This is the tale of three houses. One I grew up in, one I raised my children in, and one I moved into when my nest emptied and I married for a second time. I will be leaving this last one soon, as we move into new rooms, with new views. Our new house is not new as in built last year, but new to us. I won’t write about that one, not yet. Sure, we fell for it the moment we walked in, and we have high hopes that this dwelling will fit this time of our lives. But for now, it remains largely unknown to us. Those others houses, though, I know deeply and well.
My family – mother, father, sister and I – move into a new house with I was five. It was brand new, freshly built in a new development of bulldozed soil and wildflowers. The sound of my childhood was of saws and hammers, as the houses of new neighbors clattered to life all around us. Soon enough, the creek at the bottom of the street disappeared, as did the pasture across the street, and the horses that had grazed there. Before long, the trees and gardens were flourishing, and the neighborhood lost its early rawness. Kids ran around outside, coming in only when distant voices cried out, “Time for supper!”
We lived in a ranch house, which meant everything on one floor, except for the basement. Our next-door neighbor had the exact same house, with the floor plan reversed. It made me dizzy to visit. Our house had every single thing we needed, and it spoiled me for houses I moved into later that lacked a coat closet, linen closet, pocket doors, fireplace, wood bedroom floors, laundry chute, and electrical outlets wherever my mother asked my father to put one. That house drew a blueprint in my mind, so that a “good” house required a fenced backyard, easy-open push windows, and a built-in planter for philodendrons in the dining room.
My second important house still sits today on University Avenue, though I worry about its future. A tall, narrow house, it was not a place for toddlers with its long, steep staircase. My teenagers had no trouble galloping up and down. And I got to satisfy the crush I’d had for years on two-story houses.
That house had a feeling about it. It wasn’t just the kids and I who felt it; other people, walking into the high-ceilinged space, expressed an instant good feeling about it. “Feeling” is a vague word, but there are places that envelop you like home, like a space where good things can happen. Behind its ordinary façade, it was an optimistic place to live. The sun shone in through the stained-glass window over the front door, onto the warm oak floors a friend refinished. The scent of backyard lilacs drifted through the big dining room window. The kitchen was crazy, with hand-carpentered cupboards that held, unlike any other kitchen I have had, every single dish and mixer and vase and dish cloth I owned.
There were three bedrooms with built-in closets and cupboards, and the kids traded off at least once. We were trying out our freedom from my horrible first marriage, and it felt good not to ask permission to just be ourselves, at home.
But raising kids can lead to only one thing, if all goes well, and darned if they didn’t leave for college and jobs and new lives in new towns. So when I started my own new life, I moved out of that great big house. I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard, or that I didn’t find myself vacuuming the golden oak floors, just before the closing, sobbing uncontrollably. Why do things have to change? Why must we leave places we loved in order to start a new life?
The house I moved into, the one we are about to leave, has been a good place for us. A 1920s bungalow, it has real character – handsome wood windows and doors, never touched by paint; an Arts and Crafts style built-in china closet; a patio with room to turn the car around when exiting the garage. The crab apple tree bursts into bloom almost every spring, and the peonies keep growing taller and more outrageously feathered. The birds come to call even when we forget to fill the feeder.
This is the house I drove home to on September 11, 2001, to join Bob in front of the television. This is the house where we got married, right there in the living room. This is the house where everybody hugged everybody after my son announced his engagement to his darling girlfriend. This is the house where we hosted dinners on the porch for friends and around my old dining table at holidays, making room last fall for our baby granddaughters’ first Thanksgiving.
There is something about a house that you’ve made your own. Installing better windows and a ceiling fan on the front porch made it a three-season retreat. Living through the havoc of a kitchen renovation showed us we could, after all, make do without a sink. New paint, new cupboards, a refinished floor – I will miss what we did to make it better.
Now it’s time for this house to embrace the life of a whole new family. Time for us to find new places for our stuff – the stuff we love, the lives we will live going forward.