How I am reclaiming our house as my home

I was sitting in my living room the other evening, stretched out in my favorite recliner, while I worked on a crochet project.

My 5-year-old Brittany dog Thistle was curled up like a little caterpillar in my lap. Her son, 2-year-old Quincy, was stretched out beside me in the chair. The other two dogs were nearby, sleeping soundly.

I had forgotten to turn on the television, and had turned off the music I’d been playing in the kitchen. I was content to just sit there in my silence, enjoying the company of my four dogs. As I became aware of that contentment, it dawned on me that something has truly changed for me.

My house has become my home again.

After my husband Jim died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, our house was just a roof over my head, a place to store my stuff, and a stopping off point between road trips. I would have the television on for noise, not even aware of what was playing. I didn’t really “see” the house or its contents.

My heart would not let me look because there would be painful memories I didn’t want to face.

I made some changes within the first year so I could tolerate being there. I had the living room redone into more of a den that reflects my personal taste, and I cleaned Jim’s stuff off the counters in the kitchen and painted a bold red over the traditional pale yellow of the kitchen walls.

A much younger Thistle checking out the new living room arrangement.

A much younger Thistle checking out the new living room arrangement.

There were other minor changes too, but those larger changes let me find places in my house where I could relax some.

But I never really relaxed. I found it a relief to leave for work on weekday mornings, or to pile my baggage and the dogs in the van and take off for the weekend. The return home was always bittersweet, and I dreaded stepping into the empty house.

Even when I was home, I didn’t really see my surroundings. I went through the motions of living: laundry, dishes, floors, bills, taking care of the dogs — never really seeing any of it. I was unaware of what pictures were displayed around me, or what was on the walls, or the dust on the knick knacks.

I had blocked them all on some level to protect the stabs they might bring to my heart.

When I had the living room redone, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted on the walls. The old wallpaper had been covered with photos and wall hangings of all types when Jim was alive. Photos of family and dogs and memorabilia from a happy life together all had to come down so the wallpaper could be stripped and the walls painted.

Jim was trying to fix the speakers to the stereo system and had way more help than he needed.

Jim was trying to fix the speakers to the stereo system and had way more help than he needed. Sassy is in front and a young Bullet sitting behind her.

It was a relief to me to strip everything off those walls and to have a clean slate.

A few things went back up as soon as the paint dried: the painting we commissioned of our beloved Brittany dog Rosie who had died in 2006; my birth mother’s baby picture still in its original frame that had hung in my grandparents’ living room; and the pendulum wall clock Jim’s sister had given to us.

All of those things make my heart smile and give me comfort.

I consider the living room walls a work in progress. I add something and live into it. If the fit is good, I move on to the next thing. If it isn’t, it comes down and something else goes up.

I have been doing the same thing with photos. I realized that other than the “family wall” in the hallway, the pictures I had on display were of dog sports-related accomplishments. I wondered when and how that had happened.

Now my living room photos are of family, with a couple dog photos thrown in. Some are displayed under the bow window on a coffee table that Jim had made in high school shop class. It makes me happy to be surrounded again by the beautiful faces of my family.

And it makes me happier that I now see them.

I gave away the old coffee table, end tables, and sectional couch and bought a new stand to have next to my leather reclining loveseat. There’s a Canadian rocker, which was the first piece of furniture I had purchased with my own money as a working adult; and a paw print-decorated box full of dog toys.

And a beautiful wooden box with a deer etched in it our niece had given to Jim one Christmas where I have stored the stuff my husband always kept within easy reach on the end table next to the couch.

Thistle is opening a Christmas present in the living room.

Thistle opens a Christmas present in the living room.

I couldn’t part with those everyday things that had become so personal, and I couldn’t look at them either. The box was a perfect solution. It lives under the coffee table Jim had made.

I look forward to relaxing in my recliner in my redone room at the end of the day, spending some one-on-one time with the dogs, working on a project, reading, watching a movie or talking to friends and family on Facebook or the phone.

I also look forward to spending time at home. It’s still difficult to come home to the empty house, but I refocus more quickly on what I plan to do once inside the walls and balance is restored.

Now I don’t relish being on the road; instead I regret having to leave the home I’ve just rediscovered and begun to make my own.

I see the dust on the knick knacks and the dog hair on the floor and I find I want to do something about it and I do it with a sense of ownership. It’s no longer a mechanical response. I see my surroundings and I care about them again.

I still have a lot of grief work to do and things are not easy in many ways and on many levels, but something essential to my well-being has happened — my house has become my home again. I have a safe place to be.

My living room often has dog toys strewn about. This is Thistle (sitting) and Bullet.

My living room often has dog toys strewn about, and the blankets on the recliner help protect the leather upholstery. Thistle (sitting) and Bullet seem to be thinking up their next action.

Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.