My parents bought their first home when I was seven. We previously lived in an apartment, a one floor ranch, a one floor ranch across the street with a broken Jacuzzi, and a half a double in the bad side of town. They were all houses. Or roofs. Or places of beds and pillows and showers and living rooms and a place to put the toothbrush. But they weren’t ours. They weren’t homes. This was supposed to be home. We hoped it would be home. My mother had every intention of raising her children there. My father had every intention of dying there. We hoped it would be home.
It was a remodel of a repossessed double on the corner of Summit and 8th, next door to a halfway house for abused runaways, across the street from an abandoned duplex overgrown with ivy and tall grass, in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of section eight housing in the state. It was sanctuary, entrenched in the poverty my father bleed to alleviate.
My father was a warrior and a man of God. Not the God of blind faith or brimstone or even evangelism. My father fought for the God of shattered places. For the God of the unwanted and unloved and addicted and dying and clawing. My father fought for the God of those who had no God and wanted no God and deserved no God but needed God all the same. He fought for the God of the fatherless. His battles were arduous and stony things against castles of apathy and ignorance where he laid siege upon his brothers; those who would rather see the fatherless forgotten. My father never forgot them, and every week he would fill the sanctuary with their broken bodies and give them hope.
Hope was at the heart of this home; a tan cathedral with olive-colored shutters and a porch with a swing. No stain glass windows, but skylights that turned bedrooms into palaces. No bell towers, but chimneys that cut the air like turrets.
When we moved in, the sanctuary was empty. We removed our shoes and lighted gingerly on fresh carpet and ran our fingertips across fresh paint and bathed like Moses, lost yet found, in the warmth of holy ground.
Four years later, when I was eleven, I was packing the last box of old toys in the now-empty bedroom my twin brother and I used to share. The walls were dented with all the damage prepubescent boys could wreak on a house they no longer lived in or loved. We did it for fun and because no one could stop us. Because we were leaving. Only our parents knew why. My mother entered from the hall to check on me, to ensure nothing sentimental would be abandoned. She stood for a moment and stared at the walls. She smiled.
My mother was an amateur painter and crafter and scrapbooker and seamstress and artist. She gave me creation. Like a wizard, she summoned beautiful mosaics of newspaper and watercolor and stamps from thin air. She taught me to sew buttons on shirts and make dolls of dragons from patterned fabric. She taught me to paint with brushes on paper and canvas and sometimes walls. She loved to paint walls. She painted the kitchen like fire and the living room like velvet. At the heart of the sanctuary she slaved for weeks like Michelangelo on the side of the stairs, conjuring an intricate mural of shapes and colors I no longer remember. In the bedroom my twin brother and I shared, she conjured a treehouse. Because we asked for a one. We begged for one.
She started with a two coats of Medium Adler, a brown paint that glowed in sunlight. She lathered it onto brushes and paint rollers with woolen covers that felt like clouds. She flew them across the walls for two days, soaking the room with radiance. Then she bought a special brush shaped like a rounded stamp that, when soaked in paint and rolled across a surface, would imitate the grain of wood. She took that brush and turned the bedroom into a treehouse. Because we asked for one. We begged for one.
She now stood in its center, with dented walls, and with me, taping up a box of toys I kept out like a lifeline for as long as I could. It might have been the ridiculousness of it all, how meaningless all the work now seemed, or something more existential, like loss or powerlessness or pain or fear, but something broke my mother. In that moment, in the sanctuary she brought to life, the world collapsed on top of her.
It may have been for her stolen home, or for her unknowing children, or for the hours of work spent on a treehouse that was fake. She may have been weeping for days before and she may have been weeping for days after, but those moments were hidden from me. This one was uncovered and clear and perfect in all of its pain. She wept.
I set the box of my childhood aside and stood weakly next to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said. It might have been “It’ll be okay” or “It’s going to be alright” or “Don’t cry, mom.” I don’t remember. Whatever it was, I think I believed it. Because I was too young to know what foreclosure was. Because I was too young to know what poverty was. Because I was too young to know how to lose my faith; to lose my hope.
I had never seen my mother cry before.
In the decade since we lost our home, my family has moved four times, whether in service to my father’s campaign or in retreat from it. He still fights, but spends less time on the front lines than he once did. He teaches now, training new soldiers to champion the abandoned. My mother still creates, but she hasn’t painted walls since the sanctuary. Instead she carries out a campaign of her own, orchestrating artists from the disparate communities of the fatherless. In the decade since, she has learned to fight as well.
I keep my shoes on when I enter houses. I have a box from two moves back I have never unpacked, and probably never will.
I haven’t seen my mother cry since.