Saturday, December 25, 2010


They were big people in every way, two corpulent fun-seeking missiles shagging their way up and down the Carolina coasts whenever the mood struck them. They ended their nights at home or on vacation with big sloppy kisses for each other and any friends within grabbing distance as the party broke up, as all good parties must. They loved big food, big drink, big trips on big cruise ships and big, boisterous laughter of a kind that tends to ratchet me straight up a wall. Still I liked them. They were grand, drawn to grand things, and in that way we had something dear in common.

They followed us in a long line of homeowners to care for a graceful gingerbread belle of a house, with a wrap-around porch on a corner lot, a white-painted porch swing, giant oaks to blanket the yard in leaves every fall. Screen doors on three sides, slamming as screen doors should to announce arrivals and departures, barked poetry into cavernous rooms. We couldn't afford to really furnish it, but expanses of hardwood floors, arches and high ceilings were almost enough. Warmly lit at night, it winked promises of a hundred years' worth of treasure tucked into secret nooks under the stairs and oak framing hard and solid as rock.

The house was so inspiring that it evoked its own ritual. In the course of its century on earth, it came to be that a sepia photograph of the family who built it was ceremoniously passed from one heartbroken homeowner to the next. (So far as I can tell, no one has ever wanted to leave it.) The women in the photograph especially stand out, snapped in 1898 laced up in their white turn-of-the-century dresses, silhouetted by a mud yard that had yet to be seeded with grass. The Victorian beauty that would become home towered above them. A shy three-year-old girl gawped at the camera, wide-eyed and surely trying to understand the strange turn of events her life was about to take in her new home.

As the photograph was passed to my young family, and we solemnly swore we would not take it with us should we move on, we were told by the previous owners that they had located and talked with that little girl. She was elderly by then of course, and died by the time we might have had the same chance.

The photograph is forever linked in my mind with November 2, 2004, several houses later. This structure was a funky George Jetson-type contemporary double A-frame, built by an architect in 1959. Slick, jewel-tone purple kitchen cabinets made you want to make sure no one was looking and then lick them, to see if they actually tasted like grape (or black cherry?) lollipop. (I admit it: painting the cabinets glassy black-purple was my George Jetson-ish update.) A long, long length of chain draped a stained-glass lamp from the cathedral ceiling to the kitchen table, splashing shards of Picasso-esque color all over the dining-living room combination. Dark teak flooring gleamed. Once I'd taken an artist friend's excellent advice to "get those damned wool rugs off of there," they made you feel you were walking on Hershey's chocolate bars.

People buy houses for so many sensible reasons, but for me a home has to be worthy of containing a million-and-one dreams. It is my inner world and my refuge. A screen door that does not slam is broken, so far as I am concerned. Yet there, in that house on the eve of November 2 and the morning of November 3, too many of my dreams were shattered  --  so many that something died in me. I wonder as I write if anyone really needs a description of how crushing it was, to have the last vestiges of hope in something as big as America snapped away. To watch as George W. Bush and the Republican machine perpetrated the most astonishing and obvious swindle in U.S. history, in real time. Now, I applaud all those who continue to fight the good fight, and I will always work elbow-to-elbow with them. I am as passionate as ever about the causes I have always held dear. But this old reporter reads little more than headlines to this day in 2010. I smile wanly as my husband and many old friends encourage me into the old heated, passionate debates. The size and audacity of the scams no longer surprise me. I am too deeply aware of both the scores suffering injustice and the utter brokenness of our system. I cover my ears and shout on the inside I know I know I know already. I would very much like to know how it is that others keep their hearts from being slashed to ribbons.

"Oh Judy," a friend said to me once since, with no small amount of disgust for a comrade lost to the depths of despair. "We'd seen stuff like that before. And we'll see it again."

All true. I can only explain it this way:

Faith in my government I lost a long, long time ago. That night, I lost faith in my people.

Therein lies the rub.

*  *  *

I was plenty old enough to have had soul-killing lessons stack up over the years, preceding that heinous miscarriage of justice late in 2004. Years before, for example, I'd learned that the big-living people who bought our grand and gracious old house were not there anymore. They had not wanted to leave any more than we did, but their reasons were far sadder than ours. We moved when it became entirely too obvious that the house could not contain our growing family. By comparison, death eventually left the next woman of the house a widow too soon. She sold in quick desperation at a bitter price because she had to.

As she told me the story on the street one day some months later, still in the throes of grief, I thought of something that might give her a moment's happiness.

"What did the new homeowners say when you gave them the photograph?" I asked.

She smiled as if to thank me for the memory.

"Oh, I kept it. I just couldn't give it up."

I don't remember what year I heard that the little sepia girl in a time-yellowed pinafore and leather, lace-up boots, who lived at one address for a hundred years, had been unceremoniously stripped of her purpose. I do remember the election of 2004 all too well. The feeling I get is precisely the same in either case.