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Bidding Farewell to House with History

Not the Retiring Type

When a UPS driver knocks, or a visitor rings the bell at the entrance to our house, they aren’t aware of rousing the two Oriental foo dogs that reside on porch rafters overhead. They don’t know about the coins from Sweden and Guatemala tucked beneath the bricks at their feet. But we know—my spouse and I.

After 17 years of living in his home, we give little thought to the blessings and memorabilia that surround us in this place. We installed them during construction. We built ourselves into the framework, filling a new house with a past and a personality.

The foo dogs are an ancient symbol of protection. The two small replicas above our front door hold respect for history and tradition. The coins acknowledge travel and abundance—a gesture of gratitude and a prayer for life-enriching opportunities flowing through our portals.

The inspiration for these hidden offerings dates back a few years to an invitation to join friends in scrawling blessings on the unfinished framework of a home they were building in Eugene. We brought pens and paints and filled the scaffolding with words of love and joy.

When we undertook our own home-building project in 1999, we wanted the same sense of hope and happiness to flood the rooms we were creating. Quickly, our zest for the project billowed beyond pens and paints.

Into the still-soft concrete of the foundation we pushed red rocks collected on a hike in Sedona. Black obsidian from the Cascade Range. Agates from the sand at Gleneden Beach. A union pin once worn by my father-in-law. Friends came to add support, sprinkling the soil within the foundation with flowers and glitter and water carried, in the days before 9/11, from the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.

As walls went up, we splashed memories and dreams on the framework of our future. We filled hidden spaces with photos and mementos. Some playful, some prayerful. Some sappy, some symbolic. We tacked a cluster of beaded Mexican hearts in the master bedroom wall, above the place our heads would lie. A tin angel took residence over the closet door.

Beneath the staircase we tucked a ceramic troll brought from Sweden in 1959 when I returned from a student exchange. Dean added a silver horse he’d won at a Lane County Fair booth, and a plastic airplane for safe travels.

Before long, the passion for personalization spread to carpenters who nailed prayer flags in an attic and cherished baseball cards above the ceiling beams.

“Love is the whole and more than all,” I wrote on a wall, citing an e.e. Cummings’ poem.

“Deep peace of the running wave to you,” urged a line from a Gaelic prayer.

But midway through the construction process, the peace we sought blew past us like the icy winds that spit hail through window frames of our unfinished home. “I’m sorry. It’s malignant." The diagnosis of a cancerous lump in my breast in April 2000 called for different prayers.

“Waking up this morning, I smile,” I wrote on an unfinished wall of my future study. “Twenty-four hours before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” The words come from Thich Naht Hanh, spiritual teacher and Viet Nam war refugee whose vow captures the deep gratitude of survivors.

By August when we moved into this new home I was bald and exhausted from the challenges of cancer treatment and packing. I sank into a sofa and sipped tea with the contractor in charge of the construction.

“How does it feel,” he asked. “How is it for you to be in this new space?” My response came without thought or hesitation: “I feel like I was born here,” I sighed. “I feel completely at home.” The house by then had become a refuge—a promise of life after cancer. The interminable details of faucets, fixtures, or cabinet hardware had turned my focus to the future, to a fresh start and a new stage of life.

Now, I’m preparing myself to step away from the history and hope embedded in this structure. I feel nostalgic, but not sad. I’ve known this stage of life would come. Knew even as we built it that someday we would choose to live more simply. Choose to welcome another stage of life.

It’s a move we vowed we would make before illness or physical limitations forced it upon us. It would be a choice to downsize, not a crisis. But that was always “someday”—a hazy, distant day.

Now 17 years later, the future has become the present. This month we signed a sale agreement for this house filled with memories and gratitude. A home where life opened to light and zest once again as the shadow of cancer slowly lifted.

Next month we’ll move into a space not much larger than the apartment in which we launched a marriage 54 years ago. Meanwhile I’m deep in a letting-go process that overshadows the 30-day declutter challenge I wrote about last year. Instead of releasing 465 items in 30 days, I’m hurling basketfuls of dusty photos and faded newspaper articles into the recycle bin.

It isn’t easy, but it feels right. Making my life more lean again. Simple enough and spacious enough for new dreams and fewer things.

Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer. Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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