Sunday, September 18, 2011

Saying Goodbye

Sometimes, it's just one of those days.

It starts like any other-you wake, grab the coffee and a shower, groggily greet the new day, and remember. Today is the day. The day yet another chapter of your life closes. For good. As I looked into the backyard, I burst into tears, and was grateful that Jackie was handling the sale.

Let me begin at the beginning.

In the fall of 2000, I was newly married (for the second time, with all the hopes and fears one has), and my new husband and I were cramped into my apartment. I was working for a real estate agency, and perfectly positioned to purchase a house, so shopping I went.

Richmond, Virginia has a long-standing tradition of “tacky Christmas light” displays, and for the previous four years I had greatly enjoyed taking the Tacky Tour: pulling addresses out of the Times-Dispatch and driving a self-guided tour, alone, or with friends. One of my favourite houses was on Ginter Street in Lakeside, a little suburb just north of the Richmond city line. Every Christmas season I used to go out of my way when driving home from work just to pass this particular house and drink in the lovingly crafted display.

Imagine my surprise when I found that this house was on the market.

I scheduled a day with one of our realtors to check a dozen houses, saving the one on Ginter Street for last. Although there were many nice homes, nothing clicked with me...until I walked into the house on Ginter Street. As I stepped through the door, it seemed as if I had finally come home.

The house was in awful shape, and I found out why. The owner, Carl Lewis Whittaker (Louie, to his friends) was present and gave me the grand tour-from the roses he had planted in front to the pecan tree in the back that was older than the house itself. I told him of how I had passed his house time and time again, and how much I enjoyed his Christmas display as he pointed out the electrical system with the numerous outdoor outlets. When I asked why he was selling, a shadow passed over his face, and he told me why. He could no longer live alone, he said. Leukemia. His doctors told him he had a year left.

His face changed back as he extolled the virtues of the house. He had done much of the work on it himself, but there was a great deal more to be done. I thanked him and left, and immediately called my mortgage broker to work out a deal. We closed in January, 2001, and moved the middle of the biggest snowstorm to hit Virginia in 20 years.

Over the following seasons we settled into our new home, meeting the neighbors, gardening, fixing the house; until suddenly, it was Thanksgiving. Timmy, my across-the-street neighbor, was putting up his Christmas lights. “Are you carrying on the tradition?', he shouted from across the street. To be honest, I hadn't thought of it. New husband, new home, promotion at work, starting a new business-all these had kept me from from any hobby at all. As I looked at the house with its myriad of outdoor electrical sockets, I thought, “Why not? I can throw up some lights. It will be fun.” Louie had also left some blow molds in the garage, and I quickly repaired them and set them out. A trip to Wal-Mart gave me about a thousand lights, and after putting them up, they looked a little sparse, so it was back to Wally World for a few thousand more. (As lighting enthusiasts know, lights are counted by the number of actual bulbs, not by strands, so a thousand lights is only ten strands.) After putting these up, I decided that the porch roof was a little bare. The world knows what happened in September of 2001, so an American flag, patterned in four thousand lights, was installed in that bare spot.

And the tour buses began to come. And I was hooked.

2007, the year of the blow molds.

The next year, Timmy and I had a contest, with a running total of how many lights we each had. If I had more the previous night, Tim would break out some more until he had just one strand more...and I would rush to Wal-Mart and buy another thousand just to beat him. We spent the evenings calling our light counts to each other from across the street, and the buses and limousines resumed their visits. The year after, Tim and I decorated houses next door as well as our own, and other neighbors began to get into the act. Our block of Ginter Street had become the most lighted block on the Tacky Tour, and there were only one or two neighbors that didn't have at least a lighted wreath on the door. Louie came by every year to have a drink and catch up, until the year he couldn't come any more.

Then came 2004.

This year, my fairy-tale marriage came crashing down to the tune of my husband's long-term, undisclosed mental illness, and the yearly lighting was my escape. By the time the lights came down, the marriage was over in all but the legalities. The spring that followed was a healing one. Until I knocked down the garage, which began my long, slow dance with disability. But that's another story.

2006, when it formally became the "Peace on Earth" house.

The following years brought larger displays, lighting ceremonies, bands playing, people coming to the door on a nightly basis telling me how they and their children enjoyed driving by over the years. We handed out candy canes every weekend, dressed in Santa hats, collecting for charity. And the parade of buses and limousines continued. In 2008, I was featured on the local news, and they had filmed my setup process, which now required a crew to handle, as I could not climb ladders any more.

2008, with over 42,000 lights.

2008 was the last year.

By 2009, I could hardly get out of bed. I lost my lovingly restored jewel-box cottage, and was moved by friends into a rental many miles away from the familiar faces of my neighbors. The lights came with me. You see, I was still optimistic then.

Fast forward to this morning, as I looked at the back yard filled with all of my displays. Many people are coming, and many remember me, my home, and the good times we had year after year.

I can't face them. I've lost too much.

So Jackie's handling the sale.


  1. I used to do Halloween parties of preposterous scale. I'd build a haunted house in my yard or in a warehouse, then throw a halloween party with DJs and bands and a preposterous amount of attendees. It was magnificent. But I couldnt do it alone... and after a while I burned up too much of my friends time and wasn't able to rally people to come help build anymore.

    But still... they were glory days... and I remember them fondly.

  2. Right now it's Christmas.I miss this house.Kristal and I had the best house and she was on tv for the prettiest 1940's style home and decorations.We used to put on our Santa hats and walk outside to greet all the kids and the 100's of limos and cars and few tour buses to see our home.My how I miss it.It is hard for me to drive around and look at everyone else s lights without thinking how wonderful we had a house full of good memories.Sigh....Merry Christmas friends.