Life in the Big House

A powerful change in the way I view the world happened one night when I was around twenty-five years old. Larry and I sat to watch a particular movie that I hadn’t really been interested in watching, because most of the movie was set inside of a prison. The only comparison I had was one of my favorite books, The Count of Monte Cristo, but a friend told me it was nothing like that book, so I was wholly disinterested.

When we first started watching the movie Shawshank Redemption, I found that I was really disassociated with the main protagonist, Andy. It was the obvious intention, given that his personality lacked anything to really connect to initially; he was unemotional, disconnected, therefore so was I. To add, I hadn’t read the book, so I wasn’t sure that he hadn’t killed his wife and her lover. I simply sat and watched because Larry wanted to see it. Soon, Red got my attention, and I became interested.

I had always pictured people in prison fighting to get out. Dredging around, waiting for the release date so that they could start their lives over again. During the part where Brooks missed prison, which had become his home, and he felt isolated in the free world instead of unrestricted, shocked me to my core. For the first time in my life, I saw that prison was still life. Life went on, just in a different way. I had never, in my ignorant mind, thought of prison that way at all. I always saw it as one trying to simply stay alive in a violent day-to-day cycle of nothingness until they were released out into the free world to start living again.

That movie changed my perspective on prison.

Years ago, Larry’s mother asked if I would drive Larry’s grandmother out of town to meet up with relatives. I agreed readily. Mawmaw Lock was amazing, and I loved to drive, so, a few days later, I loaded her up, and off we went.

On the way to the relative’s house, four hours away, Mawmaw told me stories about some of the towns we went through. Stories of her and her husband, Pawpaw Lock, who had passed away many years earlier. She missed him so much that up until the day she passed in early 2020, she often cried over him. That day, driving her to meet up with relatives, she asked if we could go the back way, the scenic route. Along the way, she said she was going to show me their dream home. Pawpaw and she would often park on the side of the road and look at the house for a few minutes, and dream of having that house one day. She described it: white, with a huge porch that nearly wrapped around the whole house. She said they often talked about how different life would’ve been in that big house. How better it would’ve been. They pictured themselves sitting on the porch with iced tea, waving at the neighbors.

As we drove, we passed one large white house after another. I waited. I thought to myself that it had to be much bigger than I expected if none of the houses we’d passed yet were it. One that I thought must be the house as we approached was a plantation style with large white columns. But we passed without Mawmaw Lock saying a word.

Then, we were there.

She said. “Pull over. Here. Pull over.” She pointed to the side of the road. I pulled over, but to be honest, I thought maybe she was getting sick and needed to get out of the car for a minute. But she sat there, staring out of her window. With my eyebrows raised in question, I followed her line of sight. There, a bit off the road, was a small, white house, with a porch that wrapped around one side. The paint was chipping, and the boards that made up the railing were warped and bent at odd angles. I briefly thought, this seriously can’t be the house. Then I heard she was crying.

“I’m just an old lady, crying like this,” she said.

“Mawmaw, is this the house?” I still found myself asking.

“Yes. Isn’t it something?”

I felt immediate and utter shame. Absolute disgust at myself. She was sitting looking at the house she and Pawpaw had dreamed of living in for so many years, and nothing I had envisioned of their “big house” came anywhere close to the reality. At that time, Mawmaw lived in a new house that her kids had just built for her, so I never would’ve pictured that small, broken-down house as the big house she had described.

I am crying now, writing this, because I still feel what I felt then. After the initial shock and shame had passed—I felt deep, debilitating sorrow. For Mawmaw and all the lost dreams. For all the things so easily attainable to some, and so far away for others. I felt sorrow for myself too, that I’d instinctively placed happiness on the size of a house.

She reached in her purse to find her tissue pack, dried her eyes and said, “Okay, let’s get a move on. Can’t sit here forever dawdling.”

Along the way, she continued telling me stories. Some of them were about growing up as the daughter of a sharecropper, and a few were about meeting Riley (Pawpaw). After several hours, I dropped her off and hugged her extra tight.

“Don’t break my bones,” she said.

I laughed; more so because she hadn’t even realized how much she’d changed me that day. It was a four hour drive down memory lane, but it was also a trip that would truly start one of the most valued relationships of my life—with her.

I think often of my reaction to Mawmaw and Pawpaw’s big house, also the big house in Shawshank Redemption. I think of how we get stuck in mindsets. Dreams, too. We get caught in things that don’t happen, or in lifestyles we feel we can’t change or control. We can all get stuck in dreams that never happen. We get confined in a way of life, and it can become our normal. We can be trapped by all the things we don’t have. Or all the things we do.

We all have prisons. The ones we make for ourselves, like expectations that never materialize. Dreams that overshadow what we already have. Some prisons are self-inflicted comfort zones that prevent us from moving ahead.

That day, after dropping Mawmaw off on the four-hour drive home, I thought of Shawshank Redemption. I definitely had prisons of my own. I had fears of failure that prevented me from taking the next step in my destiny. I had stayed in comfort zones that stopped me from finding new levels of satisfaction in my life. Once I started breaking out of some of those prisons, (I say some, because I feel like we all will be reassessing and breaking bonds throughout our lives), my life aligned and my purpose came more into focus.

While change is difficult, especially when we can stay where we are and be comfortable because it’s familiar, change can also be good. And while having dreams is healthy, staying in them, or focusing on the ones that don’t materialize, is negative and unproductive.

Purpose can change, just like seasons, and we can have more than one purpose at a time. Staying in our comfort zones, whether prisons of fear, doubt, regret, or remorse; or living a past of “what could’ve been” inhibits us from moving into freedom like we’ve never known. Life in the “Big House,” whether that means you’re stuck in the prison of your comfort zone, or trapped in a dream that never materialized, can hold you back. Get out of your prisons today by realigning your mindset and move forward with a clean slate.

(As seen in my nonfiction book titled, Back Here Again)

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