Recently I transferred the rocks from the grotto under one of our wisteria trellises to a raised planter that once housed a large, yellow mum. The idea was to move the rocks out of the line of fire when fall leaves drop and to a spot that would be easier on my knees during spring cleaning.
It turned out to be far more than that. As so often happens in my garden, the task took on special meaning for me – this time unexpectedly deep meaning.
The grotto rocks are not random stones. Some are river rocks from property we once owned on the slopes of Oregon’s Mt. Hood. Some are from our second honeymoon to Arizona. A few are souvenirs of a genealogy excursion to Montana. Some are cut stones handed down from my husband’s grandparents who were rockhounds. I could go on, but you get the idea. The stones mean something to us.
In their new location, I carefully arranged each rock to create a world where tiny gnomes could live in fairy houses and frolic in a petrified forest. A wrought iron hose horse we’ve never mounted became a bridge. An old piece of driftwood my mother brought from the Oregon Coast became the welcoming arch. A string of tiny lights twinkles across it at twilight.
I found joy in this warm-weather project for the same reason setting up my Christmas village makes me happy in winter. The original four buildings that anchor the Christmas village, the evergreen trees, and a set of porcelain carol singers belonged to my father-in-law who passed away in 1992. In the grotto outdoors and in the Christmas town, the building blocks hold memories of places and people I’ve loved.
It’s more than that, though. Creating these little towns allows me to build worlds where I have final say over what happens. In real life, we don’t have that control.
Serendipitously, at the same time I was building the fairy garden, the house my grandmother lived in from 1944 to 1979 came on the market in the Los Angeles harbor town of San Pedro. Even though it’s a tiny cottage far away from my children and grandchildren, if I could afford the asking price, I would be talking to the realtor.
It’s home to me.
I never actually lived with my grandmother, but I spent so much time there that I went to the school nearest her house instead of the one nearest mine. In the back room, I used a set of worn-out children’s blocks to build houses, furnished them with plastic beds and tables, and arranged little Disney figurines here and there. In the narrow living room, I watched cartoons and roller derby. In the kitchen, I watched my grandmother scoop bacon grease into a sizzling hot skillet, ate the eggs she fried, and spread strawberry jam too thick on my toast. The memories are so thick I could eat them, too.
When my grandmother died, I was 24 and had no control over what happened to the house. I was the second youngest of 25 first cousins, but more importantly, all 10 sets of our parents were alive and well and in charge of the situation. As might be expected in such a large family, the house was sold. I not only lost my grandmother. I felt like I lost my connection to home. It’s haunted me for decades and spurred an endless quest for a replacement.
Creating the grotto and fairy garden, thinking of the Christmas village, remembering the houses I made of old blocks, and learning that my grandmother’s house was on the market brought me to a conclusion – one that I hope will finally rid me of recurring nightmares about being lost in a city and not being able to find my way home.
Home is not a place you live. People die. Deeds change. Sometimes walls crumble and gardens go to seed. Families scatter. The only thing that endures, the only thing that doesn’t slip through your fingers, is the memory of love.
Lately I’ve been worried about what will happen to our house when my husband and I are gone. We’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life, and it’s the closest replacement to my grandmother’s home that I’m ever going to get. I imagine our children will decide to sell. The new owners will renovate and perhaps change the landscaping if they think our garden is too much work. My children and grandchildren will not have the joy of returning home, just as I could not return to my grandmother’s home. I wish with all my heart I could spare them that loss.
Today I’m beginning to realize that it doesn’t really matter. As long as our family creates loving memories here, our legacy will endure and our children and grandchildren will always be able to return to this place in their thoughts.
Certainly, they may take some rocks from the grotto, transplant a rosebush into their own yards, and put some of our knick-knacks on display in their living rooms. But those things won’t matter if they don’t also associate the keepsakes with love.
Because here’s what I think could be the answer to my 40-year itch.
Home is not a place you live. Home is where love resides … even if its resting place is only in memory.