Emptying a Home, Filling the Heart

on May 8 | in Featured | by

Kathy “Huddy” Hudson ’71 interviews Marietta McCarty ’69 about her new book, Leaving 1203, a philosophical musing on closing a beloved family home.


Book jacket for Leaving 1203

Book cover photo by David Heald; cover design by Roger Cunningham and Daniel Mason

Marietta McCarty ’69 is well known for a trio of books that make philosophy accessible. Her best-selling Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy with Kids has been published internationally, as has her second, the Nautilus Gold Award-winning How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most. A third, The Philosopher’s Table, includes recipes, music selections, and topics for meaningful dinner conversation. It garnered McCarty the title of 2014 Newsmaker from the Virginia Professional Communicators.

Into each she wove her experiences as scholar, teacher, and lifelong athlete (Hollins Athletic Hall of Fame ’99). A Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude philosophy major, McCarty received a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Virginia. She taught philosophy at Piedmont Virginia Community College for 28 years and was director of Blue Ridge Tennis Camp for 14.

Now her latest book, Leaving 1203: Emptying a Home, Filling the Heart, shares her accumulated wisdom in a memoir of the three transformative months she spent closing her family’s Richmond home. This concise, intimate, and often humorous volume is more than memoir. It serves as a guide to the fine art of remembering, letting go, and holding onto what matters most.

Every room and garden space comes alive with McCarty’s family, friends, and neighbors, past and present. Readers join McCarty and Billy, the West Highland terrier she inherited from her mother, as they go about the deliberate and rewarding process of discovery and disbursement of tangible possessions in a home of 56 years. In doing so, new connections and previously unknown stories surface.

Most important, McCarty’s vivid account reveals the intangibles at the bedrock of a family home. Readers see how the universal task of closing a beloved place can enrich present lives. In embracing the experience, McCarty, and all who helped her, received gifts that transcended the walls of her “beloved brick teacher on the hill” and the time her family spent there.

“This is a work about a kind of rootedness and connectedness that no distance of time or place can erase,” says reviewer Christopher Phillips, author of Socrates Café. And while Leaving 1203 is the story of leaving a home, readers do not need to be engaged in leave-taking to be inspired by it.

It also gave this reader, who lives in her childhood home, the opportunity to ask McCarty some questions.

Q. Leaving 1203 is more personal than your previous books. Was it difficult to write something so personal?
A. I knew in an instant, on a hot July day amidst Christmas decorations and linen tablecloths, that there was a story right here waiting to be told. The hard part was figuring out what story, exactly, and how best to tell it. Leaving, forever, a beloved home is a universal experience yet so achingly personal. I sat and walked with it for two years, thinking and remembering, letting inspiration awaken to its own beat. Slowly, I began to nibble around the edges, adding and subtracting, and the story took shape as if on its own. Some days my work consisted in getting out of the way of the free-flowing words. That early stillness rewarded me with an exhilarating creative ride.

Q. Leaving a beloved home is difficult. You had to leave 1203 first when you went as a young player on the tennis circuit, then later when you went to Hollins. Can you remember what those times felt like? What helped you as you made the transition to college life?
A. Has there ever been a more homesick-prone child or adult? I practiced leaving 1203, first on sleepovers not far from home, because I knew I could find my way back. When I traveled from Richmond to my first tennis tournament in Suffolk at age 10, I called home collect every morning at 6 a.m., and not because I lost every one of my eight matches. And how vividly I remember my first night at Hollins—sunset in the mountains and homesick in my heart. Playing sports helped from the start, as the tennis court had long been home to me, and I liked everything about the place. I didn’t blame Hollins for missing 1203!

Q. You quickly became an academic, athletic, and community leader at Hollins, a second home for four years. When you graduated, was it hard to leave Hollins?
A. I wept on the drive away from Hollins after graduation, looking down on the chapel and up at the mountains I’d grown to rely on. I knew I’d made lifelong friends, but I would miss the beauty of the campus. Hollins exudes a strong sense of place.

Q. How did 1203, and your family there, figure in your life in your adult homes in Washington and in Charlottesville?
A, Out the gate of 1203 and drifting my way—candlesticks, cobblers’ benches, lamps, glasses, sleigh bells for the front door, mirrors, books, rocking chairs, paintings, rugs—all my homes warmed by gifts from my childhood home. When my parents and grandparents visited, they often left something behind for me to discover. How lucky—I’ve never liked shopping.

Photo of Marietta McCarty

Photo by Chuck Shifflett

Q. Did 1203 take on a new role as your parents aged?
A. The simple house on a hill wrapped its walls around all of us. It held steady, our safe house, as we moved with all the changes brought by time’s passage.

Q. What do you think is most important to do when closing a beloved home?
A. Welcome the responsibility as an opportunity to play your part in multigenerational relationships. Appreciate all the many lives intertwined under one roof. Step back, take time, and reflect. Get to know better, more intimately, the people you thought you knew best—grandparents dating, parents as kids, you as an unborn! Wallow in gratitude.
A. No.

Q. As you have gone around the country with this new book, what have you learned from your audiences?
Readers were ready for stories about my mother’s acclaimed potato salad and evenings on the patio. Storytelling binds us. Shared memories reaffirm our connectedness. I’m listening to tender tales of other loved homes and hard leave-takings. Audiences are happily surprised by the humor and joy that accompanied my bittersweet farewell and take to heart its enduring, positive impact on my life. Many appreciate its usefulness as they look back on, engage in, or anticipate home emptying.

And I’m so very pleased that many see it as a book celebrating the good life—a philosophy of good living, a reminder of what really matters. Hospitality, courage, generosity, play and relaxation, appreciation of simple pleasures, gratitude, sacrifice, breaking bread over good conversation—these never go out of fashion.

Finally, readers are crazy about Billy, my mother’s dog who became mine and served as the mascot of home-emptying days. I should never have written a book that didn’t include a dog.

Q. Anything else you’d like to say to the Hollins community?
A. Thank you.

Kathy Hudson is the author of the award-winning On Walnut Hill, The Evolution of a Garden. For 25 years she has written freelance articles and essays for Baltimore Style, The Baltimore Messenger, Chesapeake Life, Chesapeake Home, The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Post.

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