history of a house – a family

Photo: 1-31-2010

I have a friend who declares she can always tell when there’s stress or sadness inside a house. She swears that when weeds start growing in a previously well-maintained yard, trouble is brewing inside. When a shutter remains askew for too long, something is out of kilter inside. When paint starts peeling on the outside, you can be sure the souls inside are shedding old skins as well. It could be injury, illness, death, crisis, addiction or divorce, but when a house that has been lovingly cared for starts falling into disrepair, it almost always means trouble.

Our house was four years old – practically new – when we bought it in 2002. The couple who owned it bought it when it was brand spanking new; they were the first and only owners. We never met either of them, but we met their son during the home inspection. He was a nice kid. I’ll never forget.

It was a blisteringly hot day in July, and he was college bound that fall. His mom and dad separated and divorced shortly after moving into this house. He must have been about 13 or 14-years-old when his dad left. The neighbors knew very little about them. We heard rumblings about how they kept to themselves before and after the divorce. Human nature can barely resist speculation in these situations.

We were told that the husband left her for the “other woman.” Who ever knows the ins and outs of another marriage? No one, but I did learn a couple of things. The divorce agreement allowed her to remain in the house until their son entered college, and she was to receive the proceeds from the sale – meager though they were. The son was less than two months away from campus life when we came into the picture.

Practically a newborn, the house had not seen years of abuse from sheltering children and grandchildren and cats and dogs. It did not have layers of bubbling, boiling, or peeling paint and wallpaper. There were no chartreuse or fuchsia or acid-inducing orange walls. There were no scratches on the floors or sticky doors or outdated decor.

The attic was not filled with the usual debris of a lifetime, and key pieces of furniture were conspicuously missing throughout the house. The garage was strangely devoid of guy stuff, and his side of the closet was empty. No, the house was not suffering from too much living, quite the opposite. I’d never seen a house that screamed for human companionship like this one did. Humans always leave their mark – something that says, I was here.

The walls were still builder white, and there were no photos or prints or wall hangings of any sort on the walls. The deck floor had been left to bleach and dry in the elements, and weeds were growing up through it. It had never been acquainted with a preservative. The yard was filled with crabgrass, broad leaf weeds, huge bare spots, and dead or dying grass. The house had not been abused by an abundance of living, but it had been sorely neglected by a lack of living. It was the most nondescript place I’d ever seen – a blank canvas.

I loved the floor plan, the neighborhood, the beautiful moldings and the price, which was below market value because it had been on the market for months. It had no personal appeal. It needed a girlfriend to tout its good points and find it a date.

The boy wanted us to know that his dad had once been a presence here, something more than a ghost. He told us about the pulleys attached to the ceiling in the garage. They had once held a kayak and a canoe – reminders of happier times with his dad. He said that he and his dad used to take them down the river on weekends, that he and his dad had installed the pulleys together. Herman made much about how clever that was and how he could find a number of uses for them.

You could barely see the deep sadness swimming behind those impenetrable boy-man eyes. He was ready to fly the coop, this place that was never really home to him, this place where it had all ended, this place where he had watched his mother climb the stairs at night with her wine, this place were she had spilled it on the carpet beside the bed when she became too weary to be careful. This was a house filled with pain.

My heart hurt for the boy who missed his father, and felt the need to make strangers (us) understand that he was not a bad man. I felt for the mother and wife who had lost her husband, and was now losing her new home and her son all at once. She found it difficult to leave the wreckage behind and move on. The rending of her life was too much.

Overwhelmed at times, she did many irrational things during the process of selling her house. Herman was disturbed by her actions on several occasions, but I kept telling him that she would come around because she knew better than anyone what she had to do. She had no choice. She had to go through with the sale eventually and move forward.

I’ve thought of them many times over the years – the father, the mother, the son, the family. After a few years, I heard that she met someone special, and a wedding was in the offing. I don’t know about the son or husband. I do know that the husband could not be found to sign the papers on the day of closing. It took a few more days to track him down, and I assumed he was doing one last thing to get under her skin. The distance we will go to hurt someone we once loved is sad.

This fairly new house already has an impressive history of neglect. Herman and I moved in, and a flurry of long needed repairs, cleaning, staining, painting, seeding, and weeding commenced. Just when things were looking up for it, my father had a stroke, and the house was abandoned once again. It fell into disrepair for the second time in its short life as our family entered crisis mode, only to be followed closely by over three years of survival mode while we stayed with Dad. The weeds grew, the grass died, and the deck dried out again, and we still did not come to its aid. A neighbor kid mowed the grass for us and that’s about it.

We’ve been back a little over a year now. The place has been spiffed up a bit during that time. It’s amazing what a little paint here, a bit of preservative over there, a power seeding out there and a power washing over here can do. Of course, we can always find something else to do, but things have come a long way around here. This (now slightly-less-than-new) house is almost ready for its next family. These two old codgers need to move on to a smaller, lower-maintenance kind of place. Maybe a young family with kids who will leave their marks on it will move in here. May their troubles be few and small and their memories (yet to be made) sweet and lasting.

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