Posts Tagged ‘Home’

That Old House

March 31, 2015


The email came a year ago. The subject line was “Montclair House.” I didn’t recognize the sender. Angie said that she and her husband had bought my childhood home, and hoped to restore it to its original footprint. She had found a blog post I’d written about it. She wanted to talk to me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to her. But I wasn’t sure why.

The house is a rambling Victorian built in 1900. A landing in the stairs overlooks the living room. The main entrance isn’t at the front, but, quirkily, on the side. When our parents bought the house, in 1958, the shady hemlocks, dark cedar shingles and wrap-around porch reminded our mother of the Adirondacks. I had just turned one – the last of four children. Until our mother died, in 1999, the house was our family’s gravitational center.

It’s where I learned to read. And write. To ride a bike and drive a car. We carried the black-and-white TV into the backyard to watch Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, and onto the porch for the Watergate Hearings. All three sisters crossed the landing and descended the stairs to get married in the living room. Four generations gathered in the dining room for Passover seders. Each of my siblings moved back at some point, as adults. I never moved back, but the house stayed inside me.

For a long time after we sold the house, I found myself waking up at night longing to search through closets and drawers that had long since been emptied of our stuff and refilled with other families’ possessions. I couldn’t believe our childhood drawings weren’t still crammed into the built-in drawers in the master bedroom, that our broken kitchen chairs weren’t stored in the back attic, that my head comics were no longer hidden behind my bed.

The property has changed hands a few times since we sold it. Early on, the sellers held an open house. My brother went, and took pictures. I pored over the photos, trying to reconcile the freshly painted rooms and neatly landscaped yard with the well-worn, lived-in spaces I remembered. Passing through town, I would idle at the curb, trying to mentally replant the lost hemlocks and replace the new blue siding with the old cedar shingles. Eventually, I learned to let go of the physical building. I knew I would never lose the sense of home that endured in my mind.

But Angie’s email revived the old longing. I sent her a quick note, asking for more information. While I waited to hear back, I tried to imagine how anyone could restore our home to what it had been. Would they bring back the clutter? Re-peel the paint? Rewire the light switch outside the bathroom so it only worked when it was jiggled just so?

Four days later, Angie answered. She wanted to know my favorite memory of the house. But the rest of her questions were architectural. Had the “front” door always been at the side? Was the little room off the dining room ever a porch?

I forwarded her email to my siblings. We swapped memories about staging plays on the landing over the living room, and soaking in the claw-foot tub. We told each other how glad we were that the house was back in the hands of people who loved it. And we agreed that the idea of restoring the “original footprint” made no sense. The “front” door had always been on the side. And the little room off the dining room had always been the “sun room,” where our father paid the bills and we kept the Passover haggadahs.

The next time she wrote, Angie attached old photos from when the house was first built – pictures we had never seen.

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There was the front door, at the front of the house. And there, in the corner where the sun room belonged, was an open porch.

As I studied the photos, trying to reconcile the house on my screen with the one I remembered, I realized what I had always known, but never absorbed. For 60 years before the house was ours, other families had already called it home. If the first owners could have seen how the house looked when we lived there, they would have had as much trouble recognizing the place as I do today.

In one of my emails to Angie, I mentioned those haggadahs in the sun room. She replied that at their seder that year, someone in her family had said, “Next year in Montclair.”

That “next year” is this year. I like imagining Angie’s family celebrating  in the Montclair dining room. It doesn’t matter so much if they open the door for Elijah at the side of the house or the front. I do hope, though, that when they pass the house on, they’ll hold memories of home as enduring and enriching as mine.


Home is where

June 24, 2012

Yesterday was the last Shabbat my good friend Joel spent as a rabbi at my synagogue. It was a sad morning. Sad to sit in my usual seat, going through the same order of prayers and rituals and readings – sit down, stand up, sing, listen – knowing that each predictable step in the service was bringing us that much closer to closure. I could only imagine how it was all hitting him, sitting up there in his chair beside the ark, looking out for the last time at the community that has come to love him in the four short years since he arrived.

By the time he had finished delivering his farewell sermon, half the room was in tears, including Joel.

But it was more complicated than that. Sure, the Seltzers are moving away. But they’re going to a place they know and love, and starting a new professional adventure.

They’re giving up a sure thing in order to grab a chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sort of like what David and I did five years ago, when we gave up our comfortable life in Vermont to try something new in Rhode Island.

Though, in our case, we weren’t going to a place we already knew.

I remember finding my way around my new neighborhood, taking it on faith that one day each storefront and house would be so familiar I would hardly notice them. I remember how proud I was the first time I managed to drive to the mall and back without making a wrong turn. I remember seeing two women chatting in a coffee shop, and telling myself, one day that will be you.

I knew this wouldn’t happen on its own, though. Sure, we’d managed to make friends in the other places we’ve lived. But this time it would be harder, especially for me. Our kids were already out of the house, so they wouldn’t be finding other children with parents we could bond with. And I didn’t even have a job to go to. How do you become a part of the community if all you do all day is sit at home, writing? This was one big reason why we started showing up regularly at synagogue.

And it worked. I remember looking around the sanctuary, being struck by how all those strangers seemed to know each other. Within a few weeks, we were recognizing people. Driving home, we would rehearse the roster of who had been there, identifying the different Rhode Islanders according to which Vermonters we had initially mistaken them for. (It’s uncanny how many people resemble other people.)

Soon we were attaching names and salient details to the faces. I started occupying myself during services by counting the number of people I could identify. Pretty soon, I realized I wasn’t just picking out the people I recognized. I could also tell who was new, or only showed up occasionally. Around that same time, I started forgetting to count.

Five years later, I’m still a newcomer here. And I still miss Vermont and our friends there very much. But this is home in a lot of ways. How? The perennials we planted are filling out. We have favorite beaches and restaurants. I don’t patronize the Stop and Shop on Warwick Avenue because it replaced a plant nursery I loved.

Most important, this is home because the people we used to identity by a few surface traits, and were able to recognize because they looked like other people, have become our friends. They’re people we share running jokes and disputes with. People we could call in an emergency. People whose celebrations and sorrows we have shared. People who look like nobody but themselves.

And now, as we wish Joel and Eliana good luck in their next chapter, there’s this. Home is the place where you stand when you wave goodbye .

Haunting Houses

May 14, 2010

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.