There’s something about small towns that remind me of a place I used to call home. Auburndale, Florida, though it’s grown in the years I’ve been gone, was once such a town. It had a Main Street diner, one park for the entire community, a dry cleaners, a few downtown stores, and the Ariana House in the center of town. Now, the Ariana House is simply what everyone affectionately called it. In reality, it had no name. A refurbished hotel from the 1930’s, the building was sectioned off into a church, a halfway house, a thrift store, and a deli when I was only four years old.
To a child, the stucco walls of the Ariana House towered like a castle above any other building in town. All of my free time was spent there. My father started and ran the church, the Church of the Prodigal Son, under the direction of a larger religious organization, called Bridges of America. Connected to it, through a series of hidden pathways that snaked throughout the interior of the building, was the halfway house he also ran. In some ways, I spent more time in that portion than in any other.
On hot days, we would have barbecues out on the patio, which stemmed from the old lobby on the second floor. On Fourth of July, a group of us from the church and apartments would climb up a narrow set of rickety stairs to the roof. Three floors above anyone else, we could see fireworks all the way from Disney World. I was never allowed to venture near the edge, but I dreamed of flight on those nights, wishing I could dive off and view the Ariana House from a new, undiscovered angle.
There are memories in the walls and corridors, etched into the very bones of the building. Those secret walkways inside and around the House are still packed with the echoes of gospel music. Wood smoke and the notes of a half-century old piano are ingrained into every unused corner. Eleven years later, the church has grown and neither the thrift store nor the deli are there any longer. But the soul of place is the same: full of life and history and a character all it’s own.