reflect again– after a weekend visit to these in-laws who still live in Hermitage– on what place means and how we become attached to it.
    I get very attached to some places. Maybe you do, too.

    ***

    It’s easy to miss the driveway at 1126. Unlike all the other houses in the neighborhood, whose short driveways lead to houses not far from the street, the house at 1126 is invisible from the road. The driveway sits close to a neighboring driveway on one side and a house on the other and is made of gravel. One might mistake it for an unpaved throughway or simply not see it at all. Trees and houses both obscure it; it’s easy to drive by.

    Bill (Sr.) told us that once he saw a young girl standing at the top of the driveway, straddling her bike and looking toward the house. He asked if he could help her at all.

    “I’m just looking,” she told him. “I used to live here,” she said.

    “You’re welcome to ride down and look at the house,” Bill told her.

    But she didn’t want to do it. She stood there and looked for awhile, down the gravel driveway with the trees at both sides, and watched where it curved around the house. And then she rode away.

     

    The house itself sits in a private hollow, or on a leveled space along a slope, and it’s surrounded by trees. There are houses all around the house, but they’re separated by space and trees, so the sense of privacy seems absolute. In the summer, you have a hard time seeing it from the roads on the far side of the woods.

     

    It’s a big piece of property, I guess. I’ve never thought about how big. But Bill and Carolyn have left many trees while cultivating lawn and garden too. The property extends beyond the initial tree-formed margin: two paths cut through a little wood and open out onto another stretch of lawn. Here they used to have a vegetable garden. Here blackberry bushes and a peach tree are part of the woods’ edge. And down the hill a little ways stands a cluster of blueberry bushes. Every summer we lift the net and pull the berries into a basket. I don’t know how many pies I’ve made from those berries. This photo is from 2005. It had rained on us while we picked.

    I first visited this house in late April, 1988. I had just joined a college singing group, of which Bill Stevenson (the younger) was a member, and he invited the group to the house for a sleepover. He gave me and some others a tour and told us that his father and stepmother had bought the house a few years before when they married and blended their families in a kind of My Three Sons meets The Brady Bunch. With seven sons between them, Bill (Senior) and Carolyn had a full house.

    Once, sitting at the bar at Quaker Steak and Lube Bill and I talked with the bartender. She and Bill discovered a shared

    acquaintance or something. They had graduated from the same high school. And when she realized who Bill was, she asked if his parents still lived at 1126 Carroll Lane. It seemed her family had lived there once upon a time. He told her they did.

    “I’m so jealous,” she said. “I’ve always loved that house. I was so mad when my parents sold it. I’ve always wanted to buy it back.”

    I’ve been to that house more times than I could count now. I know I spent much of 1988’s Christmas break there. After our wedding in 1990, we drove up to the house from Pittsburgh to celebrate with more of Bill and Carolyn’s friends. For three years after we were married, we lived half an hour away, and random visits were common. Ever the consummate host and hostess, Bill and Carolyn have encouraged us to invite our friends to their house for pool parties in the summer. We’ve usually hosted the Richardses or the Liptaks or both every summer, and one year had a party with them and many other friends from college. Here’s Emma and her friend Claire Richards, whose father Adam was a classmate of Bill.

    If I took the time to think it through, I might be able to calculate how many Christmases we’ve spent there. With the exception of last year, we’ve visited them there every summer for the last thirteen years, while also making occasional visits in May or October.

    Bill (Sr) told me that the man who designed and built this house died not long ago. He had sold the house years and years before and yet, toward the end of his life, kept telling people he wanted to go home. He already was home, he was told. But he didn’t mean “home” to be the place where he lived at that time. He meant 1126 Carroll Lane, Hermitage.

    Why, and how, do we get attached to places? It isn’t the place that matters, is it? It’s the people. It’s absolutely the people. So what difference does place make? Of what concern is the angle of the driveway, or of the light as it comes in the afternoons through the trees? What does it matter that this is the floor plan, with the bedrooms just here, and the windows this way so that, when you sit on this sofa on a winter afternoon and your children are napping and it begins to snow, you feel suddenly surrounded by the snow on all sides, and you put your book down and just watch it slowly cover all the rhododendrons?

    The sound of a bluejay’s cry will be the same from the lawn of another house. The wind will simply rustle the leaves of different trees. But we won’t be there to watch the bats swoop over the pool when it’s lit up at night, or to watch the birds at their feeder through the kitchen sink window.

    Before we left the house for the last time on Saturday, I made my way around the yard and found a thing or two to press in my notebook. Among them, the leaf of an evergreen that Bill Sr. planted in honor of my graduation from college, and a few blossoms of Queen Anne’s lace that I picked on my walk that morning.

    It’s strange to me, despite my thirty-seven odd years, despite my own sense of practicality, and intelligence, and reason, the things we can and cannot keep.

     

 

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About author
Rebecca Brewster Stevenson
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I was born in California, spent two years of my childhood in Japan, and grew up in Pittsburgh. While Long Island’s North Fork, home to my maternal grandparents and parents, will always be my second home, I have lived most of my adult life in Durham, North Carolina, where my husband and I have raised our three children.

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“Most powerfully, Stevenson links the physical to the spiritual, letting Maddie’s breast cancer open her to a spiritual journey, letting the veneration of the Eucharist open space for understanding illness, letting love for the mortal body open space for love of the divine. A gorgeous meditation on broken bodies, fractured faith, and the soul-wrenching path to serenity.”

–Kirkus Reviews