D*S Essay Contest: Erin Hill

by Grace Bonney

[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]

“In a home like this, in some way, my days would proceed as never before.”
-William Least Heat-Moon in the foreward to Sandy Sorlien’s Fifty Houses: Images From the American Road

One year ago, I bought a house for all the wrong reasons.

Because I was nearing 40 and wanted an Important Adult Life Experience that I could celebrate, as so many other adult rites of passage had eluded me or had never seemed desirable in the first place.

Because I had moved five times in the previous ten years and craved permanence.

Because I wanted to prove (to whom, exactly?) that I could do it BY. MYSELF.

Because my mom had died six months earlier, and I thought a physical house, a place of my own, would ground me. Heal me. Keep me from floating away like a big grief balloon…connect me to her by giving me a place to do what we both loved to do: bring a house back to life, make it a home room by room, turn it beautiful and personal and fill it with stories.

I know now: I expected too much from this brick and mortar and stucco. I expected it to settle me, to soothe me, to quell my anxiety and answer all my questions about The Future. Unrealistic and unfair as it is to expect another person to fix me, it’s equally unfair to expect my house to fix me.

I know better, but I forgot myself in my grief — or, as my mother used to say, chuckling, “I lost my head.” I have long believed that houses, especially the old ones, have souls. I remember now that I respect this old house for so many reasons, chief among them that a World War II veteran built it by hand from the ground up in 1954. The outhouse he used as he worked still stands on the far back corner of the property, leaning slightly to the right, looking quaint with its triangle cutout and its grapevine wreath on the door, the first nail I drove after I closed on the house. I respect this house’s moods and whims and quirks, just as I do my partner’s. Some days it’s on — the morning light is beautiful glinting off the barn’s tin roof across the field, and the breeze coming through the kitchen window is the perfect temperature, smelling faintly of honeysuckle — while some days it’s off: stuffy, with cantankerous plumbing and clogged gutters and a well pump that’s suddenly not sounding right (when did that start??). As the caretaker, mine is a balancing act, a learning when to ignore, soothe, love tough, or call the doctor (read: plumber).

[Continued after the jump…]

A year later, I am the same person with the same anxieties, still grieving, no more physically settled than I was — less so, even. I’m considering a move out of state and a career change, both of which would probably (certainly) be much easier to navigate if I could just give thirty days’ notice, pack up a small one-bedroom, load the U-Haul, and drive off into the midwestern sunset. Instead, I’ll have Big Decisions to make about selling or renting my place, and I’ll probably fret the entire time about finances. Still, I’m learning to embrace my experiences for what they are, without judgment (okay, with less judgment than I am prone to, anyway). I bought a house, and I learned so much about the process and about myself. I will learn, I suspect, in equal measure if and when I sell. Or rent.

Until that point, I’m thankful for my little stucco bungalow (now affectionately referred to as The Stuccolow) and each day I spend here. I have wonderful neighbors who help me live this country life even though I didn’t yet have all the tools: they mowed my two acres before I found a mower, and they plowed my driveway when the skies turned gray and spilled heavy snow. I have the view from the porch swing of the grape arbor and the chicken coop. I have wildflowers that grow along the “banks” of the drainage ditch that I prefer to think of as a stream. A chipmunk who scurries and scuttles from front lawn to breezeway. An apple tree in the side yard so heavy with fruit that its limbs bow to the ground. A hummingbird who flies strangely close to me while I rocking-chair-read — probably a reminder that I can’t and shouldn’t try to keep his pace. A pair of cardinals who visit year round. A night sky so silent and clear that it feels like I could inhale stars and linger luminescent for days.

In the past few months, I’ve adopted a mantra: healing happens here. I repeat it silently to myself everywhere I go — driving the back roads, standing in line at the post office, enduring interminable staff meetings. I use it to remind myself that as sensitive as I am to my environment and the power of place, healing is my work to do and to claim, wherever I am. It is not this house or this porch or those fields. It is internal and limitless. It is real.

I may stay here. I may not. No matter where I go, I know now it’s not the space or the structure that will provide meaning or security — it’s the spirit and the soul. Mine. My partner’s. My friends’ and loved ones’. Beyond her family, my mom’s great loves were books and the seasons. The books are portable, and the seasons are ever-present. With the novels in tow, the first leaves of fall on the horizon, and my memories of mom’s amazing laugh, I can make a home wherever I land, and these days, as Least Heat-Moon says, “will proceed as never before.” –Erin Hill

Suggested For You


  • Books and seasons, yes.

    Somehow I think a house can support us in the grief work. I felt like ours closed in towards us when we needed to shrink into a small corner and shut out the rest. And now it’s letting us stretch back into those dusty, neglected reaches without passing judgement on our time away.

  • Erin is my best friend so I know my comments are somewhat biased, but this essay broke my heart and healed it all at the same time. Love you, E!

  • This is a stunningly beautiful essay and I’m really thankful to you Erin for writing it and sharing it.

    I lost my grandma a month after I got my first apartment and almost 7 years to the day that I started up as her full time caregiver. Her passing has left the most unfathomably large void in my life, so I was trying my hardest to make my place heal me too. I still do have to stop myself from time to time in trying to fill it and myself up.

    But I’ve also been doing the same as you in trying to do my healing everywhere. Again, I’m really grateful to read this and get another reminder.

  • This one really got me. There are a lot of us out here in Stuccolows –a great life story about getting unstuck.

  • Thank you for your perfect story of searching for place and peace, that deep feeling of home. I was sad to have the essay end.

  • Such a different perspective and so beautifully told. I ruined my mascara at the end of it.

  • Reading this pierces my heart; so much of it resonates with me. I so understand that feeling that to have your own home will fix something broken in you. An important reminder that it is you that makes the home, the home doesn’t make you. Congratulations on such a heartfelt piece of writing.

  • “A night sky so silent and clear that it feels like I could inhale stars and linger luminescent for days.”

    And what Melanie said.


    • I too am stopped in my tracks by this line –
      “A night sky so silent and clear that it feels like I could inhale stars and linger luminescent for days.”

      Your essay resonates with me and it is so rich and beautifully crafted, I return to it, drawn to re read.

      Here’s to the journey you make beautiful, soulful Erin.

  • Erin is one of my dearest friends, so I’m a bit biased too. This piece nailed it. It made me cry, yet left me hopeful and longing to read more. And it helped me slow down, “inhale stars” and begin practicing the mantra “healing happens here”. Well done, my friend.

  • I am the mother of Jennifer and Melanie, so I am biased as well. This essay is some of the very best writing I have ever read. Her descriptions, imagery and comparisons were just stunningly beautiful. It made me long for home and all that it is. It made me cry and helped me get in touch with my own healing. Thank you, Erin.I won’t forget ‘healing happens here’ for a long time.

  • As I sit here in tears, I realize Erin, you are still on your ” grief” journey..Writing is your ” GOD” given gift. Your ” grief ” journey has come full circle with this testimony of your STUCCOLOW HOME. Writing is your passion, as Books & Seasons , were your MOM’S & my sister. Absolutely beautifully written!