The House That Raised Us
Leaving the place where so many memories had been made turned out to be much harder than ever imagined
I despised the first house I ever owned. When my husband and I bought it, in 1991, we were coming off a decade of frequent m moves and my deepest desire was to settle down. I had dreamed of something large, old and graceful with lots of wainscoting and beveled glass. It would have two stories, a big porch and trees shading a yard for the children we hoped to have.
Unfortunately, in West Los Angeles, where I live, you don’t get those things unless you’ve got several million dollars. Instead, our savings bought us a 1,200-square-foot postwar box. It was sturdily built, had oak wood floors and was bright, airy and well laid-out, which made it the best of die scores of places we’d seen. One option had a windowless bathroom lined in brick; another had cheap paneling as far as the eye could see. There were all kinds of practical reasons to buy the house we bought: Local prices and interest rates were down, I needed to apply for a loan before filing my tax return in order to get the deduction and I was writing a book that year and had earned practically nothing. But romance and grace? Forget it. Every room was plain and small. The backyard was mostly concrete, and the cramped kitchen had speckled green tile. Worst of all, we’d badly underestimated the amount of traffic on the street. Cars roared by from dawn until dusk, and though friends said I’d get used to the noise, I never did.
Over the years we worked hard to make improvements, jackhammering concrete and landscaping with bird-of-paradise and flowering vines, installing crown molding, retiling, repainting, sanding the floors until they were caramel gold. It helped. Each day the sight of sunlight on our deep-peach dining-room walls and masses of magenta bougainvillea blooming outside gave me a thrill of sensual pleasure. A budget remodel made the kitchen sleek and more functional and since the design was my own—despite the fact that I’m artistically challenged and I had never before dared such a venture — I felt insanely proud of it.
But in the end, nothing could turn the place into airy thing but the plain wrap starter house it was. I came to view it as the home equivalent of the “nice boys” my parents always wanted mc to date: I could appreciate its good qualities but it never turned me on. Instead, even as life continued — as my husband and I had a baby, as that baby turned into a toddler, preschooler, school child; as we lost a cat, got a dog, planted flowers and fruit trees, bought furniture, art, a barbecue and the myriad other possessions that define middle-class life — I looked to the future, reading the “home for sale” ads in the newspaper, always dreaming of the day we’d be able to move on.
Then the day came. After eight years of my complaints and two years of searching, we found a house that, given our budget, was as close to our dreams as we were ever going to get: a 1927 fixer-upper with trees, space and a living room with arched ceilings and stained-glass windows. Wc made an offer, thrashed through complicated negotiations, put our house on the market and sold it in two weeks. And suddenly I was frantic. I had groused about my house but for nearly a decade I’d coddled and cared for it. How could I trust that its buyer, who was young and single, would do the same? Would she listen when I told her the lemon tree needed fertilizer? Would she, too, carefully pick caterpillars off the rosebush in front and hose the whitcflics that plagued the hibiscus? Would she watch for scratches on the wood floor, wax die kitchen tiles? The week the deal became final, I found myself walking around the rooms I’d waited so long to leave, muttering, through tears, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Not since I was a teenager and my parents moved, I realized, had I said good-bye to a home. All my earlier moves as an adult had been as a single or part of a couple; none of the places I’d left were woven into the fabric of my life, as this one was. The specifics of the house itself were irrelevant. It could have been a mansion or a tiny apartment. What mattered was that it held literally thousands of memories. When I looked aiound the well-furnished living room, 1 could sec its barren early days, when my husband, Bill, and I, having jettisoned our thrift-shop furniture, had nothing. The dining room had been the site of nearly a dozen Christmas Eve dinners and Passover seders; my office in the garage was the place where I’d completed my first book. In one bedroom we’d conceived our daughter, Melissa; the other was where we brought her home. I couldn’t see one bathroom without remembering the days she’d been so tiny I could …. bathe her in the sink. The wood floors still held the thumping echo of her feet—how many years had she woken at 6 A.M. and hit the ground running? The patio was where she’d blown out eight sets of birthday candles and broken eight piñatas, where she’d practiced jumping rope and playing handball. The marks from her serves still smudged the garage door.
Melissa was 8 now. I knew she’d grow up no matter where we lived, but I still felt her younger self in this house, and my heart told me that when I left, I would leave it behind. With the move, our time here would close, become an era, a phase of our lives, with a beginning, middle and end. I didn’t doubt we’d be happy in our new home but it would never be the place where we started and became a family, where we were young.
The day the movers came, Melissa wrote a note about herself (“I have lived in this house my whole life”) that we hid in the attic, with a photo, for some future child to find. She went off to school ayirig. After every thing was gone, I cleaned the kitchen and bathrooms, swept the patio and polished the wood floors until they shone. The deal was done so there was no need, except my own, to pay respect, and claim ownership a final time. Then the new owner arrived. I gave her a tour and instructions, handed over the keys and took one last look before walking away, letting go-as someday I’d have to do with Melissa-of what I’d so carefully tended, entrusting its future to strangers.