In The Aftermath Of 9/11, A Home That Heals

image: US Navy.

image: US Navy.

We’ve pieced ourselves back together in a patchwork quilt of ragged emotions. The aftermath of 9/11 wasn’t easy for us, yet it was much easier than for some. People standing 50 feet away from Peter didn’t come home that night. He did.

Another firefighter had taken a photograph of my husband Peter on 9/11.  It's etched in my memory like a scar: white ash covering his bunker gear and helmet. The bushes and even the ground itself like terrible snow. His eyes squinted in horror.

But on this day, almost a year later, I saw a different picture of Peter. The outline of his face was cushioned against a wall aof bright emerald as he stood in the meadow, framed by old evergreens. He was smiling softly. That’s when I knew we had to have this house. This house would help us heal.

Only it wasn’t a house, really. It was a well-worn, 18-year-old single-wide set among fragrant pines and sugar maples. I spotted it on the Internet the summer of 2002.  A few weeks later, we convinced the realtor to show us the property. “It’s terrible,” Stefan confessed in his posh Austrian accent.

“Falling apart?” we asked.

“No,” he admitted.  “But it has hideous orange shag carpet.”

Three miles outside the town of Rosendale in upstate New York, we turned onto a crumbling driveway and were immediately cradled by the scent of pine. Startled deer and wild turkeys scattered. Set at the top of a hill was a modest mobile home, soon to be named “The Special Blue House” by our three-year-old.

When we let David out of his car seat, he ran to a tiny Japanese maple and began climbing it. Just beyond “his tree,” an arbor of branches led to an open field. Peter walked through it like a magic door. Stefan, the prissy realtor, stood safely on the driveway, careful not to scuff his fancy shoes. I followed my husband.

That’s when I saw Peter’s face against the backdrop of green leaves and blue sky. It was the most peaceful I’d seen him since 9/11.  

Inside, the trailer wasn’t as dismal as predicted. True, there were water stains on the ceiling, which sagged in spots. The rooms had a stale, airless smell, since the place had been sealed up for a couple of years. Then there was that puke-colored carpet. But with a little care, effort, and love, I knew we could turn it into a comfortable home.

Shock registered on the realtor’s face when we told him that the place had potential. Half-jokingly, he warned us not to hang a clothesline — but I couldn’t wait to put up a clothesline. Peter and I laughed politely, but deep inside knew this home would save us.

You see, we had been slowly unraveling since 9/11 and needed a sanctuary, a haven to nurse our wounded souls. “We can’t afford a second mortgage,” Peter balked. “Besides, technically it isn’t even a house.”

But I persisted until he agreed. Somehow I knew it would be our salvation. And on November 8, 2002, after a collage of wrestling matches pitting realtor against realtor, a jumble of house inspectors, mortgage companies, banks, lawyers and piles of paperwork, the Special Blue House became ours.

That night, Peter and I slept on an air mattress on the awful orange carpet, which was now our awful orange carpet. We primed and painted the parched paneled walls a luminous white, scrubbing away years of dust and making peace with the gentle ghost of Margaretha, the elderly lady who’d spent the last years of her life here.

Her kind spirit was difficult to ignore. The single-wide had the feeling of being well-tended, even under the delicate sprinklings of mouse droppings. The trailer itself was filled with good karma, some of it even ours.

Margaretha’s family had owned much of the surrounding hills. Over the years, she sold off parcels and lived off the proceeds, saving this narrow six-acre plot of paradise for herself. She purposely situated the trailer so that she could see the sun both rise and set from different windows.  Two years earlier, she’d passed away in a nursing home, but her beneficent aura remained. I think she was happy we were here, and that we loved SBH as much as she did.

We’re up County Road 7, near the white clapboard church, tucked away on a hill, next to a surgeon’s Tudor mansion. A sky-blue trailer just a short walk from Fourth Binnewater Lake, which recovered nicely from a drought the season after we bought it.

But the lake isn't the only thing that's recovered. We’ve recovered, too. We’ve pieced ourselves back together in a patchwork quilt of ragged emotions. The aftermath of 9/11 wasn’t easy for us, yet it was much easier than for some. People standing 50 feet away from Peter didn’t come home that night. He did.

At times, we thought we’d never finish grieving, that the tears would never stop coming. Maybe they never will. But we are among the lucky ones: we found a house to help us heal. Only it’s not really a house. It is a home. Our home.

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