I live with my family and a continuous stream of houseguests in a redbrick farmhouse called Maplehurst. It was built lovingly and well by a Pennsylvania Quaker family in 1880. The love lavished on this place by the Hughes family is manifest in the elegant top curve of each handmade window. Their care is revealed in the heft of the fieldstone foundation. But time leaves its mark on even the most solid things and love is not a perfect shield against its degradations. Today, we are always in the middle of one restoration project or another. Even houses grow tired of standing tall; even houses need their strength renewed.
Our visitors are accustomed to the sight of scaffolding and backhoes. My friends no longer bat an eye when we make significant changes. Is something different? they say. Oh yes, you ripped out the driveway! And yet these same friends opened wide, shocked eyes when they saw the latest project.
Here at summer’s end, we have begun building an outdoor terrace to connect barn and house. We have begun a series of paths and stepping stones to lead from barn to house to garden and back again.
We have lost the hydrangeas.
I planted them myself in an L-shaped hedge. The long end of the L consisted of ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas, a hardy panicle-type, in clear white and bright lime green. They were eight-feet tall, at least. The short end of the L was planted with ‘Firelight.’ The ‘Firelight,’ another hydrangea with long panicle blooms, weren’t quite as tall, but they would transition from white to pink to vivid burgundy as the days transitioned from early summer to fall.
I lost the climbing ‘American Beauty’ roses. They were beautiful indeed, and I could have tried transplanting them, but I had no other spot suitable for their tangled, thorny embrace.
I lost the herb garden planted just outside the kitchen door.
I lost the deutzia shrub that flowered so sweetly in spring.
I lost lilies and this summer’s crop of Mexican sunflowers, but as I told my sympathetic gardening father, I also lost an acre of weeds. There are some losses we have no call to mourn.
Some losses are a kind of gain.
We moved to this house seven years ago. Soon, the baby daughter born to us weeks after moving in will celebrate her seventh birthday. In between the moments I spend working on this essay, I am googling “how to bake a unicorn cake” and feverishly studying the tutorials.
I can mark our time in this place by trees planted and trees felled by age and wind. I can measure our time in this place by gardens made and gardens unmade (I once had a vegetable garden circled with a white picket fence, but we re-routed the driveway and said goodbye to the garden and the fence). I can also mark our time at Maplehurst in the length of a little girl’s legs, in the loss of her baby teeth, in the complexity of the dreams—and scary nightmares—she relates in the morning over pancakes.
Losing, and losing, and losing, we have received.
We tend to think of letting go as loss, pure and simple. I have let go of plants I loved and four babies each in turn. I miss those babies, but I am grateful for the children who, though they no longer sit on my lap, do at least suffer my hugs.
I let go of the hydrangeas, the roses, the herbs, and more. Though we are still in the messy middle, though summer hasn’t quite relinquished its grip on the earth, golden autumn is shimmering right there on the edges, and I can almost see the white-flowering crepe myrtle trees we will plant in new beds on the new terrace next spring. I imagine herbs will do well next summer scattered in terra-cotta pots on the hot pea gravel.
Each new season is a doorway. Our home, this earth, turns, and though our feet are planted, the turning always brings us to some new threshold. Of what must we let go in order to walk through each new door? What loss will transform itself before our eyes into something shimmering and golden?
But letting go is an art, if not exclusive to autumn, at least unique to it. Spring asks that we open ourselves to receive. Spring invites us to hope, to move past our hesitations and our fenced-in hearts. Summer pours down blessings on our heads like showers of rain. We splutter and gasp and cry out Enough! but we know the abundance is a gift. Winter is the harshest season. Whatever we gripped so tightly in our hands was taken in the first hard freeze, and we will submit to our loss—we will recognize the potential fruitfulness of bare soil—or we will become malformed by bitterness.
But autumn is a gentle season. It is a quiet question: will I hold my loves lightly? Will I open my hands? Will I turn toward the past with gratitude and toward the future with anticipation? Yes, the far view is bleak and cold. But beyond that? Beyond winter, beyond every loss and every grief, is a good and green country. It is the land our tears have watered. The land that—even now—waits for us.
The beautiful images of Maplehurst are (c) Christie Purifoy and used with her gracious permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Christie Purifoy is a writer and gardener who lives with her husband and four children at Maplehurst, a Victorian farmhouse in southeastern Pennsylvania. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago and is the author of two books, Roots and Sky (Revel, 2016) and Placemaker (Zondervan, 2019). She celebrates the glory of ordinary life daily on Instagram and weekly on the Out of the Ordinary podcast.