Family children of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale run in field

Old Places, New Meanings

There is a farm where the earth is flat and the grass is brown this time of year, but the fireplace is so warm that it’s hard to stay awake next to it. Up above, the birds fly in large flocks, and even when I’m out on a long run, I can see the house in the distance, glowing. The house is old and creaky, with pipes that mostly work and bookshelves that hold generations of memories. It is a place where you can curl up with a blanket all afternoon, just like we both have done over the years.

It is a place that I have loved for many years, and one that Chris has loved too. It is a place that wasn’t – and isn’t – exactly ours, and yet, it’s always felt like home.

It is a place that Chris first knew, before he knew me. His sister Becky was dating Josh, and Josh’s parents lived on the farm. They invited Chris to the farm for Thanksgiving that year, more than a decade ago, along with Chris’s girlfriend. Chris and Becky’s parents and grandmother came, too. The girlfriend – well, she married someone else – and I would sadly never meet their grandmother. That weekend, Josh told both of Becky’s brothers that he was planning to propose to Becky. Soon, Chris and Josh would be family. But I did not know either of them, or the farm, back then.

Some time passed, and life happened. The birds flew overhead at the farm, but we didn’t see them.

When Tommy was just a toddler and the other two were not much older, Shawn and I got an invitation for Thanksgiving at the farm. Chris was somewhere else, maybe Colombia? We juggled children and food prep and walks around the farm. We said prayers and told stories and the door slammed when the wind blew in big gusts. Tommy wore fleece jeans the whole weekend that he tripped over and we had to roll up at the cuffs. Everyone was so tiny, but when the birds flew overhead, they leapt with joy. And when the fireplace was lit, they cuddled up with us in front of it and dozed off, surrounded by the warmth.

Time passed. Life happened. The house glowed in the winter, I’m sure, but I was not there to see it.

Four years ago, on Thanksgiving day, I laid alone by the fireplace at night in my home in DC, worried about the illness that was consuming Shawn. Was it something that could be really bad? What did it mean?

But the farm was still out there, filled with people who were laughing and hugging and joyful at Thanksgiving. One of those people was Chris, there to meet his brand-new niece and see his family that came from across the country. He was overjoyed with the baby, and she sat in his lap near the fireplace. In the photos from that year, both of them are glowing.

The next year, Chris was in Atlanta, and I was a widow. That year, Becky and Josh and their family welcomed us to the farm, but I did not feel the warmth of the fireplace, not really. Of course, I could feel the temperature, but I didn’t feel it in my bones. Everything was cold, mostly, and my body was tired. But I could hear the hum of the voices in the kitchen as I did little to help, and that was a comfort. From another room, I could hear Becky talk to her brothers on the phone, and my dad talk to Josh’s mom in the study. I couldn’t feel the warmth, but I knew it was there, at least.

A year passed, and everything seemed so much easier. Chris was in Atlanta, again, and I was back at the farm. This time, I felt different. Somehow, the same house, the same farm – it was back to how it had always been: a place of warmth and comfort. Of course, it wasn’t the farm that had changed. That year, I reflected a bit on our trip and wrote this:

Later, I thought back to the first night we were there.  It was mild, and the kids were running around outside after dinner as the adults drank wine and talked at the table.  Just about the time we started to wonder where they were, all five of them burst through the door, breathless. 

“We saw all the stars!” Tommy screamed.  The adults started asking about everything outside, and the kids answered excitedly.

 “We could see the big dipper and the little dipper, too!” Claire reported.

Austin, red-faced, came and stood right next to me, and paused.  “Mom,” he said, an awe-struck look in his eyes, “there were millions and millions of stars.”

The kids were glowing.  Not from the air, though I could see their breath when they ran back outside.  No, they were glowing from the feel of being in a place so different from their own home, and yet with the same warmth of home.

We talked to Chris on the phone that year, Facetiming as we made pies in our respective houses. And I certainly felt warmth run through me we all chatted, though it wasn’t from the fireplace. Every day on my run that Thanksgiving, I let myself think a little of Chris, though I kept that to myself. Being with him was not a possible reality, not back then. What was possible was embracing the joy I felt watching the kids run across the field and back to the house that glowed as the sun set.

And then came 2020.

That year, for the first time, Chris and I came to the farm together. First, in the spring, where we had a magical weekend. We returned in the fall for Thanksgiving that year, and took our first official family photos. The fire was warm and we sat in front of it, curled together. How often I’d been in the same place, and how often he’d been in the same place, but never at the same time. We both knew that place, and yet at that moment it felt like an entirely new place. The kids’ voices carried from outside and the smells from the kitchen were the same, but there was new meaning there.

And now, we return. We return this year to the place where the geese fly overhead and the wind whips across the barren fields and the fireplace is so warm that it lulls us to sleep.

Just as it has always been.

Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.