The Homes We Leave Behind

Patti Davis seeks out new treasures that have already had a home in other people's hearts and lives

by Patti Davis • columnist
patti davis image

They’re tearing down the house up the street. Every couple of days, some relic of the life once lived there is put in the alley or by the Dumpster. A clay planter, a Monet print in a cheap aluminum frame, one of those big table lamps people in the ’50s had in their homes, a small wooden table painted green.

I rescued that particular relic from the alley; it’s now my potting table in the garden.

When I was 19 and moved into an apartment with a friend, I scoured secondhand stores and Salvation Army outlets for lamps, furniture, pictures for the walls, area rugs. In 1971 it was the little money we had allocated for decorating that brought us into the world of used goods, but part of it also was that I’m drawn to things with stories behind them—notes written on the backs of pictures, marks on furniture, maybe from a child teething or a puppy gnawing. It’s not that I don’t buy brand-new things—I do—but I have less attachment to them; they come unblemished by life and history.

I’m still an avid yard sale shopper. I have an upholstered rocking chair that I got for $20 from a woman who had tears in her eyes when she parted with it.

“I nursed my kids in that chair,” she said. “But we don’t have room for it anymore.”

When her husband loaded it into my car he said, “You’re getting something really special here.”

“I know,” I told him. “I’ll treasure it. I promise.”

It’s in my guest bedroom, and everyone who stays there learns the story of the rocking chair.

When I lifted the green wooden table from down the street into the back of my car, I noticed the ghost of a name written long ago in pencil—David—scored into the wood, the letters wide and loopy. I imagined a boy sitting there doing his homework, bored and distracted, scrawling his name into the table he didn’t want to be sitting at. I’ve imagined the Monet print hanging in the living room with the big lamp spreading bright light across a shag rug, a fire blazing in the brick fireplace, photographs on the carved mantel. The more the house comes down, the more I can visualize the home it once was.

Every day I linger in front of it when I walk my dog. I watch the wind blowing through dismantled walls; I imagine memories seeping into the soil—Christmas mornings, long summer evenings. I think about how people’s lives overlap, graze each other. There is a symmetry to it—a cycle—profound and touching and ultimately humbling.

But it often goes without notice. The remains of one life clatter into a Dumpster or are left for others to pick through, while another life is being drawn onto blueprints, discussed with architects and contractors. There is little time left for reflection.

Yet we are richer as human beings if we make time for that reflection, if we linger over what’s being discarded and destroyed. Especially now, when people are losing their homes to foreclosure or being forced to sell. New life will always come, but what’s scraped away—the homes, the mementos, the nails along the roof that held up holiday lights, the floors children once crawled across—are important, too. At the most essential level, we are all threads in this weave of life.

I’ll have to get the $20 rocking chair re-covered at some point; the fabric, having lived two lifetimes, is now worn. But I’ve avoided it because I imagine the woman sitting there late at night nursing her baby, the weight of her body leaving its mark on the velvet seat. I see her history in that damaged fabric.

We visit this earth and move on. We fill up houses with family and pets, with cherished possessions and hopefully with love. Children grow up and leave behind sweet memories that ache in the soul. Eventually, what’s left is moved out to make room for other lives. But it’s worthwhile to linger on that exchange, for a few moments at least, and hope that one day someone will do the same for us.

Share Your Thoughts!


mark rushworth05.06.2014

You guys would love my garage. I rescue things from friends, families (but not dumpsters) and save it for a rainy day. To date I've had several full bathroom suites, loads of garden furniture, leather sofas and loads of misc things pass through my hands to appreciative individuals. I'm like a one man freecycle lol.

gail Harris08.04.2013

Hi Patti,
What you said really hit home for me, because it pointed toward “life’s impermanence.” My family also has an exquisite old rocker that we “snatched” from someone’s basement worth hundreds more than the mere $60 we paid for it. It was a bittersweet moment for the man who parted with his grandmother’s glider and I think that I felt his pain. But what I felt underneath the pain, or for me, what may even have been at its root, is the simple knowledge that nothing stays the same. Our kids are growing up so quickly and we are growing older, too. Like you said, eventually we will die, and so will they—no matter how immortal society makes us out to be. No matter how many bowls of Cherios we eat or sit-ups we do. Now, I don’t focus on this fact, but I try to see the gift in it. The gift is that it reminds me to REALLY LIVE NOW, while I am here, and make my life the most fulfilling it can be. For me, I think that honoring life’s impermanence—in ways such as appreciating old things and the people whose lives came before us— is such a poignant reminder to be present in my own life —right now, this very second as I type these words, if I can remember to look at it that way.

Jacqueline 06.21.2013

I too "love the story" behind second hand object, letters or anything useable but tossed away. I scour second hand stores and flea markets trying to recreate my past I think. I rescued an old hope chest (40's era) that was about to be discarded as it was in rough condition. I took it because I had heard it belonged to my husbands great aunt whose fiancé had given it to her after their engagement. He was a fire fighter and died in the line of duty, and she never married. Thanks for sharing, your words are heartbreakingly beautiful.

You are so right about what is in our homes and how it relates to our heart and soul....
I love your writing, I use to blog...and you are an inspriation to start again.
Blessings Dorothy Stahlnecker

Penney White12.18.2012

I totally enjoyed and get what Patti says. I am a second-hander. Whether it's for preservation of some history, convenience, or new found treasure I find myself eyeing a mound of furniture on the curb or the free section on Craigslist. My parents, in their retirement, are finally getting nice new furniture but, what about the old stuff?
I can't let go of the coffee table we passed around when my sister and I moved out and need a few pieces to start with. I can't allow the dinning room table with our teething marks around the edges be tossed out.
I repurpose, reuse, and recycle many things. If not then I take a lot of pictures. I have to watch myself though for fear I would become a hoarder.

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