Topophilia

I talk to my houses. I talk to my houses the way some people talk to their plants. When I leave, I say good-bye and tell the house when I will be returning. When I arrive, I tell the house I have arrived, announcing my homecoming loudly, and asking questions about how things have been as I check all the rooms. In between, I have little chats as well. “Now when did this happen?” I ask the house about a broken door handle, for example.

I  recently learned that there is such a thing as topophilia. Yi-fu Tuan, a professor of geography, wrote a whole book[1] about it and defined it as “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment” (p.4). In other words, people’s bonds with places. It is a word that begins to describe my feeling about Maine, the place where I grew up and lived for many (but not enough) years.

I was born in Maine, grew up there, completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees there. My parents lived there for all of their lives, and I returned several times a year, even after marrying and moving away. It was always my dream to return to Maine, and I periodically made attempts to return. Everyone who traveled with me had to learn the “Grand State of Maine” song and sing it as we crossed the Kittery bridge.

Finally, in 2001, while working in New York City, my wife, Rosemary, and I bought a house on a lake in the Sebago Lake area. Although we had an apartment in the Big City, I considered our house in Maine to be home. Our cat and dog lived there,[2] and all my treasured possessions were there. I built an office in the walk-out basement, where I could work. I couldn’t have been happier. I had come home.

Last year, after fifteen glorious years, we sold our home in Maine. Rosemary and I, both with auto-immune diseases, were finding it more and more difficult to manage the 7-8 hour drive from the City. We weren’t able to take care of the house the way it deserved. We had previously had a woman who lived there winters with our cat (our dog had died several years before), but she was elderly and could no longer manage alone, so we took the cat to our apartment and for the past two years we had closed up the house for the winter.

Then, last winter, the oil company forgot to deliver the oil on their appointed schedule; pipes froze, requiring a new toilet, a new dishwasher, and much clean-up work. I made an unplanned trip up and found water had run over the kitchen floor, in the basement, through the electrical box, and there were icicles coming out of the shower head.

It was an economical decision also. I had retired and Rosemary was now working part time. We needed to downsize. So we put the house on the market. It was very difficult. As I said, I get very attached to my houses, particularly ones that I have put much of myself into. The real estate agent promised me we didn’t have to sell the house until the absolute right people came along.

The last summer before we sold the Maine house, one of my friends, trying to help me deal with the loss, thought I might try not spending the whole summer in Maine, but, rather, spend some of the time in Old Saybrook, beginning my new life there. I thought for a bit and responded, “Suppose I had a lover who was going off to war. Would you expect me to say, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t see you this summer. You will be gone after this, maybe forever. I have to get used to living without you by seeing less of you this summer'”? We stayed in Maine until the closing, until the house belonged to a wonderful couple who clearly would love the house as I had.

I like my new life in Old Saybrook. I like it very much. I consider myself most fortunate to spend my retired years in such a glorious spot. Today, the UPS man brought our planters out to the patio and just stood there and looked over the marshes, the cove, and the Connecticut River in the distance. “Wow,” he said. Nearly everyone who comes has the same reaction. “Yes,” I replied, and I really meant it.

I can walk to the main street; the train station is five minutes away; we live in a condo, where the lawn mowing and snow plowing are taken care of, and yet we are in a place where we can sit on our patio or in our sunroom and never know there are any other units around. It couldn’t be more suited to retirement living. I don’t want to give the impression that I am in any way deprived. In an era where I there are so many homeless, so many refugees, we are among the very privileged to be in a place like this. I do not take it for granted in any way.

Still, today, when I was standing there with the UPS delivery guy, I closed my eyes for a moment and could smell the ocean, not far away. For a minute, I pretended I was in Maine, at the place my aunt used to have in Harpswell, on the ocean.

I believe that the motivation for changing my name and taking on this new identity of Brynna is a way to deal with the loss. I am not the same person now as I was when I could say I lived in Maine. Brenda lived in Maine. Brynna lives in Old Saybrook.

I wonder sometimes if I will develop as deep an attachment to this new place. I hope so. New relationships take time. It’s not always easy becoming Brynna.

[1] Tuan, Yi-Fu. (1974). Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

[2] We didn’t leave them on their own. We had a woman who came in and lived with them when we weren’t there.

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