Here is the final version, after my teacher helped me edit it. Subtle differences, but important.

Letter to My Children on the Importance of Home
5 June 2009

The day we moved into our new home it was gray and cold. It was December after all. My eyes caressed the bare walls, empty cupboards, and plywood floors. Home: our first, owned-home. OURS. For our family. Forever.

Though you had moved only once in your lives, moving was a familiar experience for me. Before I was twenty I had lived in twenty-two places, two of them accounting for more than half my life. I lived in the middle of the peanut fields of South Carolina, that’s where my brother was born. I was almost two. For a time, in an apartment in San Antonio, that’s where the little redheaded girl stole my Fisher-Price “camera.” I was three. Our family lived in a house next to the freeway on a military base, and then in a big house on the waters of Eld Inlet. I was four and five. We lived just north of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in military housing one street south of the schoolyard. I turned six then seven. We lived on the boardwalk at Buckroe Beach for a month when we first got to Virginia (with the transient people, the poor permanent residents, the elderly denizens, and the occasional tourist), and then the house in Denbigh, an old, proud name, though for a new neighborhood: and I was eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen.

When the family moved “home,” back to the enlarged cabin on the shore of what was once called č̓əƛ̓əɫiw̓qʷ , emerging from the rock, stuck to the land, clinging like limpets, it wasn’t my home, though I had a room with a view of the water and I got to pick the wallpaper. It was too different from the city I had lived in for so long and knew better than the back of my hand. I didn’t know the mud anymore, didn’t know the birds and the strange red squirrels that were so much more standoffish than the cheeky gray squirrels of the East. It took a long time to start liking the wet, wild place with the hills on the other side of the highway, to understand the insistent independence of the people, so proud to survive, to thrive. It took a long time to start to fit in.

Then I was an adult, and adults, especially young adults, have to move around: for college; for jobs; for marriage; to make money and save money and hope the bills don’t get run up too high because someday it would be nice to sleep the whole night through without drunken neighbors waking you up as they try to get your door open with their key. Wouldn’t it be nice if the children had some place to play outside where you didn’t have to be right there with them all the time?

Nothing felt permanent. Nothing was “home.” Until that day in December 1999.

I don’t suppose you remember the long drives we used to take, searching. Searching, desperate to find a little piece of land to settle on. To build a dry, snug house with room to grow up in, with a yard to play in, and maybe a little creek nearby to watch the tadpoles in. To get away from rented cottages with mice, and rented apartments with mildew, the only homes you had known; all in a ten-mile radius of that house that clung to the rocky beach.

On that day in December, when the inspector signed off on the occupancy certificate, I was home. You were home. Really and truly home. HOME.

He asked if I wanted him to wait to sign the paperwork, because the skirting wasn’t complete around the house, but I was clear that I would trust this contractor and yes, if he would sign I would be so grateful. “Yes,” I was thinking, “Just sign it. Make it possible for us to bring our bed, and the children’s beds, and their toys and our books, and a few pots and pans in the kitchen. Make it possible for us to live here, to settle in and stay. We’ll finish the little things later.”

Already we had spent three months working on the house, working in the yard. First tiptoeing around the carpenters as they knit the two halves together, climbing up on ladders as they pounded together our house. At first just sitting in this room or that, learning the way the light moved through day, reflecting the bare earth outside and the wide clear path to the road. “No privacy,” I thought. So I sat, revising the plans for the garden, started the day we learned the dimensions of the land, envisioning a living a screen between the house and the eyes of neighbors.

I could see into the future: one year, three years, ten. I saw the first fruit trees going in, and blueberry bushes. We had to have blueberries. But where? Perhaps that low spot by the road? We wanted a vegetable garden, we were used to fresh vegetables. You children loved picking fresh food and munching on it while I worked, and I wanted flowers. I drew in color on the plans: red for roses; blue for iris; green for the fruit trees. I bought clover and, to please convention, grass seed. We spread both right away, knowing the first rains would help them grow and send down roots, holding what soil was left behind the construction trucks. We would start with what is, and move to what can be.

It’s a small house on a small lot, only one acre. A house of three bedrooms, four if you count the office, but we don’t so the tax man doesn’t either; and two bathrooms. Just big enough elbow room for four people, if they don’t stretch too often, and a dog or two, a bird, a turtle. Enough room for the creatures that accompany us, if we don’t need all the corners for books.

The house feels smaller sometimes, in the middle of winter, in the long wet cold months when the frogs sleep in their dens of mud and the gulls cry long and lonely, when the flowers dream of summer; in those months the house feels small. But in the summer when we throw open the doors and the windows in the morning and again in the evening to catch the cooler breezes, when the kids and the dogs can run in and out, out and in, all day long. Then the house feels big enough and I sweep out the dust and watch it swirl away and turn to my reading or writing or painting, and I hum under my breath or sing out loud. Why not? My songs are bright and sunny then, too.

It’s the yard that makes it a proper home for our family: an acre, give or take; a slice of land of third-growth that sits well back from the road. It was just a jumble of bog-weeds and marsh trees, the first time we saw it: willows mostly and behind them alders and behind them maples and behind them cedars, western red cedars, strong and bold. Two, three, eight, ten at least, and a Douglas fir or five. Did you know the people who were here before the Europeans called all trees Douglas fir? There was so much of it around then.

It took three men three days to clear the land, if I remember right, and longer than that to haul the logs out and get the well in. Once the well was approved, we had the house site leveled off and the gravel driveway put in so the cement pumper could get in and lay the foundation. The septic installers came and ran their cat back and forth — in the wrong direction, I pointed out, but they knew better than some “city woman,” and when they were done the inspector came back and told them to do it the way I had told them the first time.

When the contractor poured the concrete, not in just the right place and then left town, we had to hire another contractor for the same amount of money to fix the problems. I guess he did his best, though the house doesn’t sit as low as I wanted, so we walk up and down steps all the time to go from the living in the house to the living in the yard. Just as well, it gives a more majestic view as the yard sweeps away toward the road in front and away toward the neighbor’s cow field in the back. I rather like being “the house on the hill.”

The day the house arrived on wheels, almost too long to make the turn into the driveway, we were so excited. It was a sunny day, and warm, in September. We took you out of school so you could be here to see the pieces put in place. You were patient, so excited to know your room was going to go right there, and you stood on the slab, looking at the view you thought you would have and pointing out the features of all the forts and tree houses you would build.

A year later you got your fort. I worked for months on a special project to earn the money to buy the parts, and your father and grandfather and some friends all worked with us to put it together. You wielded hammers, too, learning how to avoid mashing your hands. It had two slides: one yellow from the neighbors whose own children were all grown up and a green slide with different curves to it. We put them side by side so you kids could race down them, brothers playing together. There were two steering wheels, set on different levels so you could each command your own vehicles. It had a climbing net and a rope, and a ladder that I used sometimes to come up and have lemonade and cookies with you as we surveyed your domain in the backyard.

I guess you didn’t mind too much the higgledy-piggledy nature of the back yard, left as wild as we could after the well was drilled and the wellhouse put in. It gave you plenty of spaces to hide, and to seek.

We put the rabbit hutch behind the wellhouse and it worked well enough until the rabbits died. They could look out at the big pile of left-over logs and stumps, scraps too big for a regular compost pile but too small or too old or too punky to use for anything. We left it there in the middle of the back yard, a thirteen-eight-five-three-two foot pile of debris that the nettles and the trailing blackberries love.

Someday soon it will be richest soil in the yard, full of life and ready for new trees because it is rich from the cedars and the alders, and the bigleaf maple. Red huckleberries will grow up on the tops of the stumps and trillium will recolonize that spot. Just you wait: By the time I have grandchildren that will be a magical place. I will have a little screened-in gazebo for us to serve cold juice on hot summer afternoons when the mosquitoes from the back yard come up from the leaf mould, with a chiminea or a little fire pit to keep us warm if we want to be out later when the cold starts to come back with the fog. That will be a while yet.

For now, it is enough that the other trees shelter everything. The thirty-year-old, 14-foot tall red huckleberry near the back fence, and the Oregon-grape and the hollies, stand watch from the safety of the shade and keep track of the seasons. I don’t know if the hollies are native or not, I like to pretend they are anyway. There are ferns on the maple trees that cling to the bark and start off the end of spring, bright and lively but by mid-August hang limp and brittle as if they may never perk again. Still, come the first rains in October, there they are waving gaily as we run the last few outdoor chairs under cover.

All winter long while we huddle inside, dashing from the car to the door, or playing outside with the dog in the breaks between the rain squalls, the yard waits. The plants green up again, bathed daily in the gentle showers. I prune and shape the fruit trees and the shrubs near the house, hoping to not cut too much, though like a haircut, I know they’ll grow back if I cut more than I intended. The flowers, safe in their bulbs/corms/tubers/seeds, wait for warmer weather to signal their release, and hope the voles and other burrowing creatures don’t find them too attractive. I have lost dozens of dahlias to the nibbling tendencies of our underground neighbors.

Every winter, branches come down in the woods, crushing the Oregon-grape or the red huckleberries, or the large sword ferns that serve as groundcover in places. They always seem to recover though, and by the end of the next summer the branches have been overtaken by the plants again. Wild geraniums, foxgloves, vanilla-leaf, salal, salmonberry and thimbleberry, and some sort of Heuchera-looking plant, but native, they have all found their places in the yard, under the trees and at the margins. The back yard looks like an undiscovered fairyland.

I haven’t decided which type of Mahonia we have, they don’t seem tall enough, after ten years and more, to be aquifolia, but are they repens or nervosa? One of these days I shall have to decide, as I suppose one of these days I shall try the grape in a jam. We certainly have plenty. In the meantime, their bright yellow blooms in late spring, and subtle berries later in summer and fall, create waves of color under the cedars.

The Vaccinium parvifolia grow more slowly, becoming lacier with the passing years. It has been several years since they bore well, so we haven’t had red huckleberry pies in a while, but when they do, we get a couple good pies from our own bushes. Otherwise, we harvest the trailing blackberries that coat the lawn and blueberries from the abandoned bog down the road, and that does well enough for us.

So we watch the seasons cycle through. The gardening season starts as soon as I have seen enough sunshine to feel it’s worth trying to put a few potatoes and seeds in the ground. Some years that’s March, some years it’s June. I try to time it for after the last frost, and before it gets too hot. Planting, watering, putting fencing up around the plants the deer love or spraying my “secret concoction” of rotten eggs and chili peppers and garlic on the leaves as repellent.

The harvest season always comes too soon: first the plum tree ripens, and then the peas and beans; strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, the tall blackberries (the native ones are ripe earlier); pears, apples; finally potatoes, carrots, turnips. Suddenly there are too many tasks for the time we have: harvest, freeze-can-cook-give away, replant. Then in a moment the summer ends, and though the warm weather lingers briefly as we watch the winter squash slowly ripen (there is no hurry to harvest, they are fine until first frost kills the stems), already the nights are longer and chill, and the mornings have that misty dewy feeling that prompts us to relight the furnace. School starts up, and rehearsals for one activity or another, and the concert season begins and visits back and forth with friends, suspended in the heat of August, resume.

All year long, for ten years, I have watched you here, watched you come up the driveway after school, or after a bike ride or a walk, or a canoe paddle in the inlet. I have watched you dig, climb, construct, mow, run, whittle, play and dream. You play alone, or with each other, and sometimes with friends. You sit and read in the shade, or pitch a tent in the back and get a little more space between the two of you.

All year long, for ten years, we have worked on the house, fixed spots in the yard, let places in the yard go. We scrub the picnic table as soon as it looks like the rain is gone, getting it ready for the new eating-outside season. The plastic chairs, with their patina of moss and lichen get a once-over too, so they don’t get your grandparents’ clothes dirty. We clean and repaint the front steps and do our best washing the front door – it never quite comes clean any more. Still, with a few flowers and the light left on, it’s welcoming.

All year long: as you retreat to your room for privacy or in anger, slamming the door or leaving it ajar in invitation; as you join the family in board games at the kitchen table; as we sit and watch one silly movie or another in the living room (three on the sofa, one in a chair). All year long, this house gives us space to spread out or come together.

All year long: as we sweep the floors, open and shut the shades to let the sun in or keep it out; as we mow the lawns, pick flowers and fruit; as we shovel snow and scrutinize seed catalogs while we try to keep the dog entertained without going outside in the rain. All year long we make this home.

All year long.

All year long, and every day, this home is growing on us. We are growing in this home. It will be ours – all year long, and for many years to come.

We are home.


After this house burned and was replaced, I added a short essay for the new home after we had lived in it for a while. Letter to my home on the importance of children.