From the Lake House: A Mother’s Odyssey of Loss and Love is Kristen’s debut memoir that originated as a series of essays about grief.
Lowering myself to my bedroom’s cool tile floor, I leaned against the cornflower blue wall, pulled my knees into my chest, and looked around. A dust bunny, carried by a breeze streaming in through the open window, floated past my ankles and landed in front of two canvas bags. The movers had hauled away furniture and boxes and lamps and plants, and all that was le in my house was my elderly cat cowering in the bathroom. And these bags.
A jewelry box in one bag housed dangly beaded earrings, silver necklaces, a few pendants, and one string of pearls, a gift from an ex-boyfriend. I’d worn the pearls at cocktail parties and swanky restaurants when I’d lived in Boston, but they’d never left the velvet-lined drawer after moving to Chapel Hill. Though unnecessary and frankly silly, I had safeguarded my modest assortment of trinkets and ornaments from a ride in the moving truck.
A small birch picture frame poked out of the second bag. Behind the glass was a set of tiny footprints, and inching myself closer, I tried looking at them with new eyes, hoping to uncover something different about the pattern on the heels and big toe mounds, or the way the toes were nearly perfectly spaced apart. But I couldn’t. I’d stared at them too often, their image permanently etched in my mind. The frame used to sit on the windowsill beside a pink bowl where I kept two Polaroids, our hospital bracelets, the ultrasound photo, and several seashells I’d fervently gathered for her on a Florida beach after the good-bye. The bowl lay carefully wrapped in the bag, along with a floral hatbox stuffed with condolence cards, one small diaper, and my plum-colored journal filled with letters to her and reflections on how to keep living.
No way would movers’ hands touch the homage to my daughter. I was carrying it myself.
“I should get out of here,” I said aloud. “The movers will wonder where I am.”
Facing the bank of windows, my eyes followed the gently rolling lawn, past the weeping willow and the dogwoods, past the patches of azaleas and hydrangeas, down to the water. I’d been renting this simple basement apartment of a beautiful home that sat on the shoreline of a small lake. It was here where I’d discovered that the outdoors held magic, that birdsongs could uplift, and that amber and golden leaves swirling in circles on a windswept fall morning could astonish with their sun-dappled dance. It was here where I no longer dreaded the swoop of emptiness descending like a fast-moving fog—my breath suddenly shallow, chest tight, body wanting to curl up like a potato bug. I learned to yield to sorrow and retreat to my easy chair, or the patio next to the rose bushes, or the dock where ripples of water weaved through my toes. Part of me longed to extend my lease on the apartment because it was here where I’d stopped spinning. Finally, enfolded in the peaceful solitude of the lake house, I had looked inside myself, cultivated roots, and begun to heal.
“Are you ready, Max?”
My voice echoed through the empty rooms. My gray tuxedo cat eyed me from behind the toilet where he’d spent the day. He was still adjusting to life without his beloved brother whom I’d recently buried out back near the gardenias. “It’s okay, little boy.” I rubbed the white patch beneath his chin. “You’ll like the new house.” As I turned to leave, I caught my reflection in the mirror. “And you’ll like it too.” My cheeks were flushed, and shadows under my eyes showed fatigue from a late night of packing. I was forty-three years old and moving into the first place I’d ever bought, a freshly renovated townhouse with a brand-new kitchen and bathrooms and a secluded stone patio lined with crape myrtles. A home all my own.
I scooped Max into my arms and tucked his head into the crook of my neck. He refused to purr, refused to look at me. “I’m sorry for another move,” I whispered into his downy ear, “but this will be it for a while. Promise.”
Should he believe me after the cascade of changes and losses? Impulsively relocating to Chapel Hill had not unfolded as I’d expected. Then again, what had I expected? With little forethought, had I really hoped to flee Boston and my broken heart and slide like warm butter into a new and improved romance, an upgraded life in the South? Had I been naïve, desperate, unlucky? Perhaps all three?
I stood at the dock one last time before placing Max and the canvas bags in my aged Jetta. The air was warm for mid-March, and sunlight skipped along the lake’s surface. A lone woman in a kayak glided by, stroke slow and steady, her red hat a burst of color against the still, pewter water. I watched until she disappeared. A mere two years earlier on a chilly January afternoon, I had moved by myself into this apartment after my life as I’d known it had all but disappeared. Like a busted-up jigsaw puzzle, pieces of it had been scattered about, a few gone missing, and somehow I had to make myself whole again.
My courtship with Jason had begun five years earlier and not until after we’d moved in together. He’d flown up to Boston, helped me load a truck with everything I owned, two cats included, and we’d driven it all to North Carolina. Three days later, set up in our newly rented Chapel Hill cottage, we celebrated the Fourth of July. I loved the irony of this. Freedom! Jason and I sat side by side in lawn chairs on our front deck, fingers clasped and a beer balancing in each of our laps. No more endless winters, I thought. No more herding fifth graders, no more desperate speculation about what had gone wrong with Brian.
“Here’s to new beginnings,” I said, raising my bottle to clink Jason’s.
He leaned in to kiss me, and then we sat back and listened to the booms from distant reworks. Closing my eyes, I breathed in the sweet scent of magnolias wafting up to us from the huge tree beyond the deck. Fist-sized white magnolia blooms are uncommon in New England, as are kudzu-covered pine trees, and coral and periwinkle crape myrtle blossoms. My new landscape seemed like talismans of my new life.
I’m a planner—careful, systematic. So when I’d told my friends and family that I was leaving my teaching job, my apartment, the city I’d lived in for more than a dozen years for North Carolina, they’d stared at me. What? And when I told them that Jason and I were going to live together, their mouths fell open. He and I had known each other for a whopping six months and, save for a handful of weekend visits, our long-distance history had consisted of phone calls and email. Surely I might want to take things more slowly? But I didn’t. At thirty-eight, slow and steady wasn’t working.
When I’d met Jason, I was reeling. My ex-boyfriend Brian, a Boston attorney I had been involved with for three years, that blue-eyed, blond-haired, Irish-Catholic, sports-loving family man, the one I was so certain I’d marry and have a kid or two with, had royally dumped me—and on 9/11. I was out of my mind with misery for months, slumped in my apartment amid a constant flow of tears and wine, until at Christmas I crash-landed at my brother’s farmhouse near Chapel Hill, beyond grateful to get out of my bleak head and bitter cold Boston. Who did I happen to meet during my holiday getaway? Jason. An easygoing, boot-wearing, homegrown North Carolinian, staggering from his recent divorce. We were a match made in Rebound Heaven. We grabbed ahold of each other like Velcro and didn’t let go.
We called our house a nest. It sat on the crest of a shady hill, and we lived on top of each other in the small rooms. That suited us just fine as we settled into the hot summer filled with love and lust and the belief that together we were going to build a great new life. We entwined our legs when lazing on the sofa and locked hands when running errands. Sometimes Jason and I moved the furniture to the side of our living room, turned the stereo up, and danced, his hazel eyes smiling and long, lean limbs swaying against mine. He’d occasionally lift me off the floor and twirl my lithe, petite frame, our laughter as loud as the music, and when he set me back down, he’d brush wisps of my fine hair off my cheeks.
With a history of general contract work and also all-around handy and creative, Jason had left his decorative concrete business post-divorce to design and construct green, sustainable buildings. That summer he was hard at work on his first house and believed more would follow, the start of a prosperous new business. Before Jason left for the day, off to the countryside with his work crew, I’d start coffee and breakfast. After the last bite of our bagels, we’d kiss good-bye at the kitchen door.
“See you tonight, sweetie,” he’d say, “and call me if you get lonely.”
“Okay.” I’d smile back at him, leaning into his chest. “What do you want for dinner? Actually, never mind. I’ll surprise you.”
And we’d kiss one more time, as if our morning ritual was the most normal thing in the world, as if we’d been doing it our whole lives, and I’d wave to Jason as he drove off.
Without another year of teaching looming ahead, nothing lay in front of me professionally but a vague notion about finding a new path in education. Not having a clear direction was a strange place for me. Back when I was twenty-three, my decision to teach had hit me with such Road to Damascus clarity that I couldn’t believe I’d wasted my first year out of college without seeing my obvious path. I’d gotten myself into a top graduate program, waitressed my way through a master’s degree, and landed a plum teaching position in one of Massachusetts’s best public schools. For a long time I’d thrived, so attached to my students I couldn’t bear to be out sick. Parents clamored to get their kids into my class, and I had plenty of teacher friends to join for happy hours on Fridays, ski trips in the winter, and beach trips in the summer. I had a good life.
I floated through my first Chapel Hill summer with boisterous fifth graders, Boston, and Brian behind me. Having no plans of any kind and with some money saved, I felt no pressure to rush a job search. I loved my virtual anonymity in Chapel Hill and savored the rare gift of unstructured time. Sometimes I took long walks through my new neighborhood, shopped for household supplies, or chipped away at more unpacking. I sent emails to my friends back in Boston and wrote in my journal. My poor journal had been the repository of my anger and anguish the previous year, multitudes of entries about Brian. How could he have left? I asked its pages again and again. He doesn’t even explain. Just disappears. Entries about 9/11. All those souls pulverized to ash, I wrote. The terror they must have felt. How many nights had I sat numbly in front of the television, watching the image of the crumbling Twin Towers? My childhood home was less than fifty miles away, across the Sound on Long Island. I had grown up seeing those towers materialize on the horizon as the train I’d take to Manhattan approached the city. Everything is chaos, I had scrawled across my journal’s pages. Brian won’t return my calls. Lower Manhattan’s a graveyard. I don’t want to teach anymore.
Fast forward to my North Carolina nest. I’m here!!! I wrote with extra exclamation marks. This little house is so sweet. And so is Jason.
And he was. I’d make the bed in the morning to discover a love note tucked under my pillow. He’d spontaneously grab me around my waist, hold my face in his hands, and tell me that he loved me. He’d offer back rubs, bring home chocolate, and crack me up with his hilarious impressions of North Carolina politicians.
That summer we found lakes and ponds for swimming on the weekends, ate dinner on the front lawn of the local co-op, and visited my brother out on his farm. We rode our bicycles through nearby wooded trails, dumbfounded one evening after discovering we were lost. Light dwindling, we sheepishly asked directions from a friendly hiker and then laughed at ourselves all the way home.
One August afternoon, we drove half a day for an impromptu trip to the Outer Banks, found a spit of nearly deserted beach, and pitched a tent. After swimming and languishing until the sun dropped out of view, we sat on beach chairs next to our tent, buried our feet in the sand, ate tuna sandwiches, and drank tepid beer. Jason pulled me onto his lap and we kissed; all I could hear was the sound of the surf and our own breathing.
“Isn’t this great?” Jason asked. “I know it’s only been a couple of months, but we’re really doing this, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, we are.” We high-fived each other. “Who would have thought that a northern city girl and a southern country boy would fall in love and do so well together?”
And we did. Every time we stumbled into a cultural chasm, we simply climbed out and kept going. I didn’t give a second thought to the fact that the novels and authors I read were completely unknown to him. I ignored the fact that he set the radio to country music while I kept switching it back to NPR. That hunting rifle he kept in the shed didn’t represent a clash of lifestyles, did it? Nor did the multiple deer racks his parents proudly displayed in their home? We shared stories of our adolescence, and I found the contrast charming. He’d worn camouflage gear with his dad, waiting up in a tree for an unsuspecting deer to amble by, or cheered at NASCAR races, or dealt weed in the shadows of his high school. I’d played my violin, attended Broadway plays, and kept company with my high school’s nerdy theater crowd. And while I took the higher education route after high school, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from preppy New England schools, Jason had gone directly to work, first for his father at a manufacturing plant, and then bouncing from job to job.
On paper we might have been an unlikely couple, but I didn’t care. Sure, I’d spent more time deliberating over the color of a new sofa than I had in choosing to uproot myself and partner with Jason. But his steady stream of affection felt soothing, like good southern molasses, and it brought me back to life. And all the newness of Chapel Hill—the geography, the house, the accents, and the flora—was exactly the balm I needed to release the despair and tumult of my ending with Brian.
Kristen Rademacher lives in Chapel Hill, NC, and works as an Academic Coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With a master’s degree in education and a certification as a life coach, her career in education spans thirty years. When not writing, Kristen loves a long mountain hike, an afternoon lost in a juicy book or podcast, and the company of beloved family and friends.