Houses

There’s an English idiom where you “take a trip down memory lane”—meaning, you revisit something from your past. The journey can be just in your mind, but on our recent trip to the States, I got to do it in the literal sense.

On our way to an appointment in the Boston area, Tim and I were going to pass dicht bij the little carriage house we had been renting before we moved to Europe. “Please,” I requested, insisting we had time, “let’s drive by.”

In Boston you can stumble upon some pretty cool rentals, if you change apartments enough or get lucky; and in my opinion this was one of the special ones: a tiny, free-standing house that had been all ours. It had some… um, vintage features that could have used updating. Like the plethora of original hundred-year-old windows, and the fireplace plagued by mold and drafts, and the occasional unwanted guest. Oh, and at least one utter catastrophe. But it had been home. It was even where I began this blog, as momentous as that may or may not have been.

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Circa 2009

We drove slowly down the street. “Whoa!” we exclaimed, reaching identical conclusions simultaneously. Someone, presumably our former landlord, had gone extreme-makeover on our old house. New windows. New siding, of a friendly green color rather than the previous brown-by-default-or-time. “The plants are gone,” I said, meaning the snarly ones that had prevented us from seeing out the kitchen windows. In their place was some basic landscaping and a little, continuous yard.

(Also absent was any evidence of my early attempts at a vegetable garden, which as I recall yielded very little produce.)

Original garden, also circa 2009

Original garden, also circa 2009

Not wanting to appear overly stalkerish, we drove away after a minute, mumbling regretful things. “I would live in that house now,” one of us commented, remarking that we should certainly call our old landlord if we move back to that area. “Me, too,” the other agreed, remarking that of course, he has probably hiked the rent beyond our means.

The transformation of the little house was so striking that I told basically everyone I saw about it, and later posted a few “before” and “after” photos on my Facebook page. That night as I went to bed, thinking about the house, I thought:

Sure, anyone would love that house now. But you know what? I loved that house when the wind came through every window. I loved it from the moment we first visited after answering the Craigslist listing, when my sensible husband was pointing out things like the tiny galley kitchen and noticing that the previous tenants had felt the need to keep rat poison on hand. I saw only the huge, old sliding doors flanked by windows with dozens of panes of glass, opening onto the peeling terrace overlooking a busy road.

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I loved that house when we couldn’t keep it warm in the winter because the heat slipped out like we’d left the doors open, and I tolerated it in the summer when the loft became too hot for sleeping. I mowed the tiny lawn with pride (it took about two swipes) and felt like a baby homeowner.

Later in this same trip home, I was in the car in New Jersey with my mom when she asked if I wanted to drive by our old house, where I grew up from about 4 to 14. We commented on places where the neighborhood looked different or the same, and then each did a neck-bending double-take. Surely that couldn’t be our old house? I mentally counted in from the corner. I looked at the number. It was the house.

The house my parents labored over and landscaped had been completely let go. It was an absolute dive: pieces missing from around the windows. Weird stains on the siding. Wires dangling over the garage. Plants left to do whatever they would, like die. I was grateful that I couldn’t see into the backyard, or I might actually have cried. The house was inhabited, but it was clear that no one was caring for it. And although that house hasn’t been ours for more than a decade, it hurt to see it that way. It still felt like we had some right to bang on the door and demand what had happened.

Going home can be weird. Going to what used to be home can be uncomfortable. A place you’ve given that label never really loses it, even when you think you’ve scraped it off and moved the sticker to a new location.

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