I’ve never been a small town girl. I’m attracted to city lights and colorful buildings and streets bustling with people. The countryside is peaceful, but it makes me restless—within a few days of visiting, my fingers start itching. But there’s one little town I may have to make an exception for: Fort Scott, Kansas.
Have you ever been somewhere that feels less like a place and more like a living being? It hasn’t happened to me often, but I felt it in Fort Scott, at my grandparents’ big red house. It was always so full of people, so full of chatter and laughter. Even when everyone filtered out, they seemed to leave behind an echo of noises, ringing softly in silent rooms. I swear that house knew every secret I’d ever whispered in darkened bedrooms when my cousins and I were supposed to be asleep. Maybe that’s why I always felt so strange when I was left alone there—the house had a presence bigger than any person I’d ever known.
I think everyone in my family has felt this way about it at some point. My family is so big, and we have all traveled in different directions—we have different aspirations and different religions; we live different lifestyles in different cities, different states, different countries. And yet the house was a common ground where we could all gather and just be together. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.
My grandma passed away a few months ago. It was so unexpected; when I got the call, I didn’t know how to react. It wasn’t until the funeral that it hit me square in the chest, a sucker punch that left me breathless. I have come to terms with everything now, though sometimes when I’m in that red house I notice that something feels off. The house doesn’t feel complete anymore. Each time I visit, it feels a little emptier than before. The rooms that once swelled with life like a beating heart now feel so hollow.
We decided to sell it. I don’t think anyone in my family particularly wanted to, but we knew there was no use in keeping it. We kept pushing back the date—we’d do it after the holidays, we said once, and then later, after my family from Malaysia visited—until we ran out of time. This weekend is my final road trip up to the house. I’ve heard the rooms are empty now, stripped bare to their bones; it scares me to think about it. I’m afraid I’ll arrive at the place that I’ve always seen as the heart of my family and, for the first time, I’ll only see a house.
But even if my fears are realized, I’ll always remember the house as it was when I was a curly-haired little girl. I’ll remember that it had a big backyard with a toolshed and a tree that my cousins and I used to call our tree house, even though the “rooms” were just branches we would climb. (Clumsy even as a child, I was terrified of climbing trees, so my room was always the lowest branch.) We’d play football when the weather was nice (we certainly had enough people to) and tried to freeze patches of the ground when it was winter to see if we could make a slide out of ice. We used to have bonfires on summer nights under a sky so clear that you could trace every line of the Milky Way. Shooting stars looked like fiery baseballs in that sky. They were so big that I was always afraid they would streak right down and fall on top of us.
I’ll remember the old broken typewriter that sat in the basement (half the keys stuck but I was in love) and the wooden pieces my grandfather carved that covered the walls in the dining room and how every room in the house was littered with children’s toys. I’ll remember the laundry chute that so many of my cousins got in trouble for climbing up and the old piano my older cousins used to teach me how to play on and the exact place in the basement where I stepped on a sewing needle that went straight through my foot. (“Hey, you just broke my favorite needle,” my grandfather had joked. I cried because I thought he was serious.) I’ll remember how we used to sit all over the house for meals, because there were way too many people to fit at the table, but how we’d still crowd around the table for card games anyway. I’ll remember meeting every new little cousin and watching as the number of people expanded almost every time I visited.
It’s hard to say goodbye, not only to people, but also to places, to objects, to memories. It’s hard to watch the world you grew up in become just another place from the past, a story you write to try to resurrect what it once was. I can’t resurrect it, can’t build its wooden walls out of words, but I’ll have these memories. They will make me sad at times, but they will also make my heart so, so full. We created a world inside of that house, in a town so few people have heard of. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
My cousin once took me to swim at a river near the house. We had to climb up the muddy bank, over thick tree roots that made me stumble, and I was so clumsy I swore I was going to fall face-first into the water. There were other people swimming there, too, and I remember one boy asked where I was from. “Ah, a city girl,” he said knowingly. He was right. I’ve never been a small town girl, but that little town stole a big piece of my heart.