I may be a bit crazy, but whenever my husband and I would drive away for a long vacation, I would look back at our house and say, “Be good, House. ” And this, out loud. Funny, I didn’t really greet the house when I returned, but was always happy to have the garage door go up and find things the way I left them. Houses are the warm womb we like to get back to: the pillow on the bed that is just right, the views that are old but warm the heart with their familiarity. And the feel of the doorknobs and how the stove works–it’s smooth and easy, like the worn slippers that comfort the feet. And no matter how big or small, well decorated or pared down–it’s that place that is ours.
WALLS MIGHT TALK, BUT THEY ALSO ADAPT
But consider this. Houses hold the conversations of families and as the famous saying goes IF THE WALLS COULD TALK… well, maybe they can. Did my big house in Iowa slump with sadness when I left it? No. But maybe it’s plaster walls started to experience infinitesimal cracks because three little girls moved in and I’m sure they’re a lot noisier than my husband and me–the house’s last occupants.
We called this house, the House in the Trees, because we had 17 oak trees on our property. They were lovely, but tons of work. I created a plaque with that name and when we drove away–I left it for the new owners with a note, saying I hoped they would love the house as much as I did. But this is my pattern. These are the conversations with my house and the people who live in them. But will the new owners feel like I do?
YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN
Our first house was a tract house, built on a piece of land with no trees. We had to put in a lawn and garden, attempt to create a “place” that was ours. It was wonderful to have our own walls, and this was the house where our first child began to walk and talk. But after awhile we left it, seeking a really old house that opened its arms to us and we lived there for seventeen years. Our two other children were born during that time.
There was a day when the doorbell rang and a young man stood on the porch. He told me he had been raised in the house, was back in town and just wanted to take a look. I warmly welcomed him. After he quietly walked around for a while, certainly trying to blot out our furniture and photographs so that the place he had loved would open its arms to him, he asked to see his bedroom. I took him up to see it. I think this was the end for him–the bright blue walls were now melon-colored and there were no trucks or trains or sports equipment–whatever had signified that this was his space. And so he thanked me and abruptly left. I understood. We had painted over the marks on the woodwork that traced his growth. Now our children’s names were there–for the while.
Something similar happened with the next home we bought and totally remodeled. The daughter came back and as she walked through–her mouth dropping open–she couldn’t believe the changes we had made. We had given the house the love that it needed, but I could not ask her which she preferred–the old shabby way or our new refreshed hardwood floors and remodeled kitchen. She probably liked it the old way–because that was what welcomed her home each night.
In that remodeled house, my daughter whose bedroom was on the third floor, a room cut out of the attic, actually believed that a female ghost lived in the house. How the spirit dealt with the remodeling I don’t know, but one night my daughter was certain she saw the woman in a pink bathrobe standing outside her door. It’s possible. A woman had died in the house. The closest I have ever come to feeling a house is haunted is the sounds that it makes–the things you become familiar with like the top step of the basement stairs in the Iowa house–I can still hear it creak. Or the plumbing in the walls of that house that would clank when the water was heating up. This is how houses talk back, let owners know their personalties.
And they fight you. A remodel or a minor change gleams in your mind and when you or the people you have hired arrive to make it happen–the house resists. “Well, your plan won’t work because there isn’t a weight-bearing wall here…” “You electric will need a total upgrade..” etc etc. It ALWAYS HAPPENS.
HOUSES: An Ode to One’s Life
When I miss some of the places where I have lived, I look at photographs and think about the joyous times–the births of our children, the Thanksgivings, summer barbecues with games on the lawn, the graduation parties, the visits from my family. And I think about the simple days: rising, breakfast, the newspaper on the front porch, the leaves to be raked in the back yard, the sun going down while we sit sharing our dinner with some flowers from my garden on the table. Houses are a gift. Though houses do need upkeep–I have often joked that the rather old and practical cars that we drive to help balance the budget should have a license plate that proclaims YOU SHOULD SEE MY NEW FURNACE!!
But it’s the warmth and safety that matters, that sticks. Virginia Woolf celebrates similar feelings in her short story THE HAUNTED HOUSE. Here is an excerpt, the ghosts (people like me who have left, though these are true dead spirits) coming back to remember what living there was, what memories pulse in the place. I think the walls are talking.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.