Pretty White Up-and-Down House

(from The Palm Beach Post)

My friend, Sue, has a pretty home with an enviable garden on Singer Island. But she often speaks nostalgically about her 5-acre, 6-stable “farmette” in Illinois, where she lived years ago with her big dogs and her much-loved horses.

And my neighbor, Andi, remembers a Tudor Place apartment in Manhattan that she owned before moving to West Palm Beach. It looked out onto private parks and was only a short stroll away from the United Nations.

Thoughts of my life before Florida invariably lead to a Southern California house where I lived for 11 years in the ’70s and ’80s. Both the two-story colonial and the roomy hillside back yard had steps and stairs every­where.

It’s been a long time since I used those stairs to get to the basement, to the bedrooms, or to the back yard. Diagnosed in 1984 with multiple sclerosis, I’ve relied on a wheelchair in­stead of my legs to get from one place to another since 1990. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone up and down anything other than a ramp.

Lately, I’ve begun to won­der why that pretty white house means so much to me. I’ve had several homes since I left California, but I’ve always kept a snapshot of that house on my desk. A glance reminds me that once upon a time, there were hectic days when my life was full of promise — very busy, and very different from what it is today.

One final look
Two decades ago, on the smoggy September morning when my children and I moved to London from LA., I made a quick visit to each room of my pretty, white, up-and-down house. Before we drove to the airport, I walked over familiar floors, upstairs and downstairs, tile and wood and carpet, and wished each room a heartfelt “Thank you” and “Goodbye.”

I had loved the house from the first moment I saw it. It had its flaws — an itsy-bitsy dining room, a backyard garden accessible only by steep steps, and a basement guaranteed to flood when it rained. But they never diminished the love I had for the house I proudly called home.

I haven’t been back to visit my California colonial since I closed the front door for the last time. With the help of hindsight and happy memories, I now realize that home was important to me not simply because of what it was, but because of what a much younger, much different me was able to experience while I lived there.

That house is where I was strong and young and healthy enough to exercise with my boys several times a week. It’s where I saw my younger son take his first steps. It’s where he and his older brother discovered— only 12 miles from down­town L.A. — the mysteries and rewards of gardening .Every fall we planted 100 bulbs. Every spring we w€ surrounded by four dozen varieties of roses. Every summer we harvested our backyard bounty — from apricots and plums to peaches and blackberries. That fruit became jams ar preserves that were carne down the steep basement stairs and stored for use in a school year’s worth of peanut butter sandwiches.

That house was where I learned how to wallpaper, refinish furniture, and paint Like a doting guardian, I worried about our home’s needs and was determined bring out its charms.

But during the years when the homeowner side of me was learning to unstick the garbage dis­posal with a broom handle and sew seat covers and curtains, my marriage was falling apart. The house that had once been my source of hope became — after m husband moved out — my source of strength.

After our divorce, I found myself — in my 20s with a 2- and a 7-year-old — ter­rified of the future. Funny how those anxious times now seem like “the good old days.” I had no relatives, so I relied on the walls of that pretty, white, up-and-down house to support me. It never once disappointed.

Always a welcome sight
The house absorbed my single-mother sorrow, and it calmed my shaken sense of security. As I shuffle through my decades-old motherhood memories, I recall the warmth I felt whenever our family of three pulled onto our street Whether we’d been out horseback riding or ice skating or returning from an out-of-town trip, I always found myself sighing with relief as our shuttered hour came into view.

While we lived in Lon­don, a local real estate company leased the house for me. By the time I’d returned to the States and settled in Florida, expensive repairs were needed. I was living off my savings, so my home would have to be sold.

On one of the saddest days of my life, I sat in my wheelchair in front of a notary public and signed the stack of papers that meant someone else would own my home.

Now I live in a little palm tree-shaded bungalow with my husband, Tony. It has wide, wheelchair-friendly doorways and ramps instead of stairs. Now the little boys I raised in my pretty white house are grown men who have homes and families of their own. And now I know I took my good health and my good fortune for granted.

But each time I see that well-traveled photo of my pretty, white, up-and-down house, I know it will always be home to me.

Marilyn Murray Willison lives in West Palm Beach with her husband, Tony Fragiacomo, and her sheltie, Toby.