combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006

Safe House

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 safe.

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 a synagogue.

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 ownership?

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 schemes.

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.

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