Tara Murphy Sullivan
Whenever I dream of home, I dream of my old house in Bradford—the tiny, two-stoplight town in New Hampshire where I lived the first half of my life. Though I’ve lived away from my childhood home for over eighteen years, moved on from the rural life I once knew, my subconscious won’t allow me forget what I left behind.
When Bradford was our home, we were a family of six: a mother, a father, a son and three daughters. When we left, we’d recently become a family of five. When I lived here, I had a teenaged brother, but without warning, he was gone. One humid July night, he left with the car. A few days later, he returned as ashes in a small cardboard box. Before the haze of shock cleared, we were gone, too, moved south. Suburban Massachusetts might as well have been a different planet, or an alternate dimension where we had always been a family of five. We were the new family in town: a mother, a father, and three teenaged daughters. No sons. At first glance, no one knew how broken we were. At times I’m not sure we recognized it in ourselves.
I haven’t visited my hometown in many years, and this isn’t an oversight. Maybe curiosity urged me to make the trip north. Perhaps it was something else entirely; sometimes you have to go back, and you don’t know why. When I mention my plan to my sisters, Maeve and Bridget, they decide to come along. We’re well into our thirties now, and between children and husbands and jobs, we rarely have the time for just the three of us.
During the drive, my sisters and I consider knocking on the door of our old house. "We used to live here," we'd explain, and we imagine the current residents would smile and welcome us in, eager to show us around. I don’t tell my sisters that I can’t bear to see other people living there.
It’s October—the leaves of the maples are the colors of flames and so vibrant they’re almost blinding. Tourists come here from all over the world to see the autumn foliage. Leaf-peepers, they’re called. When we lived here, we’d spot cars with out-of-state license plates creeping through town, and we’d roll our eyes, not yet appreciating the beauty that surrounded us. Today, we’re the ones from out of state, crawling past the stark white colonials and New England farmhouses. We wonder aloud about our former neighbors and comment on how big the houses seemed when we were small.
When we reach the end of the road, Maeve is the first to gasp when we see our old home’s state: The back porch that once ran the length of the house is gone. Thick plastic covers the pair of bay windows, and though it’s hard to tell, there doesn’t seem to be anything or anyone inside. The screens on the outside of the upstairs windows are filthy and torn. The shutters are missing, and gray paint peels from the clapboards. The overgrown grass and shrubbery threatens to overtake the sidewalk, the front steps, and anything else in its path.
Bridget pulls over just past our former driveway near a place I called my "secret spot" (which, let’s be honest, wasn't a secret—my whole family knew about it). As a child, I spent much of my time down in the rocky gully beside the river. Boulders represented different pieces of furniture; trees and bushes had specific purposes. I’d go there to be alone—to escape the noisiness of my family, and, as I got older, to write terrible poetry and scribble thoughts in my journal. The woods and the river were comforting, and I didn't even mind the bugs so much.
Bridget says she doesn’t think I can get past all the yard waste piled in the pathway, but I take my chances and climb over the dirt, dead leaves, sticks, and pine needles. My feet sink a few times, and I fear I’ll fall through and become part of the heap, but soon I stand at the edge of the stone retention wall I must climb down to get to the river. After all these years, I still know where the footholds are.
On the ground, I take in the view. Everything is so wonderfully familiar. My eyes scan the water, the trees, the ground; everything is how I remember it. I breathe in the rich, earthy smell of the river; the scent has a mineral quality I can almost taste. With eyes closed, sitting on a cool, smooth rock I once recognized as a sofa, I remember when I was small and life was simple. There was a time I thought it would be neat to live down here, but these days I don't even like the idea of camping.
Nothing has changed. It’ll likely remain unchanged for many more years, and maybe even longer than that: after I’m dead, this place will still be here, rocks and trees and all, as if time doesn’t exist. I expect to find solace in this observation, but instead I am wrought with unexpected anxiety—the fear of the unknown, a deep-rooted dread that spreads from my gut that urges me to step into the river, submerge in the cold, rushing water. Let the water fill my lungs, carry me south and deposit my body in the Atlantic. These thoughts are absurd, I know, but I’m desperate for everything to stop, or at least slow down.
I’m sure my sisters are wondering if I've fallen off the wall and busted an ankle, so I take one last look and climb up the wall and resume my complicated, ever-changing life. I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to this place. In the car, I look at Maeve and force a smile, and Bridget shifts into gear. We drive away and we don't look back.
About the Author: Tara Murphy Sullivan lives and works on the south shore of Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in The Bridge, The Chaos, and on her website, here. She can be found on most social media platforms as @navillusarat.