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Do the houses that built you still live inside you?

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By Steve Doyle

You may have heard country singer Miranda Lambert describe in her sweet and twangy voice the story of “The House That Built Me.”

She tells of knocking on the door of the home where she grew up and explaining to the person who answers about how she learned life in the building’s nooks and crannies and yard, where she learned music and buried her dog.

Willie Nelson once said that country music “is three chords and tell the truth,” and “The House” tells the truth in terms you can’t reject.

Because each of us is not just a product of those individuals who created us, loved us, formed us and shoved us awing.

We are also offspring of the nest itself, of the walls that we pushed away, the ceilings we gazed beyond and of the floors we used for stability.

Our homes were our first sense of place outside the womb, an ethereal sense that we can smell, see and even touch and hear in every corner of our everlasting souls.

We were formed by the opportunities that our homes presented us, their locations and settings defining our friends, our boundaries, our habits and our whims. And forevermore they are the storyboard for everything that would come after.

How many monumental memories are engraved into your history that include the surroundings as well as the event?

Chances are, many of them happened at the places you called home, the places that raised you.

There were two houses that built me.

They sat on opposite sides of a large lake just north of Simpsonville, an anchorage where horses have replaced cows and where the trees and hollows that I once roamed on foot and machine have been manicured into lush pasture.

I lived with my parents and brothers in a small block house behind the dam of that lake, hard by a meandering rivulet that bisected our farm, shaded by hickory and oak trees.

Just up the hill and around a slight bend, a furlong away, was the house in which my grandparents lived, a two-story, craftsman-style cottage with a sprawling yard, a large front porch with a swing on one end, fortressed by maples, oaks, hickories and even a hedge-apple tree.

In the rooms of these two houses, in every closet, in the attic, behind the doors, next to the windows, on the porches and even under the sinks and beds, these are the places where I lived, where these houses built me.

They were where I learned to speak, read and count, where I my first real thoughts passed were recognized, where I conjured my first dared dreams and consummated some of my most  enduring developments.

They – and the land surrounding them – pneumatically nourished me from infancy to adulthood, and they lay witness to my secrets, my loves and my fears as surely as does my heart.

I have set foot in neither of these houses for more than 20 years, but I can close my eyes and feel them around me as if I had never left.

I can tell you what was on the walls, the floors, the ceilings, the colors and the aromas. I can hear the voices echoing inside, the chop and sizzle from their kitchens, remember how the windows opened and where we hid the door keys.

They were the castles of my creation, and they remain the framework of my future, for without those fragile little buildings, I would today have less strength in my being.

As I drive the roads of Shelby County, I see houses that I recognized as having built many of you.

I have known them for decades, though some have been replaced by more modern and elegant residences just across a field, and they remain as if plotted on a map, their familiarity carrying your names as the signposts of our lives.

Even if you’ve moved on, the place I recognize remains your place, and maybe part of you remains.

Once I visited Cat Island in the Bahamas, which is much more bucolic and sparse than you might envision. Houses there invariably have next to them a crumbling old block edifices, the original homes, which are maintained because the natives believe that the spirits who lived in that house remain and that the old place must be kept as a resting place for those spirits.

Maybe they have it right.

My paternal grandmother was a writer, a diary keeper, a family chronicler. She maintained journals for decades on small notebooks that no one knew existed until her death.

She used her later years to write in her quick, left-handed tilt page after page in a stenographer’s notebook describing her life as a child, and these passages included great details of her homes, their rooms, their beds and the trees by their porches.

She included sketches, dimensions and labels of an old house that still sits next to I-64 where Hempridge Road crosses, a place she lived until she was only about 6.

She drew the rooms of a house off Fields Lane that her father expanded for his growing family, a house that remains the home of her sister and her husband now more than a century later.

You see, these were the houses that built her, places that remained part of her for all her 94 years, lifestages and outposts that helped spin her fine, silken fabric.

Nothing can remove them.

And it only takes one little, sweet country song to bring them to life again.

She was the last of my family to leave our farm, in the late 1980s. The house where I was built was itself razed to make room for new property lines and more aesthetic needs.

And when my grandparents moved on, their house was sold and actually picked up and moved up the road.

My home today is less than a mile from that acreage where my two homes stood. It’s off the same road and shares the same horizons.

And every time I go to it, I have one special treasure:

There on the corner as I turn, sits the house where my grandparents lived in its new resting place.

It sits now as my sentinel, my guardian, my everlasting monument, and, in its own inanimate way, that house continues to build me.