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Good Grief: The House

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This guy talks first. He's got the build of an armchair a few generations of guys have sat in to watch football. He's talking about Mother's Day, taking flowers to the grave and then all the kids and their mate's and the grandkids went back to the house to eat and hang out.

The house. Those words rise high and grand, swing up in the air.

"Over to the house."

"Let's go back to the house."

"Come around the house." The House. Iconic words. The big house we dream we'll have when we have kids. Mom will have the baby, and you'll drive her up to "The House." You'll see your kids learn to ride their bikes in the driveway, and then you'll watch your kids going out for their own first drive.

The house is the achievement, the place you'll raise the kids and it will be passed on down with all your stories. The house is the first storybook. Each room a chapter, a character, in fact, growing, changing, inhabited by dreams, phobias, demons, and visions. You can track every step you ever took in the house and what it meant to you: the light under the door in your mom's room at night -- was she reading or hugging with dad? Grandma's gentle cough, could you hear the sound of the knitting needles or did you imagine that? You can still hear the soft slip/slap/bob of her slippers on the carpet.

The house, the apex of the dream to own a piece of land, to have the house where family meets, where you have Christmas, Passover and Thanksgiving. There are also chairs; Grandpa's chair will be his forever -- even when he's long gone. The love seat in the sitting room is where you saw your older cousin kissing his girlfriend with his hand -- what? Really? Not there! That room in the house will come up every time you get close.

The house is substantial; it will be there forever. As long as the house remains, the ghosts we are here to reference will find comfort, even as we also find that comfort on our own visits.

Another guy, a slender sweet-faced man, who lost his wife a while ago, is already having dates. Friends (and even his kids) tell him about nice women who will take care of him. I am not that nice woman. Not any nice woman. It is coming on stronger to me that I am meant to be doing what I am, and that if I continue to do it well I will not be lonely.

But there is no The House. We did have one growing up in LA. I never dreamed it would not be there. When I hear "the house," I see the Tudor mansion on the ivy-covered crest on Marlboro Street.

The house is the classic American symbol for security, for mom's arms, for dad's firm grasp as he lifts you down off that high branch on the olive tree in the back yard, easier to climb than the one in the center of the small flagstone circle set in the courtyard. That was a cherished place to watch famous people arrive, or to sit and imagine this was our Mayflower, the great branches sail, billowing high above us in the wind.

The house is the refuge -- opening its arms to the grieving. How I missed the house we had. I wanted to be taking you back there, unable to tell you we no longer had the house. Easier to tell you your heart was gone. Your legs no longer worked, you could barely speak, but you kept on breathing, until you understood and you stopped asking me to take you home.

Our own house on Wimpole Street, like Scarlett's Tara, has become a legendary house. So too, the house in Little Women, and dozens of ranch houses raw and lean as Clint Eastwood's jaw. After grief group, I drive past Arts and Craft bungalows and Grand Victorian realms for sagas to play out; we always need a place for the big emotions to gather, hold each other, filled with all the bustle and lust of family secrets, burdens, charms and follies, of envies and thwarted dreams, trusts fulfilled and betrayed. The house holds it all in wonderfully for each new generation to gather, to feel the tribal pulse; a unique treasure, this place for the campfire gatherings to celebrate the latest lost soul.

The house. I sat in grief even more for our own family's loss of the central arena than for you, for your family. I wanted somewhere to go, to gather, to say, "come over to the house and we'll talk." We do not have the house. But we do have the stories to tell, the memories of each room, each particularly interesting cigarette holder or sherry decanter, the photographs and my mother's paintings. Perhaps not having the house makes it bigger, more real, and gives it the resonance of history to be studied and characterized by the next generation of our family's writers or artists.

I am, in fact, the house. I can serve you the brisket, the artichokes, the roast potatoes, the ice cream and crunchy apple pies, and tell you who was sitting there, why the garnet silk cord on that striped Empire chair is frayed on the left side. You'll learn who did that. Come over.