My childhood home is for sale. In fact, it has been for a little over a month now, and at this moment, the sale is currently marked as “Pending.” I knew that already, but I had to somehow find confirmation of this on my own. I couldn’t simply take the word of my parents, as if this knowledge still flitted about in the ether and had not yet come to land. And I had to see it one more time, somehow, before letting it go for good.
For the first time today, it actually occurred to me that I could look it up online. I don’t have the sentimental luxury at the moment to go back to visit it in person for one last look. I live several thousand expensive miles away, and the timing would be all off. It would make things harder on my parents, lending more emotion to the already exhausting situation, and besides, they know I need to look for a new job, a new place of my own to live, and I know they simply want to finalize things as efficiently as possible, considering how many years this has spent incubating.
But I can indulge in a little virtual tour, and I wanted to see how it looked on stage, presented to outsiders peering in for the first time. At first glance, I think “That’s not the house I grew up in,” because it has been transformed so completely, to a point where it is barely even recognizable, so much so that when I look at some of the pictures I have to take a moment to extrapolate from them in order to know what I’m actually looking at. Even though I have spent so much time in that house, I feel I should know every corner by heart, I felt disoriented stepping through the looking glass and picturing myself back in those rooms. A few crucial somethings were conspicuously missing. In some rooms, the orientation somehow felt off, as if some invisible hand shuffled the walls around, stripping away crucial aspects that had gone mysteriously missing, but to where? Or perhaps it was the shock of seeing it presented by an outsider, like the first time you see your name in print, or your picture in the paper. “Naomi was seen doing this,” but you no longer own your own actions, or your own image somehow looks unfamiliar. Is that really me? Is that actually the place? Did that happen?
In fact, I was born in one corner of that house, but there is conspicuously (likely only to me) no picture of that spot. There is a view into that room, but it is taken from an angle that places that very auspicious corner just out of view. Maybe it strikes me in a particularly poignant way at this moment, as I approach my 33rd birthday. Some cycle is coming to a close, and I’m not entirely sure I want to accept its passing just yet.
My parents worked so diligently to transform the house, gradually over 36 years, and then with an especially focussed fervor over the course of the past two. My parents have face-lifted, rebuilt, reworked, and whitewashed, some of it out and some of it in, to being. True, the upstairs rooms are still the purple, green, and pink hues that we all painted them so many years ago. But all the wood flooring, and the white walls! Where is that noxious 60s era orange-brown carpeting that lined the hallways for so long? I can still remember how it smelled when it was warmed by the afternoon sun: wool mixed with the unmistakably sweet smell of off-gasing plastic, vaguely musty and dusty, no matter how fervently and frequently it was vacuumed (weekly). Where is that baby blue trim in my dad’s office that I hated so vehemently when I was a teenager and that my parents insisted on repainting the same shade when it began to chip. And why did I hate it so much? It was somehow just another piercing reminder to me of the socioeconomic distance between my family and those of my classmates. Yes, that stupid blue chipped paint. Do a realty listings search of the 02025 zip code, and you will see that yawning gap between the home prices listed. There is very little middle ground, plain to see.
Now that is all gone, stripped away or entirely replaced by more tasteful maple and pine. Somehow I find myself yearning for one last glimpse. The changes they’ve made of course are all requisite elements that add up to “Curb appeal,” or some other realtor’s marketing sentiment. It looks as though someone really gave it a good old spit shine and polished it up into something that we always hoped it would look like when my whole family still lived there, but that my parents never really had the time or the money to put into it then. They were too busy feeding, clothing, and schooling two children. Keeping their cars running. Making sure everyone stayed afloat, not able to worry too much about when the porch would be finished, or when a new slick of paint could be added to the trim.
Oddly, it now more closely resembles the home I wished for when I was little, yet now I long to see it as it was, as I remember it. Back then, I felt inordinately ashamed of and embarrassed by how quirky, artsy, how repulsively and damningly different my house looked from the rambling Victorians, classic Capes, and even the homogenous (but all very expensive) “development” homes that began to pop up like so many mushrooms after the rains on cookie cutter lots in my seaside hometown. Though now I look at it, and I wonder what I saw that made it so exceptionally “weird.” It doesn’t seem that remarkably strange to me now. Although it surely is a composite of many disparate elements, this is an inevitability of a house that is a couple of centuries old, occupied by at least dozens of people.
At the time I felt fiercely protective of its intimately familiar oddities (only I get to judge it!) and yet, why did I evaluate this place so harshly and so unkindly, pitted against what I saw around me? It never seemed good enough. “Interesting” wasn’t what I was after then. I wanted to disappear into anonymity and my home (nor much of anything else in my life) was certainly not helping on that front, in my ponderously insecure opinion. When my parents artist friends talked about how much they loved visiting our house, I couldn’t quite understand what they saw that I wasn’t able to see at the time. Of course, if anyone else were to make any comments to disparage it, I would raise my defenses and bare my proverbial teeth. “My dad’s so busy ( I insisted on referring to him as “my dad” to others back then, even though I called him “Papa”) he doesn’t have the time to finish the porch yet…” “My parents are still deciding on what color to repaint it, so that’s why it still looks like that….” (Most of these were excuses I made in my own head. Mostly they weren’t conversations that actually even happened) It wasn’t until a college friend visited during my sophomore year that I was truly able to consider seeing it through a different lens. “Oh! It’s so cozy and cute! I feel at home here,” the friend exclaimed. I couldn’t believe someone who was my peer could say anything nice about it. I was so used to criticizing it and disdainfully judging everything I owned materially that I couldn’t quite believe someone whose opinion I cared about could actually be positive, complimentary. This person was on my side, they were a true friend. Someone I loved and respected and trusted, not some freak from the fringe that my parents brought home. How delightfully decentering it is to see something familiar for the very first time.
Now, I wonder how anyone growing up in a McMansion could ever feel the kind of resonance with their homes that I did on some level, no matter how embarrassed I was to invite friends over when I was little. I’m not saying that a sense of home isn’t present or important, no matter where you are. Even if your house is just like the same ones that are dotted across the upper middle class landscape of America, from one indistinguishable subdivision to the next stretching across the country between both coasts, I imagine that something stands out for you to make you feel as though you came from something, somewhere. It can’t all be entirely empty or soulless. But, I mean to say, how can you feel the same sense of fondness, and feel loved by, a home that seems like nothing more than a prefabricated collection of parts? Such homes have never felt quite like they have a heart to me, but that is not to say the people that dwell within them are so many factory robots. Although sometimes when I am inside of these places, they feel to me as though they do not even actually exist at all. There is something about these edifices that seems more near to a computer generated, holographic image than an actual home.
The thing is, as much as I wished for something more “normal” or conventional looking at the time, I also knew even then it was an expression of how my family was, who they were, and the house itself participated in that untidy game as well, and a small part of me felt I should find a way to embrace this all of the time rather than to internalize some hatred of it or alienation from it in public, but to secretly love it. I often felt as though my house had a life all its own, a character and a presence that was undeniably off center but nonetheless real. With its creaky wooden floors, slanting ceilings, and clash of colors and design, it had splashed across its surface the many histories of the people who lived in it and the incarnations it had lived through in its 200 years. The fact that there was an 8 MM movie shot of my house being moved about a 1/2 mile or so down route 228, in the first third of the 20th century, lent a grounding in the history of this place that I did not yet grasp at the time. So of course the floors slanted oddly in places, creaked and yelped when you trod just so: the house had survived the trial of uprooting, lurching slowly but surely to its new resting place.
A while back, I wrote my mother a letter when she informed me that they’d put it on the market. I felt a bittersweet joy to know that after nearly 15 years, my parents would finally be reunited full time in the same dwelling. For whatever that is worth. I wasn’t sure how she’d take it, and as always, I somehow feared her judgment of my usual sea of emotion. At first, she might take it in and nod her head sympathetically. Worse, sometimes these (foolishly?) unguarded moments have turned into an unmanageably wild ocean of commiseration, and what might be referred to as “codependent behaviors” by a therapist. Like some egregiously banal talk-show moment where the host and the guest and the audience are mutually wringing their hands and raking their skin in a mellow-dramatic display of shared emotional anguish. Or most maddeningly of all, would she later use it as ammunition against me, as was so often the case when I opened the floodgates and the truth tumbled out? Perhaps she would reduce me, with one withering remark or look, to the heap of emotions that I sometimes secretly fear is my only substance.
In the end, I was surprised to find that she expressed that she felt similarly, and thanked me for expressing it so succinctly. This time, she nodded her head sympathetically in recognition. A victory? Maybe. I guess parental validation isn’t something we outgrow as we become so-called adults.
This is some of what I wrote:
“I will always feel a fondness for that place, that yard, the unique quirks of that house. What it felt like to come home, to hear the way the car sounded going around the familiar turns and finally pulling up to the house. Of course it looks and feels so different to me now: the colors not being the same and the things that were once there that made it what it was, holding a piece of each of us, many no longer there either. But things change, time changes us, and it all passes on to something new. That is ok, or at least, it simply is.