Nashville, TN – Did you ever have the dream where you discover there are other rooms in your house that you knew nothing about? This month marks my third anniversary in Nashville, and I feel a bit like I’ve been living in those “other rooms” for three full years. They are foreign and yet increasingly familiar the longer I stay in the south.
They say Nashville is a “five-year town,” but that’s for songwriters and artists looking to sign a deal. Many musicians mark each year in Music City as a reflective milestone, marking the highs and lows, wins and losses, in a tough, and often unforgiving town. To be honest, I never thought Nashville would even be a six-month town. You see, I never expected to actually live here.
I had a house: a 1903 Dutch Colonial back in traditional, blue-collar, Western Pennsylvania, with plenty of rooms to keep me busy as I was three quarters of the way though renovating all of them. (The contractors, not me exactly. But I did pour a lot of coffee.)
I had china: and a china closet that spanned an entire wall of my dining room. I also had a full, over-committed life in a volunteer position to run a non-profit art center that meant nearly as much to me as one of my own children, and I was active in politics.
So I certainly didn’t see myself trading it all in for a bohemian existence in a downtown Printers Alley loft, with the sounds and color of Music City right outside my window.
At least not permanently. I loved my house. And that is probably the biggest understatement I can make. I mean I really loved my house. I’ve written a bit about it in prior columns; it wasn’t the fanciest home, or even the largest. But it was a family home that settled into my bones from the first moment I walked in it.
Even in its pre-renovated state, I found indescribable comfort walking barefoot on its century-old oak floors—padding down the stairs each morning to a sunlit entry hall that was wide and gracious, yet understated and composed. As time there unfolded, I found that the walls, ceilings, and the entire interior were like a canvas on which I was expressing my fondest artistic dream: one that I could live creatively in, raise children in, and live to perhaps old age inside the square footage.
We were down to the last two rooms. If renovating an entire house is like completing a marathon, then a long marriage is like continually running the grueling last six miles. There’s a great reward at the finish line, but someone is always in danger of collapsing.
As walls of the kitchen caved in and were demolished, I could see the past returning to fill the space as we (my then-husband and I) implemented a new design that harkened back to its turn of the century origins. Creamy, milk colored paint for the cabinets was taken from the faded color of the original windows and their lightly dusted panes.
The 103-year old pegged hardwoods in the living spaces were sanded and brought back to life, shining with patina and well-earned wear. Fireplaces were always blazing in winter with real wood, including the one in my writing office where I finished a book (against all odds with my own sudden loathing of my writing at the time) in my favorite high-back toile chair.
So all this is to say that I was stable. Rooted. That was until the wind picked me up. Literally—and threw me for a good loop. And I’m not joking.
It happened about a month before I was about to leave on the “three-week” trip for Nashville, where I was going to help my songwriter son, Jordan Umbach, get settled in.
I was outside the office of a periodontist I’d yet to meet. He was about to tell me I had a 50/50% chance of needing a root canal. That this is the same percentage that most marriages are assigned in the lottery of statistics did not hit me at the time. I had been married 23 years by then. It had seemed to take, if you know what I mean.
Wind, however, had been kicking up for days at that time, and wild barometric pressure changes were throwing things out of whack. I’d been stepping along the office building’s side walkway, dressed casually in jeans and brown boots, when my feet starting tripping over themselves from a rather lusty gust. I said to myself: this wind is so strong, it could almost pick me up…
And then it did, in a swoosh—which is the only way I can describe the sound I heard in my ears as I was thrown and deposited into the thorny landscaping out in front of the building about 20 feet from the busy arterial highway of Route 19.
Crouched down and holding onto the leaves of an Evergreen, I saw stylists and clients of the hair salon on the bottom floor of the building peering out at me from the picture window–the odd lady sprawled in the manicured parking lot. I looked back, swaying back and forth in the wind. I pondered getting up and estimated the distance from the highway if I were be tossed again in a less favorable direction. (That is, if there is a favorable direction that one can be tossed by the wind.) Eventually I was able to rise from my spot and walk into my appointment, nothing broken or terribly bruised on my body. But inside, I was shaken to the core.
About this same time, my son was pulling down the handle of a milk foaming instrument at his barista job and getting a premonition that he would never reveal to me until our first months in Nashville. He told me it was a divine sort of flash that came down upon him; it said, “You’ve got to protect mom.”
I did wonder why he kept calling me on my cell to ask if I was safe all those remaining days before our trip. “I’m driving to the grocery story from the gym,” I would tell him incredulously.
An old marriage, just like an old house needs a lot of maintenance, and I had been putting in the time. Before I left, I was attempting to shore up any discord or distance inside the home. (What long-term marriage doesn’t have any?) It seemed the house had always been a trusty metaphor for what was going on in the relationship. One year, upon coming home from a summer beach vacation, my husband and I arrived to find white powdery dust all along the stairs to our bedroom. It was curious. We couldn’t imagine what it was. When we got to the door of the room, we opened it to find that our entire bedroom ceiling had just completely collapsed. We immediately called our painter friend to come over. His diagnosis: “it just collapsed from age.”
I found myself calling in contractors as therapeutic doctors to come in and diagnose the last remaining un-renovated rooms. In those months and years following the ceiling collapse, I became attuned to looking for cracks, problems in the foundation, or peeling surfaces. We contracted for a vintage beadboard ceiling in the bedroom that had always had such an uncapturable glow of light running through it.
Each morning I rose to that light, amber and shooting across the middle of the room from corner to corner; I saw the same tree with the tire swing that several other owners had wakened to before me, with its branches threatening to reach in through the window. Perhaps I even saw the dust floating inside the sun, and if so, I didn’t care. For what is perfect is never truly loved. And often what is imperfect and gracious is inexplicably adored.
Despite the sense of grounding the home gave me, the omen of the wind and other small clues had me a bit unglued. Around New Year’s, before the February departure date, I told myself that the kitchen cabinets, that were part of the first renovation in 2004, needed a bit of a “touch up.” I purchased little trial sample bottles of off-white and cream and started in on the task, attempting to cover over the imperfections, knicks and dings–only to find myself unable to stop, encouraged by the progressive sheen my brushstrokes were making. I painted all of the cabinets that day, and set in on the peninsula island base.
I sent my sons out for more paint and kneeled to the scuffed floorboards (because of course they suddenly looked shabby next to the fresh paint.) With paint can in hand, I put the local Observer-Reporter newspapers under my knees to protect the wide-plank wood floor. In the manic frenzy that painting can sometimes bring on, I looked up to my husband and exclaimed, “This is the forever house!”
Outside that previous spring, I had knelt the same way to the wormy soil to plant flowers and cleared away the moldy leaves from winter and rain, saying, “look, this soil is rich from all the years of planting.” Both times I looked up, he was looking at his watch.
This is not to make a judgment of a person who is, at his core, a kind and generous soul. (And someone who is truly allergic to leaves and grass, for whom gardening was not compatible.) He had gone through his own brush with a death experience just two years prior (again in a February month) when a freak incident stopped his heart long enough to be considered “on the other side.” There are changes only someone who has lived through something like that can know. For me, it was an observation I simply filed away as I reveled in the bright colors of the annuals staining my bare hands. Perennial flowers in those beds had never worked for us.
Fast forward to February 8th and Jordan’s and my arrival in Nashville with a U-Haul and his plans to take his place as one of thousands of people who are said to move here each year, often with a guitar and dreams too big to fit inside a suitcase. That day, we made our way downtown to Merchants on Broadway for dinner. On the main floor, the restaurant is a classy, convivial oasis amidst the honky tonks, gleaming with white marble counters at the bar and on the oversized booths. There was one in particular I wanted to sit in to soak up the noisy vibe: but it had a clearly marked “Reserved” sign. I walked up to the busy hostess. When she asked if we wanted a table, I said, “yes,” and that, “I’d really like one like that one, if possible,” pointing to the glistening marble booth with the sign. To my surprise, she said “well, that one was reserved, but you know what, we can just go ahead and give it to you.”
Jordan and I scooted over and took our places, eyes wide open to Nashville and all its charms. We didn’t know why we were given the prime spot, but we toasted our good fortune of the first night, and banished any thoughts of bad omens, wind, or divine interventions; surely the tables were turning.
It would be the next day that I found out my marriage was over.
There’s no good that can come in telling that story; it could be a worse, better, similar, or wildly different story than anyone else’s. And it would be unimportant. I was determined never to be a quitter in marriage; my faith and beliefs told me that. But it was final and broken in a way that could not be repaired, like old plumbing or a window could. To fix it would’ve been like trying to pick up all of the plaster dust we found on the staircase so long ago and put it back into the ceiling. Yes, I had run a marathon, and had a long and wonderful stretch. But I would not be crossing the finish line or wearing a medal.
As for Nashville, it was to be my son’s town, not mine. In my mind, there was still the “three weeks.” I wasn’t even all that impressed on a first visit that fall prior to the move. But as the blur of days knitted themselves together, it appeared that perhaps Music City wasn’t just a place I’d landed by accident.
Though I was definitely still a foreigner here: a northern gal–my entire book that I’d finished in the office back home centered on Western Pennsylvania’s geography: it’s patterns and geology that I was so much a part of. I could never change my “identity” so drastically, right? I grew up with “yinz,” not “y’all.”
But three weeks had turned to four. Each day was filled with considerable trauma, drama, and legalities, but nights were filled with songwriter rounds and original, new music: young and old playing with their hearts open and raw. Sometimes for a crowd, sometimes just a few listeners. The simple magic of it reached me. It wasn’t exactly “glittering,” or the television worthy side of “Nashville” that we saw; it was one of “real life” truth and grit. It helped. And music healed. And perhaps even more than that, I saw that this city was a place where creativity was valued; lived in day in and out. It wasn’t something people “fit in on the side,” of their more traditional lives, and it wasn’t just for young people or musicians; the bourgeoning town seemed to be for every artist who was in search of something different for their lives.
As another “couple of weeks” passed, it wasn’t so much that it was impossible to go back, but that there was nothing to go back to. Or at least not in the same way.
Even the Tennessee Department of Motor Vehicles seemed to be in on the “identity switch.” My PA license had expired, and the DMV accidentally gave me back my old name, using my birth certificate as their guide instead of my current identification. I looked at my new card in the parking lot. It read: Sandra Lorene Gertz. I blinked and looked at it several times: that was a person I knew long ago. Did she still exist? Would she again? I rushed back to the doors just as they were closing up for the day; I tried to explain what had happened. But they just turned the keys in the lock and swung the doors shut. I never went back.
It’s been three years since I was picked up by the wind, and it’s been particularly gusty this week in Nashville. Winters here, though many believe they are much milder than the north, can still be bitter with cold and cruel with wind. I live right off a street that is actually known for being a wind tunnel of sorts. When it blows here, it doesn’t just blow you back, or in one direction; it gusts from seemingly many points at a time and snarls hair, irritates everyone, and sometimes, yes sometimes, even propels you forward until you almost trip. But it has never once picked me up. Though it has seemed to carry me away.
To Be Continued…