Haunting Houses

Early in my novel LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, a woman returns to her childhood home for her mother’s funeral. When her teenage daughter balks at spending the night in the house, the woman sees for the first time how this place she so loves must appear to the unbiased eye.

The rhododendrons out front are overgrown, almost feral, and the bricks in the path are broken and misaligned, like bad teeth. Inside, windows and drawers either resist opening or refuse to close. Bedside lamps turn on and off of their own accord. Toilets flush themselves capriciously. Pillows poke you with the shafts of their leaking feathers. The profusion of peeling green paint at the top of the back stairs suggests something seriously wrong.

I grew up in a house like that. My childhood home in Montclair is, in fact, the only “character” in the book I took directly from reality.

My family bought the house when I was a year old. We sold it after my mother died, forty years later. It haunted me for a long time. It visited my dreams and crowded my consciousness when I was awake. At random moments I’d find myself fixating on some closet or cupboard, and realize that I could never again sort through its contents – not because it was no longer ours, but because it was no longer there. It hurt. A lot.

Then the people who’d bought the house put it on the market. My brother and his family went to the open house, and he took lots of pictures.

I pored over those photos, absorbing the new landscaping, the repainted living room, the refinished floors and all the other differences between the place I ached for and the one that now occupied our old address. Seeing the changes helped. A lot. Since my old home now existed in only as I memory, I was free to return to it whenever I liked. And as I wrote my book, I did just that.

Then, somewhere between the fifth and sixth drafts of my novel, my husband and I moved to Rhode Island, to a rambling Victorian with dark shingles and a wrap-around porch – like my childhood home.

Like my childhood home, the house in Rhode Island had been in the same family for decades. Like my childhood home, the house in Rhode Island wasn’t in the greatest condition. But unlike my old home, house in Rhode Island had a sad story. One of the daughters had died tragically four years earlier. Her picture was everywhere, and the place felt suffused with grief, from the neglected yard to the dingy walls and the destroyed floors.

Our real estate agent assured us that with new plantings, fresh paint and refinished floors, the place would feel entirely different. She was right. This summer will mark our third anniversary here. The house is clearly ours, as bright and open as it was dark and closed the first time we saw it.

And though I often retell this house’s history, I know that the story of the place doesn’t end with the previous owners – any more than it does for my childhood home. Except, of course, in memory. And, perhaps, in a book.

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