Love floor plans! Nothing is more exciting to me than looking at
apartments or houses. If I don't need to look for myself, I go
with any friend or relative who does. The next best thing is
rearranging – put a yardstick in my hand and I'm the
happiest woman in the world.
My latest move was intended to be a permanent one. A widow and
retired, I planned to live closer to my eldest daughter, her
husband, and her two children. I rented an apartment for nine
months and finally decided to build a small house on a small lot,
because I couldn't find the perfect one to buy. The lot was in a
subdivision I had seen before; I liked it because the houses were
not all alike. Some were two-story, some one-level – and
there were assorted styles. I also liked the fact that the
subdivision was not flat, but consisted of curves and inclines.
I studied the lot more than once. It was on a rise, safe from
flooding; yet not so high that there was danger of foundation
problems. The drainage seemed adequate. My mother always advised
me to look at houses on a rainy day. This house should prove
Maples and pines and pin oaks provided shade and cover; the front
faced the east, so the orientation was good for the pansies that
are perfect for that little bit of color in the winter.
I moved in on September 4, 2001. Such a lovely home: the
walls in pale flesh, beige carpets, the floors and countertops
with touches of rose and blue, and a screen porch for the cats. A
pastel house, soft as a sunrise on a spring day.
And in exactly one week, the world suddenly and irrevocably
changed. Your home is supposed to be your
refuge, the one place you feel secure. But September 11,
2001 stole my refuge forever.
My house was at peace for seven days. Now it is my dwelling place
for the duration of a war.
The afternoon of that terrible Tuesday, I drove to my church. It
was empty except for me. Services had not yet been arranged.
It felt comforting to be there in the silence. With Someone who
understood. Even Your house isn't safe, I thought sadly.
These people wouldn't hesitate to destroy a church, a mosque, or
I find myself often looking back on those months in that
two-bedroom apartment with a deep nostalgia. I had thought the
reason for it could have been that life there was so
uncomplicated. A tiny kitchen, no yard care – but there was
privacy in having the end apartment of the building, and my front
windows looked out on the woods at the top of a nearby hill. When
it rained there was a natural waterfall across the street.
Another reason for the nostalgia may have been that I was at the
beginning of a new life in a new and fascinating place. So many
possibilities. So many things that are now gone – The
Almost Dead Poet's Society, the poetry readings at the
bookstore, the wonderful choir director at my church, voice
lessons for the first time – all gone. The inevitable
changes that make up one's life.
It was a cold winter my first year here – there were three
drafty windows in my bedroom, which jutted out from the rest of
the structure. I put up white semi-shears; I loved that soft,
floating look. My cats enjoyed licking the condensed water on the
sills every morning. We had a snowfall the first month – so
exciting – but we haven't had one since. I have never been
healthier than I was during the winter in that icebox of an
apartment. There was the coziest feeling at night when I would
hear the muffled footsteps of the upstairs neighbors coming
home while I settled under my layers of blankets.
But the rent was high, and I had another bedroom in storage. I
had never liked apartments; I had been pleasantly surprised by
this one. So with a bit of reluctance, I went ahead with my
plans. Who wouldn't want a permanent home of one's own
if one could have it? Who wouldn't trade the uncertainty of
renting for the permanence, the stability and security, of
I thrived on shopping for houses; I waited on the construction
with anticipation. I thought perhaps another reason for the
nostalgia might have been that I was sorry to be finished with
the searching and the planning and the choosing of the color
Could there be a more fundamental reason, one that just occurred
to me? Could it be that the apartment was my last home
before September 11th?
Suddenly I was like a robin shaken from its nest, like a
tightrope walker with the net surreptitiously removed.
I actually felt blessed to be a little older. If I were a young
mother with infants or toddlers I'd be terrified. There are those
we love, of course, especially the grandchildren, but the
protective instincts of a mother for her young are the strongest
instincts there are. I am frightened for my children and their
children. I've lived a lot – they haven't yet.
I had my private wake-up call on September 11 from a young man
who had come to do the finishing touches on my personal Safe
House, and America had a wake-up call in New York,
Washington, and Pennsylvania.
That same young man enlisted in the Air Force the next day. I
wait and watch here at home.
He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth
Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
Psalms 120:7 Bible
And neither can we.
by Mary Brunini McArdle
... who is a freelance writer of fiction, nonfiction, poems, and
plays, with numerous awards and extensive publication credits;
she has also taught poetry and military strategy at the
University of Alabama in Huntsville. An earlier version of this
story earned Honorable Mention at the 2004 Alabama Conclave.