We call the work we do “home inspection.” That’s a misnomer. What we really do is inspect houses, not homes. For most purposes, the words “house” and “home” are interchangeable, but the real distinction can be found in the fourth definition of “home” in the American Heritage Dictionary: a. An environment offering security and happiness. b. A valued place regarded as a refuge.
When I go to a job, I go to look at the housethe parts that keep rain out, bring water in and make electricity go ’round and ’round. But sometimes I can’t avoid doing a little home inspecting. The details of folks’ lives are laid out right in front of me, and I can’t help but notice and ponder.
Call me maudlin, but the homes that stick in my head are the broken homes, the heartbreakers, the ones where security, happiness and refuge have drained out like water from a bathtubfor instance, a home that used to be a haven for a man and his wife, but now one of them is gone. If you want your heart broken, talk to an old man who just lost his wife.
Two summers back, my Aunt Coot was lying in a hospital bed. She’d been there for a month. She was full of cancer, and everybody knew she just had a day or two left. My Uncle Guy stayed at her side the whole month. He slept on a couch in the hospital room and only went home to shower. He took his meals right there on the couch.
Coot and Guy had been married for more than 50 years. During that time, they spent only one night apart, when Guy went to Iowa on business. They didn’t like the separation and pledged to never do it again.
In all the years I had known Guy, I had only heard him make polite conversationtalking about the weather, the grandkids and what’s for supper. With Coot down to her last days, though, Guy started talking about his life, his wife and his home. When wife Brenda, daughter Jess and I sat with him in the hospital room, he started his story at the moment he and Coot met, then took us all the way through their life together.
He started by telling us how he’d asked my grandmother, Pearl Cleckley, to bless the marriage. “I don’t know why you want that one,” Grandma Pearl said. “She can’t cook!”
Well, Guy wanted Coot anyway. During their years together, Guy worked his way up to management at the local chalk mine, and Coot worked in one of the cotton mills. They had a daughter, my cousin Sheron, and three granddaughters. Coot and Guy drove Oldsmobiles, listened to country crooners and had a few drinks at Christmastime. By any measure, they had a fine life together.
Aunt Coot died two years ago. I carried her casket to her grave, and I haven’t been back to see Uncle Guy since. I know, that makes me one sorry nephew. But I’m pretty sure if I see Guy rattling around in that house by himself, the emptiness will wrap me up, and I’ll break down in a crying fit. If there’s one thing Guy can’t stand, it’s a grown man throwing a crying fit.
Sad as the widower houses are, the divorce houses make me sadder. Everybody dies sooner or later, and that’s sad enough. But it’s a crying shame when a couple have dreams of a Coot-and-Guy life, and they end up cutting it short on purpose. When I pick up the stench of dead hopes and dreams, it sticks on me for a long time.
I know that couples have to go their separate ways sometimes, and it’s probably best if the family gets out from under one roof and splits up into two houses, with the kids shuttling back and forth. Heck, I know that sometimes it’s the only way to go.
But I’ve got to tell you: When I go into a divorce house, it’s the little kids’ art on the walls that gets to me. All I can think about are the broken dreams and lost innocence. I see a kid’s Flat Stanley on the wall, and I think, I wonder if Mom or Dad is getting that?
I’m mighty sentimental for a grouchy man, and I take that definition of home as a refuge to heart. I may be in the business of checking roofs and foundations, bricks and mortar. Even so, the main thing I’ve learned in 18 years of looking at houses is this: The bricks and mortar don’t matter much. If they break, you can buy more. If you can’t buy more, the house won’t fall down. Even if the house does fall down, you’ve still got a home. If you’re lucky, or blessed, or maybe if you just work hard at it, you can make your home last a long, long time. That’s the important job around the house, and it’s well worth doing.