The Old Place

I strolled through an old neighborhood at sunset like a stranger. My old neighborhood. I used to live here.

I weaved through the streets on foot, walking my dog, exploring old places, greeting invisible old haints. The ratty humble homes were no longer ratty, nor humble, but instead were all fixed up by homeowners who must watch a lot of HGTV. Christmas decor was everywhere.

I still remember when my family lived in this place, when it was nothing but modest homes, not far from the beach, with backyards full of sandspurs and dollarweed.

When I passed the house we used to call home I stopped walking. There was a guy on a ladder, stapling Christmas lights onto the house.

The little old place had changed so much. The house had a porch swing, a fence, and a lawn with actual grass. Unbelievable.

The man saw me staring. “Can I help you?” he said in a slightly aggressive tone.

“No, I was just admiring your house.”

He didn’t answer. He seemed annoyed.

So I kept strolling the loop. I passed kids on bikes, people going for jogs, and puppies out for nightly walks.

Another old house on the corner had also been redone by young ambitious homeowners. It looked superb. Even so. No matter how they gussy up this area, I still associate this neighborhood with a freckled kid who had telephone-pole legs, big teeth, and no dad. Who entertained himself with a clunky old manual typewriter.

I finally exited the neighborhood and made it to the old beach access. Ah, yes. The Gulf. The water was loud, and my face was covered in seaspray. You never get tired of the feeling the Gulf imparts. It will always be home.

I saw a teenage couple walking the shore. Arms hooked. He wore a Santa hat, she wore his jacket. I don’t know what their story is, but I know this beach is full of both love and heartbreak. I got my heart broken here.

I remember one night having my chest cavity torn open. She came from old money; I came from a single mother. The girl ended our romance using the same patronizing voice you’d use to speak to a kindergartener. She said, “The thing is, see, well… Uh, we come from different worlds…”

And I’ll never forget presenting my hand to her and saying, “Good luck with your life.” We shook hands like business acquaintances.

How embarrassing. What was I thinking? Shaking hands? You don’t shake a girl’s hand when she breaks up with you, you big dweeb. But I was so nervous and humiliated that I didn’t know what else to do.

That night I remember walking back to my modest house and promising myself I wouldn’t cry, but I broke my promise.

The sound of this water brings it all back. The good, the bad, and the yucky. My life. I remember everything. The years my mother and I delivered newspapers at three in the morning to make ends meet. Christmas morning when Mama bought me a new guitar.

The time I drained my cash box to purchase a tiny diamond ring. And the day I gave the ring to Jamie Martin.

We got married within eyeshot of this shore. Just down the road. And after the ceremony, we spent the night at an old beachfront inn. The same shake-and-shingle inn where my mother worked in the kitchen.

On our wedding night, I tried to be gallant, like in the movies. I attempted to carry my bride across the threshold of our suite, still clad in my rented tux. But I stumbled and banged her face on the door jamb so hard that she fell out of my arms.

This really put a damper on the mood.

My brand new wife started cussing and rubbing her head and she was supremely ticked off. I kept telling her I was sorry, and she kept asking how I could be so dumb, and I said we should try the threshold bit again, and she said hell no we shouldn’t. Finally, our tiff ended in gut-busting laughter, then tears. Good tears.

Almost two decades and one back surgery later, there will be no more chivalrous threshold scenes for me. But my love has only gotten deeper, and that counts for something.

My dog and I left the beach after the sun disappeared. I retraced my steps through the neighborhood in the dark. And I thought of the wonderful life this fatherless kid ended up having. I thought of how different I am now. None of the people in this borough would even recognize me anymore. I kept thinking about what a good thing this is. To change.

I stopped in front of my old house one last time. The place where I grew into a man. The same four walls where I discovered music, writing, clunky old typewriters, great books, faithful dogs, Louis Armstrong records, loss, bravery, rejection, courage, ambition, the power of ice cream, and the sweetness of love.

The guy on the ladder was still hanging lights on the old place. He was standing over our old living room.

“Looking good,” I called out to him. Just because I’m naturally gabby.

The guy looked at me and seemed annoyed. He gave no answer.

So I wished him a merry Christmas, then I started to leave. When I was a few hundred feet away, he plugged in the lights and the home lit up in the darkness like a multi-colored beacon.

The arresting scene made me stop walking. I saw it and felt like I wanted to cry, good tears. I stood looking at that house where a broken kid once learned that you don’t have to be perfect to be okay. And I am okay. For once in my life, I can honestly say I’m all right.

I never knew a humble home could shine so brightly.

30 comments

  1. Sandi. - November 28, 2020 9:35 am

    A time of reflection is a good thing if we allow it to be. I think we all remember the home we grew up in, whether it held happy memories or not. Sean, this holiday season I hope your home holds more happiness and fond remembrances than all the outdoor lights on your childhood home. Wishing you all good things wherever you are.

    Reply
  2. GaryD - November 28, 2020 9:49 am

    This story is one of your best. I’m glad you wrote it. I’m even more glad I read it.

    Reply
  3. oldtimedan - November 28, 2020 11:54 am

    Another mighty fine telling.

    Reply
  4. Ann - November 28, 2020 12:07 pm

    Your Mother always said “ everything is gonna be alright “….. it is!!…a wise woman with a VERY special son.

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  5. Lynda Fry - November 28, 2020 12:59 pm

    Reflections on a wonderful life — great feeling, isn’t it.

    Reply
  6. Mark fendley - November 28, 2020 1:22 pm

    Your life is “living proof” that God is good……all the time. Whether fatherless boy or father to many, different economic class, old beach or new beach, good back or surgery improvised back, perfect threshold entrance or banging the door frame….God is good….ALL the time.

    Reply
  7. Jonathan Machen - November 28, 2020 1:24 pm

    Nice one, man. I always love your personal posts. We need to string our lights up this weekend and bring some light into the canyon.

    Reply
  8. MermaidGrammy - November 28, 2020 1:31 pm

    Dear Sean,
    I believe you have learned how to forgive. Including your poor ol’ daddy, as well as yourself. You have given us so much. Your readers, and the people we crow to about you are supremely thankful for your generous heart. I wish you the best

    Reply
  9. Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder - November 28, 2020 1:38 pm

    Dearest Sean,
    Well, kudos for daring to bear your soul and revealing so much strength, courage and wealth at once. It is above all the inner wealth that makes us tough as nails and the best achiever in life. Also honesty makes the best mileage, far better than all the fake news and fake cosmetic surgery and must have commercials combined.
    You saw the home that sheltered your frail youth gleam for a good and pure reason!
    That makes you richer than most…
    Hugs,
    Mariette

    Reply
  10. Deena Grimsley - November 28, 2020 1:42 pm

    ❤️❤️❤️. I am so happy you found Jamie and that you are finally alright. I love to read your posts. You are a special human being and I love you too.

    Reply
  11. billllly - November 28, 2020 2:26 pm

    Good stuff! Really, really good stuff!

    Reply
  12. Rebecca Barnes - November 28, 2020 2:40 pm

    I’m thankful for Sean Dietrich who reminds me what is really important in this big ole world. Thank you.

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  13. Mur - November 28, 2020 2:40 pm

    Beautiful story, and so needed right now. Thank- you!

    Reply
  14. Jan - November 28, 2020 2:43 pm

    Beautiful story with a truly happy ending! Thank you, Sean, for helping us see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Reply
  15. nebraskannie - November 28, 2020 3:09 pm

    I think it’s wonderful that you can look at your life and honestly say you’re all right. I just realized that I can say that this week, too (even if it took me almost 70 years!). It’s all those times that make up who we are, and us who make them into what WE are. I’m so glad you’re you, and you’re all right!!!

    Reply
  16. Linda - November 28, 2020 3:25 pm

    You can never go home again but ….to drive up my old street , the home I grew up in, memories happy and sad still mean the world to me whenever I get the chance to go home again …with this virus…I will as soon as I can….
    I was 18 and a senior in high school, met a boy from a private school, he helped me with a school project which I so appreciated….I won an award because of it . As our senior year ended he told me it would never work out and his family would never accept me . He was from a great deal of money and we struggled to make ends meet ( I met him working as a waitress across from his school ) I understood , I guess but I thought if I could have just met his family they would get to know ME and not their opinions of me…..I don’t blame him ( we were so young ) but I do blame his family for raising him like that.
    I’ve had an incredible life, They were the losers. I wish and hope he had a good life….

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  17. Dmoore - November 28, 2020 3:30 pm

    So beautifully written Sean. I walked that street with you & felt your peace. Keep your eyes on the prize & it turns out just as it “should”. Merry Christmas brother.

    Reply
  18. Suzanne Moore - November 28, 2020 3:43 pm

    I loved this, Sean. I loved your wisdom, the challenging path you have followed to arrive where you are now,and the tears you have shed along the way. You always touch my heart, and I thank you for that.

    Reply
  19. sharon suleski - November 28, 2020 3:49 pm

    if we all could try to worry less about today bright lights do shine again in the future even though the presence seems so dark

    Reply
  20. Linda Moon - November 28, 2020 5:46 pm

    My old neighborhood….I’ve been told that my modest house there is no longer there. I’m glad the old money girl ended her romance with you, Sean, otherwise there would’ve been no Jamie Martin in your life. I identify with your cursing wife, including dumb beginnings of what has become a long and laughter-filled marriage. You are all right. Heavens Yes…you are!

    Reply
  21. Eddie owens - November 28, 2020 6:43 pm

    Thank you Sean I always appreciate the view have of your life and life. Eddie O.

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  22. Bill - November 28, 2020 8:51 pm

    Sen,

    Good thoughts. We live in a troubled world, actually we always have. Some days are good and some no so good…but we will get through it all with God’s help.

    The best for this Christmas season

    Reply
  23. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - November 28, 2020 10:11 pm

    Good for you Sean! You are such a good writer. You touch my heart every day.

    Reply
  24. Anne Arthur - November 28, 2020 11:34 pm

    You have found a good place in your life. Awesome! Wishing you lots of joy this Christmas season.

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  25. Christina - November 29, 2020 6:39 am

    Shedding good tears here too… thanks for the hope that every humble place can shine brightly. And you know you got a good one in Jamie even with the adventurousness start 😆

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  26. Mimi - November 29, 2020 7:45 am

    I agree with billy. Good stuff. Really good stuff. Thank you

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  27. Tammy S. - November 29, 2020 12:59 pm

    Look now, Sean. Toilet Paper is in short supply so we are keeping our Kleenex in reserve just in case. I’m gonna have to start sending you a bill for the Kleenex your posts make me use cause of all the tears. Tears for a little boy whose heart was broken as no child’s should be broken, tears for a Dad who thought the world was better without him (he wasn’t himself, no one ever is, in that moment), tears for a Mom who probably cried when no one was looking, but happy tears for the triumph and overcoming, tears for poor Jamie’s head and tears while walking down memory lane and being able to look back and know not only was that kid gonna be ok, but he was gonna live the most amazing life, find the most amazing love and write the most beautiful and encouraging words! As always, thanks for allowing us to come along. And for the reminder that we all are beautifully broken in some way. The stroll was beautiful. I’m glad you shed happy tears. We always do too, right along with you. Man you are an awesome writer!!!

    Reply
  28. Robert McCullar - November 30, 2020 2:48 pm

    Sean, this brings back memories of my return to Ashland, Mississippi for my sister’s funeral just after Christmas a couple of years ago. Ashland was a bustling little country town, population 350 or so, back in the early Sixties when I left seeking fame and fortune fifty miles up the road in Memphis. Sadly, there is nothing left of Ashland except for the abandoned courthouse that the county could not afford to maintain, and the monument to General Nathan Bedford Forest. Jetty’s Cafe, where my dad and I went for a cup of coffee and a Grapette every Saturday afternoon, and the drugstore run by Cullis Tidwell, have long been abandoned, and nothing can, or ever will, replace them.

    I walked around the square a time or two with Piper, my Boxer, took a few photos, and remembered the hum of the cotton gin, Percy Sledge playing on the jukebox in Jetty’s Cafe, and Junior Gross setting the pinball machine’s back legs on his toes for a little advantage. I remembered, as a 12-year-old, picking six acres of cotton with my mother after my father’s death, and I remembered the sheriff of Benton County giving a 12-year-old kid permission to drive so I could haul our six bales of cotton to the gin – my mother never learned to drive until I taught her, but that is another story.

    I remembered the high school principal walking into our 7th grade classroom late one September afternoon, telling everyone to bring their cotton sacks to school the next day, because we were all going out to McCullar’s farm to help gather the crop, and yes, everyone in the seventh grade owned cotton sacks in those days.

    Fortunately, our old home place is still in the family, now owned by a nephew. I spent a couple of days and nights there with Piper, listening to the stillness of the night, taking in the quiet and the calm surrounding a little 80-acre patch of Mississippi soil, remembering the hard work that followed my father’s death, and appreciating a mother who taught me that hard work never hurt anyone, ever thankful for the blessings we received.

    True, the town has died, but my fond memories never will.

    Reply
  29. Sandi. - December 1, 2020 8:46 am

    Note to Robert McCullar: Sincere thanks for taking us readers for a stroll through your hometown of Ashland, Mississippi. I thoroughly enjoyed your well-composed remembrances. God bless you.

    Reply
  30. Larry Wall - December 2, 2020 8:05 pm

    You are full of it, Sean!! Full of the talent to give us, your readers, the benefit of sharing life’s joys as seen in a different angle sometimes. The talent to bring immediate and unexpected laughter from your lines. Your commentary on living through our periods of hurt have helped us all to understand how to accomplish living life.
    Merry Christmas to you, Jamie, and all of your readers. 2021 is going to be a better year and 2020 will be thankfully forgotten.

    Reply

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