I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing
Out there it’s like I’m someone else
I thought that maybe I could find myself
If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
Won’t take nothing but a memory
from the house that built me
2nd verse and chorus of “The House That Built Me” by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin
If there is an entry in the dictionary for artful songwriting, “The House That Built Me” should be one of a very short list of examples. It’s a close to a perfect song as I’ve heard. The line from the second verse that says “plans were drawn and concrete poured, nail by nail and board by board; Daddy gave life to Momma’s dreams” is practically perfect. I overheard a Nashville songwriter I respect tremendously say that it was a master class for songwriters.
As do most great songs, it covers universal themes in fresh ways that just about anybody can understand and feel. So of course, when I heard the song for the first time, animated images played through my mind like an 8mm home movie. Only these images didn’t tell the story from the song, instead they told my story.
The house that built me was on Kendall Circle in Gulfport, Ms and like much of the town that built me; Katrina didn’t mind her manners and leave it in better shape than when she found it. In July of 2005, just a few weeks before she made landfall, I went back to Gulfport for a high school reunion. Since my parents moved away in the early 90s, this was my first visit in over a decade to what will forever be known as ‘my hometown’. Of course, I took advantage of the time to retrace many of my steps. In addition to driving by the schools, visiting the tennis club where I spent many summers working and attending the church I grew up in, I drove by (more than a few times) ‘our’ house.
Of course it was so different than the house I remember. It was so much smaller in life than it was in memory. How did our family of six fit in it? At some point, someone painted it a shade of green that I didn’t particularly care for. The little sapling I remember watching my Dad plant in the front yard was shockingly at it’s full grown towering height. The odds of that tree surviving our family weren’t good considering some sport savvy neighborhood kid figured out that it not only was the obvious place for first base on our imaginary baseball field that spanned 3 front yards but you could also run halfway to 2nd without ever ‘letting go’ of first.
As I sat in my car hoping no one was calling the police with my rental cars’ license plate numbers, the memories flooded in. Memories of family holidays and weeknight meals, and friends spending the night, of floral wallpaper and a pink and purple bathroom and my Mamma’s beautiful back yard that was conveniently catty cornered to ours.
As I looked around the block, I mentally revisited afternoons catching crawdads and tadpoles in the ditch behind the house that will be forever ‘the Smith’s” in my mind even though they’d moved from the street long before we did. I remembered listening to “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” on the jukebox in Mrs. Hydes art studio, and playing at the Frazier’s, Myricks, or Carraway’s houses, tennis in Amy’s driveway and watching Mr. Ward work on his antique light fixtures in his backyard shop. The previously mentioned baseball field morphed into a football and soccer pitch depending on the season and there was an ever changing group of neighborhood kids and their friends engaged in the sport du jour after school. I could almost watch my pre-teen bicycling self furiously peddling down the drive early on adventurous summer mornings only to return me home minutes after the sun went down hoping I wouldn’t be in trouble.
Lest I be tempted to rewrite history, I should tell you life in our house on Kendall Circle wasn’t perfect. Maybe that’s too obvious to say since I already mentioned that 6 very different but related human beings and any number of additional friends occupied that modestly sized space regularly. The house was home to not just a few shouting matches, bouts with illnesses like chicken pox, the mysterious throat disease and many post-operative recoveries were made there. We grieved for grandparents and family pets in those walls and lived through the many dramas life throws at a family over the course of more than a decade. Every memory wasn’t happy but they all made that house ours.
A month or so later I drove through the neighborhood for the third time in over a decade with my Dad as we surveyed Katrina’s handiwork. You see, Gulfport was also the town that built him. After we toured in silence the almost unrecognizable neighborhood I grew up in, we drove down to old Gulfport and the neighborhoods he grew up in. As we drove through the devastated streets, I imagine his own home movies were playing in his mind as he would point to houses and say that’s the house so and so lived in. Of course, what he meant to say was that’s the lot where there used to be a house that used to house a family that he knew.
I’d already been back a few weeks before on a ‘pitch in and help’ trip so I was prepared for the enormous piles of debris, the empty lots, the houses moved into the middle of the street. I could point out that just because the house on Kendall Circle looked OK from the outside, if you looked into the windows, you could see that it was oddly lit on the inside because you could see through to the back yard. Only then could you notice the interior walls were just studs. It was hard to watch him take it all in.
As we made our way down Courthouse Road and (illegally) onto 2nd st and then onto Hwy 90, it seemed like we’d seen the worst but neither of us was prepared for the site of the church that built me and the downtown library that lay decimated across the street. All the storm left behind of the church were steel beams, the northern walls, shards of stained glass and ruined choir music. She took the pews and the organ and pipes and the pulpit and communion table. At first it felt like she took everything from those buildings that had meaning to me. But after the 2nd time walking around the rubble, I realized I was wrong. What mattered to me was still there.
Memories quickly came to life of choir practices and my first terrified and shaky solo performances, of Sunday School teachers, and ministers, Vacation Bible Schools and Wednesday night dinners, of walking the aisle and being baptized at the same time as my sister by Dr. Keith. The library was still the site of weekly trips with my Mamma and Pappa because they knew how much I loved reading and where they always let me throw a coin into the koi ponds and make big wishes.
I am thankful that memories that make up a life aren’t damaged by hurricane force winds and water or even tidal waves.
I am thankful for music and for songs that bring life back to faded memories.
But more than that, I’m thankful for the many moments spent with people who made my life richer and who helped me discover who I wanted to be when I grew up.