On the frenetic half-day of school before Thanksgiving in that lonely, fraught fall of 2020, when the weather turned from rainy to muggy and unseasonably warm, I took my children, Thea and Simon—then five and three—to a nature preserve a few towns north of our home. My husband would be working until it was past dark, and I felt it important that the kids and I have some sort of normal outing, given the strangeness of their pandemic school year and the strangeness of the coming holiday weekend, which would be spent without most of our extended family and traditions.
It was just past two when we parked, but already the day was waning and the sight of bare branches on the trees felt somewhat ominous. Ours was the only car in the lot, which struck me as alternately reassuring and concerning—it offered the promise of a quiet, undisturbed walk, but also made me worry about the risks, both human and natural, that might be higher in a remote corner of town. My children ran ahead, agile over the leaf-covered roots, while I pointed out a cinder block foundation and old stone drainage tunnels between algae-coated ponds. A grandfatherly man and his friendly Labrador passed us as we hiked toward a long, straight trail at the preserve’s border, and a younger man with a calm, lithe greyhound passed us on their way back uphill to the parking lot, the man apologizing for having forgotten his dog’s leash. It was a relief to see these men and their dogs—I didn’t want to admit in front of my children that I was afraid, but at least if I had to scream for help, another living creature might hear and come to our aid.
By four, the sky was nearly dark. Between my increasingly tense continue ons and almost theres, Thea, who was scrambling up the trail in her black patent leather Mary Janes, looked down and shouted, “Cement!”
Under a thick layer of crunchy brown leaves lay a cement walkway leading off the main trail, up to a smaller, still-clear trail. Forgetting their tiredness, Thea and Simon ran up the path until it ended abruptly in the back yard of an enormous and clearly uninhabited house. Its exterior was all stone, a turret on either side, with a roof that was beginning to show signs of disrepair. Weeds as high as my waist choked the back yard. The house looked empty except for a set of slip-covered chairs in what I assumed was the dining room, visible through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.
The three of us looked at one another. The house seemed to have sprung from a gothic fairy tale. It didn’t seem to be a place that real people had once inhabited. We began speaking all at once, contradicting ourselves: let’s get closer, no, let’s stop here, why. In the end, we walked to the very edge of the asphalt and stared. I took some pictures, and then we hurried back down the hill to rejoin the main path and make our way to the car, hints of red beginning to show on the horizon.
Simon, who had sprinted exuberantly for the first three quarters of the hike and was now exhausted, needed to be carried—head on my shoulder, thumb in his mouth—this last stretch to the car. Once I had clipped him and Thea into their car seats, I sent one of the pictures I’d taken to my mom. “I wonder what happened,” she wrote back. “That was once someone’s dream house.”
From the time she was very young, Thea has been inclined toward nostalgia and bittersweet stories, images, and songs. Once, as a preschooler riding her three-wheeled scooter past our neighbor’s rose-covered arbor, she turned to me and said mournfully, “That’s the place I always dreamed about,” as though the era of her life marked by charming rose-covered gardens were coming to an end before it had even started.
So it came as little surprise to me when, on the way home, Thea was quiet, clearly reflecting on something, looking out the window at bare trees and a 20-acre farm where we’d picked pumpkins and run through a corn maze a few weeks earlier. After a few minutes, she asked, “Do you ever feel like something makes you feel sad and happy at the same time?”
“Yes, I know exactly what you mean.”
“This music makes me feel sad and happy.” We were listening to Tori Amos.
She was quiet for a while longer. “Why?”
“I don’t know. Why do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
In her book Bittersweet, Susan Cain writes about longing and nostalgia, often for homes we’ve long since left or maybe never even known—a feeling she describes as natural, innate, and indicative of our collective impulse toward a sense, always just out of reach, of belonging and togetherness. The book opens with a younger Cain listening to Leonard Cohen songs in her dorm room, her love for his melancholy notes in a minor key both amusing and perplexing her friends. Cain remembers that she felt something close to joy when she listened to Cohen (or any number of other mournful musicians). She didn’t love Cohen’s music in spite of its melancholy, but because of it.
“What are some other things that make you feel sad and happy at the same time?” Thea asked.
“That house we saw on the hike,” I said.
“Yeah. Me too.”
She was quiet again for a while. Then she asked, “Is there anything in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that makes you feel happy and sad at the same time?” She was deeply in love with the Pevensie children, Lucy in particular, that fall.
“The end,” I said, “when the professor tells them that they’ll probably be able to get back to Narnia, but they can’t try to get there. And then we kind of know that someday, they’ll be too old to go.”
Cain writes that C. S. Lewis was intimately familiar with the allure of the bittersweet and that he saw at the heart of his work a longing for “the place where I ought to have been born.” For Lewis, of course, this sensation was rooted in his faith, and although I’m not a Christian in the way he is, I think that for me, and for Thea—who always dreamed of the rosebush and at eight told me that Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” was her favorite song—it’s a relief to see our abstract longing for home made more concrete through words or music. The notion echoed by Lewis and Cohen suggests that many of us are looking toward that place, however it’s defined, where we “ought to have been born.” And that maybe, when we get there, we’ll recognize kindred spirits.
“Are there any other parts in the Narnia books that make you feel like that?” Thea asked.
“I guess when they find the castle—it kind of reminds me of that house we just saw—in
Prince Caspian, when they get to Cair Paravel.”
“Yeah.” She had been thinking of that scene, too.
It was almost dark, and we were almost home. I could hear Simon snoring lightly behind us.
Lewis yearned for a home in heaven as an antidote to his earthly separation from God; the orphans in his books crave a stable home and family after being separated from their own. Maybe this is why watching an old house being demolished to make way for an enormous modern beach home or stumbling across an abandoned stone house, its furniture covered in sheets, feels startlingly intimate. The house was once an object that promised protection against so many kinds of separation, and now, whether torn down to make way for new construction or slowly succumbing to water damage on the edge of a nature preserve, whatever remains of the home is just a visual reminder of that promise’s limitations.
One of my favorite books is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, in which sisters Ruth and Lucille, after their mother’s suicide, are raised by a series of varyingly ill-suited aunts and grandmothers in the small, austere town of Fingerbone, Idaho. The town is still haunted by a dark night, years before Ruth and Lucille were born, when a train slipped from the tracks on the bridge above the lake. Despite the townspeople’s best efforts, neither the train nor any passengers—among them the sisters’ grandfather—were ever found.
By the time Ruth and Lucille are in high school, their home has fallen into disrepair. The orchard outside has grown wild, wind and rain breech the walls of the house, and clutter threatens to consume every available space. Ruth (recalling the biblical Ruth, cast out to wander) and her aunt Sylvie (whose name, from the word sylvan, evokes the woods) are unbothered, and the house decays further. Lucille, meanwhile, unable to abide the house, her family, and perhaps the isolation that this lifestyle portends, moves in with her home economics teacher. Lucille is separated from her family, and Ruth is separated from the world.
Not long before Lucille leaves home, Ruth and Sylvie explore the wooded land along the lake, which itself feels haunted by all the lives it has claimed. The two women come across an abandoned house. Ruth, with Sylvie’s encouragement, imagines that she can see the ghosts of the children who died there, hungry, at once feral and innocent. She knows that Sylvie has lost her grasp on reality, but, at least for a few moments, sees what Sylvie sees.
After that trip to the woods, Ruth and Sylvie burn it all down. They raze their own house to the ground and set out across the bridge in the dark of night, and Ruth tells us, “There was an end to housekeeping.” She and Sylvie have fully turned their backs on Fingerbone and its conventional expectations.
Even though I am a woman living in a suburban home with an actual white picket fence, closer by most visible measures to eating lunch in the home economics room than to looking for the ghost children of an icy lake, I’ve always identified with Ruth, the woman cast out—or who casts herself out—to wander.
Ruth’s loneliness, her oddness, the way in which she sees that a life of wandering with Sylvie will be both dangerous and magical—these are intimately familiar to me. We all know, even if we don’t acknowledge it, that eventually nature will undo all of our human progress on both grand and personal scales. It takes a tremendous amount of care to keep house, and I, at least, understand the impulse to give in and let nature take it back. I understand exactly how and why a person could neglect a home, burn it to the ground, and leave town in the dark of night—and how, as lonely as it would be to float unmoored, even as a ghost, that might feel like a better choice than moving in with the home economics teacher. It’s about more than not caring about one’s house or fellow townspeople or sense of propriety; it’s about caring, too much, about something else—freedom, wildness, potential, and maybe all the ways I don’t fit neatly within boxes I thought should define me when I was younger.
When I was a teenager, I thought this meant I should forever live outside the confines of convention, that the only way to live as Ruth was to avoid the fates of marriage and motherhood that my upbringing in a wealthy Manhattan suburb seemed to require. Now that I am an adult—and both married and a mother—it’s not that the fantasy of running away has vanished. Instead, I have realized that the fantasy was never about being alone, only about being relieved of that false version of myself.
Once we were back from our hike, I put on a TV show for Thea and Simon and retreated behind my computer to learn whatever I could about the mansion in the woods. I found the name of an owner, a sale price that seemed astonishingly low, the minutes from a zoning board meeting revealing that the owner had apparently been a no-show after petitioning for permission to subdivide the property and sell off parcels of it. I found the names of people I assumed were the owner’s children, found their jobs, sometimes their pictures, but I couldn’t find anything that explained how that opulent house fell into decay or how the path leading to the back of a nature preserve became overgrown. I guess I’d wanted to find something sensational, a missing-persons case or financial scandal or suspected murder. A reason to have a home so grand in the first place, a reason to abandon rather than sell it, a reason to pave a driveway to a swampy forest in the first place. I wanted a timeline that would tell me definitively when someone last lived there. I wanted a narrative that was not only unavailable through amateur sleuthing, but might not exist at all. More than anything, I wanted to know what dreams haunted the former inhabitants of that house—and if anyone planned to come back to it.
On Thanksgiving, my mom made the turkey and stuffing and salad and brussels sprouts, and she set a beautiful table in the dining room. After dinner, I brought out a pumpkin pie I’d ordered from a school fundraiser but hadn’t realized I was supposed to bake myself, and we laughed because, astoundingly, this was not the first time I’d served a raw pie on Thanksgiving (more like Ruth than Lucille, clearly).
My mom’s dinner table, whether on Thanksgiving or a random Thursday, is always beautifully set, but it was never her expectations—or any of my relatives’—that threatened to trap me. Every so often, I even caught hints that my mom felt the same restlessness that I did. When I was in middle school, Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home,” a song about a woman who, like Ruth and Sylvie, burns her house to the ground, was everywhere. My mom often sang along to it when it played on the minivan’s radio. Even then, I knew that when she did, it wasn’t that she wanted to burn her house down or leave us; it was just evidence that even she—someone whose care and attention were so seemingly focused on the conventions of suburban family life—well knew the pull to which Ruth and Sylvie eventually succumb.
I still feel that pull, but now it’s with my family, Thea and Simon buckled safely in the back seat, that I’d run away. The allure is always strongest at the damp, dark end of autumn. On a certain kind of foggy November morning, I can practically smell the fire I’ve started in a wood-burning stove and feel the rumble of the gravel under my tires as we exit the interstate, our books and Leonard Cohen songs ferrying us to the place we always dreamed about.
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