An Imperfect Sanctuary
When my family first walked through the front door that is now our second home, our home on the lake, we stood in place a moment longer than we should have. The foyer had an open floor concept, and directly ahead of us was Lake Erie. The house was definitely outdated, but there was no mistaking its cheerful character. The previous owners had designed the guest bedrooms specifically for their grandchildren. The blue room, as we called it, was the boy room decorated with two sets of bunk beds, blue carpet, and baseballs painted on the walls. The pink room, the girl room, was decorated with two twin beds, pink carpet, and little creatures such as butterflies and ladybugs painted on the walls. Upon entry, my sister and I looked at each other and smiled. This would be our room, a room we’d share. The downstairs living room was decorated with arcade game equipment, an odd set-up, but my sister and I, young girls at the time, didn’t mind. We played with the Pac-Man machine for what seemed like hours as my parents toured the rest of the home. We never wanted to leave. And from that day forward, I suppose we never truly did.
There was a time when I hated everything about the idea of having a family lake house. The thought of my parents buying another home made me feel the same way a child feels when another kid is on the way. “What do you mean you’re buying another house?” I’d asked. “Isn’t our home good enough?” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life to have a second home, a place my parents always dreamed of having. But the thought of a second home frightened me to a point where I didn’t understand what it meant. Would we eventually move? Would I have to leave my friends from school and childhood home behind?
Still, there were times I enjoyed tagging along and touring new homes with them. I was able to see what Lake Erie looked like from different backyards, different windows, different kitchens. We toured so many homes, I never knew when the tours would end – if my family would ever make a choice, if they’d even buy one even at all.
The day we toured our now lake house – the one that ended up as ours – is forever engraved in my memory. I was sitting in the back seat of the car, peering out the window, head tilted, somewhat caught in the middle of a daydream and reality. I had grown quite accustomed to the tours. My parents seemed to value my sister’s and my opinions (my first grade expertise; my sister’s fifth grade wisdom). And honestly, although I didn’t know the kinds of things one knows to have an informed opinion, I had the thrill of my imagination. I’d make up stories in my head about wherever we were going on a given day: the journey itself blossomed enough entertainment for me to get me through the day.
On the day we found our house, I pulled myself into a daydream in the car, as always, beginning the minute we exited the freeway. I don’t remember what time of day it was, but I imagine it was mid-afternoon, early in the summer. I remember pretending that my family and I were moving far away to a large castle, with horses and gardens, fairies, and yes, even monsters – that were eventually defeated by my Prince Charming, of course. We crossed over a large bridge filled with minivans on both sides, all of them from the local Ford plant, but I imagined the vans were carriages. I was so absorbed in the fairytale I had created that I didn’t even notice the car pulling into an exceedingly long driveway. The house wasn’t small, nor was it enormous. Its roof was slanted, the highest point moving left to right. It was painted a brown-reddish color that reminded me of vomit. But there was no mistaking the beauty beyond the house, the crashing of waves just beyond reach.
There’s a memory I have, or perhaps it’s just something I’ve imagined all these years, of a chill running down my spine as I stepped out of the car that day, summer of ‘05. Not a chill due to the weather – it was a warm day. And not a chill due to fear. No. It was due to something more. Suddenly it didn’t matter that I didn’t want my parents to acquire another house. Suddenly I didn’t not want them to anymore. I was already comfortable there. It was already home.
And then, four years later, in December of 2009, the lake house was broken into and we were robbed. We had planned to stay for the weekend and check on the place before departing on a family vacation the week after. My dad has always been a man of habit, but something about the house that day told him not to open the door right away, but to take a look around first. I remember his stern face, his tightened jaw, the phone calls he diligently made. My mom, whose sobs I’d never heard before, filling the silent air. I don’t remember walking into the house, holding my parents hand. I only remember being told that our neighbors were going to come get my sister and I so we wouldn’t have to see two rocks laying on the floor, glass surrounding each one – so we wouldn’t have to see the muddy footprints in the foyer, the kitchen, the family room – so we wouldn’t have to see the way our home had been torn apart. At six years old, I knew what the word ‘robbery’ meant, I just never knew I’d form my own definition one day.
The lake house sat forty minutes from what I now thought of as my root home. We’d visit almost every weekend, even during the winter months. There was something to be said for the lake in wintertime, how the shore turned to ice, snow delicately blanketing every crystal. I liked to sit out on the lake’s edge and hold my breath, to become frozen in time until I needed to inhale again. In between those breaths, my heart would stop, my breath would slow – I’d close my eyes, bring my knees to my chest, hold myself, and pretend that I was flying. I’d pretend to soar above the lake, taking in the beauty of winter surrounding me, the warmth I’d feel for a moment, despite the cold. And as I pretended to land, I’d open my eyes to a place that felt very much like a dream.
The day we returned to the house that had been robbed, my sister and I were told to stay put on the couch and not touch anything until the police came. I remember my mom hugging the two of us, explaining what had happened while we were away from the lake for a week, repeating how everything was going to be okay. I remember not fully being there in that moment, staring at the footprints in the snow from the nearest window, then staring at the muddy footprints on the blue carpet below my dangling feet. Strangers had been there, had forced their way into our home, had taken our TVs, cameras, necklaces, any loose cash they could find, and left. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it at the time. I’d only ever known kindness and goodness – I know now how fortunate I’d been – and on that day evil crept its way in.
The invaders, as I call them, had been watching our home, I now understand. The invaders knew our patterns – our routines. They knew the house wasn’t our permanent home. Sometimes I wonder if they ever got a good look at us – at our faces – if they ever realized that we were human, too. The break-in likely occurred in the middle of the night, that night on which we were not there. They likely figured out we had no alarm system in place after they threw a large rock into our back slider door that opened onto the back porch. I wonder if they paused once the rock crashed through the door, glass shattering over the hardwood. I wonder if they listened for any ringing sound, any form of alarm that would frighten them off. But nothing sounded, confirming their guess. There was another door that led from the back porch to the dining room. They threw a rock through that door, too, stuck their arm through the no longer glass window, and unlocked the door. Their muddy footprints filled our home, storming through the kitchen, the family room, as they opened drawers, pocketed loose cash and jewelry. The intruders took every TV they could find, took everything valuable they could find. They even opened the garage door, cut through the roof of my dad’s convertible, and took whatever few dollars he had hidden in the glove department. They entered the bedroom I shared – the bedroom I still share – with my sister. A room coated in pink. Pink carpet, pink lip chairs, pink wastebaskets at either corner. Walls decorated with painted bumblebees and butterflies. An empty dry erase board sitting in the far left corner. I don’t remember if they took anything from our bedroom. I’d like to believe that as soon as they opened the door to such a room, they immediately closed it. It was a children’s room after all. We were lucky not to have been there, we were lucky we weren’t home that night, I kept being told. Yes, we were lucky. But if we had been there that night, would the invaders have come in? If we had been there, the house would have been safe – we would have protected it.
We never discovered who the intruders were, what their names were, what their real motive was. To this day, they remain unknown. Unscathed. There’s a part of me that still thinks about them, almost twelve years later. There’s a part of me that still looks out the window after shutting the light off before bed at night. Sometimes I look into the woods across the street, wondering if they’re still there, watching.
With all tragedies come shimmers of hope. My dad had a security system installed, one with flashing lights outside of the house if the alarms ever sounded. He had seven security cameras installed around the house, one for every corner, every inch of the house covered. Spot and motion lights were placed around the house, so even the oncoming approach of a car in the driveway would trigger the light. ADT signs were hammered into the lawn. Two in the front yard, two in the backyard. Even Warning: You Are On Camera signs were scattered all around the home. And even though my parents never in a million years thought they’d ever own a dog, we found our way to a German Shepherd breeder in Solon. Maximus Bernard (we call him Max for short) is going on eleven years now as our guard dog. He has come to be the best dog I’ve had the privilege of knowing, completing our family in many ways I can’t even begin to describe. He is truly our guardian angel, and has become more than just a pet. He is the most loyal member of our family. He’s kind and sweet, gentle and strong. He’s friendly but not afraid to bite if he has to. As I write this, I can’t help but tear up at how much he loves my parents, how he’s become a comfort to my mom through the pandemic, and how he takes comfort in her. We comfort each other, my mom says. I’m unsure of how much time we have left with him, but there’s something beautiful about the way he came into our lives and made it better. Safer.
I guess I’d never understood before the love and bond that can form with a pet. I think about the little girl I used to be, pretending to be frozen in time. Oh, how I wish I could still freeze the moments that mean the most. The truth is, we’re all running out of time. Some of us have more time left than others, but we’ll all run out of it eventually. I wonder if the intruders ever thought about how they were running out of time. I wonder if they glanced back over their shoulders as they left our house, carrying away so many of our things. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they just kept going.
The sense of comfort I had felt that first day at the lake house vanished after the burglary like a cloud drifting away in the wind – it vaporized, never to return. I couldn’t sleep without locking our bedroom door. My parents kept their bedroom door open to help put us at ease. I needed at least two night lights on in our room, and if I woke in the middle of the night, I’d turn on the TV and hide underneath my covers. There were nights I couldn’t sleep at all and nights I had nightmares I could have sworn were real. The house I’d never wanted that had turned into a place that comforted me, held me close and kept me safe, had become a place I feared. You’re safe now, my dad would tell me. I believed him too, until the sun set, the sky turned dark and doubt crept in. I wouldn’t feel safe until the morning light stretched through the windows once more.
2012. The winds of Hurricane Sandy weakened the back porch beams. It came time to finally knock the back porch off and rebuild it from scratch. I enjoyed watching the process and seeing the new beams being built. As the new beams went up, I felt as if I were being rebuilt. The doors the rocks had been thrown through were no longer attached to our home. The back porch was to be brand new. And so was I, entering high school. The old blue carpet was replaced with fluffy, white multi-color carpet that is, to this day, comfortable to sleep on. The kitchen island was knocked out, opening up the layout. New white cabinets were installed, bringing a new warmth to the kitchen. I began to see the house in a new light, to even trust the world in a new light. Slowly, the lake became my safe place again.
There’s an old dry erase board in the bedroom I still share with my sister (which, yes, still has its pink carpet, pink lip chairs, and pink waste baskets). It’s not nailed to the wall, but sits on the floor in the corner next to the closet. Every friend I’ve brought to the lake since the new porch attachment was built has written something on that dry erase board. “______ Was Here Labor Day Weekend 2015!” “Happy 6 months, Anya! You’re my best friend.” and messages like “_____ Was Here Again! High school graduation this time!” fill its every white open space. I’m unsure of who started the trend, but I’m grateful to her. There is so little white space left now, it almost hurts to think of how hardly anything more can be written there. But I can’t bring myself to erase these old messages – the ghosts of the past filling what was once a blank white surface. Every time I look at the board, I’m reminded of the beautiful moments I’ve shared with the most special people in my life. I think of my boyfriend of three years and one month now when looking at the Happy 6 months! message. I think of how wonderful my life is, how lovely memories can be made after tragic ones, how life still goes on.
As I sit here today, on a barstool at the kitchen counter, I am staring at the blue water. The sun is shining and the water is shining with it. I don’t think of the invaders much anymore, although I still triple check locked doors. I even spend nights alone here in the house, when I want to escape my everyday life for a little while. I guess that’s what I’m doing now. My parents are about to come for the weekend, my sister unfortunately unable to join us. Max, he’s coming too. I’m looking forward to spending time with them – I never know how often I’ll get to given the circumstances surrounding the pandemic.
I think a lot about how the place that stirred up so much fear has also been the safest place I know. My hand no longer quivers before shutting off the light at night, my eyes no longer open to the quiet sounds that fill the house. I sometimes laugh when I think of the little girl I used to be, stomping outside of the house, and glaring into the woods. I wanted the intruders to still be watching, to notice my strength and toughness – hoping they regretted it, hoping they’d run far away from here before they had a word with me. When I walk outside around the house now, I think of her. She’s a faraway memory, but I can still feel her strength, her everlasting courage. It lives within me. I smile at the thought.
In a few days, I’ll pick up my boyfriend from the airport. We’ll spend our last few weeks of college together at Ohio State. But for now, I’m going to enjoy the present, the now, the day that I have before me. I want to remember this moment, this feeling of calmness before the storm of graduation and what comes after. Maybe I’ll even add to the dry erase board, with whatever room I can find, and write, “Anya was here.”
Anya Bernard is a senior undergraduate student dedicated to beginning a career in the field of finance at The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta supporting the National CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Association for children. Aside from her studies, you will find her nose deep in a book, as she is extremely passionate about reading and creative writing.