Thursday, July 16, 2009

The houses we leave behind


Yesterday, I was walking in my old neighborhood in Newton, MA, and I passed a house that I think of as “Ginny Hyde’s house.” It’s a lovely wood shingle house with Dutch colonial lines. I knew this house as an 8-year old child. The thing is, Ginny hasn’t lived here for more than 30 years. A close friend of my mother’s, she moved with her husband to Florida decades ago. This past year, she passed away. She was in her 80s. She was a lovely, ebullient woman with a strong, upbeat personality. As a child, she was one of my favorite adults.

I have no idea how many people have since occupied her house, and I don’t think it will ever matter. For me, that house will always be Ginny Hyde’s house along with memories of what it looked like inside, the memory of who I was at 8-years old, and of course, Ginny.

It’s like a strand of DNA has mapped that experience and stored it forever inside me in the shape and vision of a house.

Though I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in this house, I felt the pull of the past and was reminded, again, of how strong it can be, like a tide that goes in and out. Maybe the heart is another kind of moon tugging at these memories, lifting them up and sending them back under depending on what’s going on in our lives.

Houses will do that to us. We project our hopes and great expectations on these structures that stand witness to our days and nights, our habits, our most private moments.

Walking past Ginny's house is an easy memory for me, not fraught with ambivalence. I've got plenty of that where I live right now.

--which brings me back to the comment “anonymous” made in response to my post about favorite things (see July 13 post). Anonymous said how difficult it can be to leave a home, and the desire to go back a source of ongoing pain. I also heard from a few others offline. One person said she didn’t like her house growing up, another person said she hates the house she’s living in now.

I’m here to say that these feelings of discomfort about where we live or lived are not uncommon—at all—but they are signals we should listen to. I’m also here to encourage you to do something about that discomfort. Start with something small.

By the way, here’s another little factoid about hermit crabs: they can be quite picky about the shells they prefer.

20 comments:

  1. I've left two houses in the last three years. Well, neither were actually houses, both duplexes. One was in a town I loved--a bright, light-filled (in more ways than one) little domocile with beautiful hardwood floors and a plot that became my garden. It was walking distance to my favorite downtown (Petaluma, CA). Then my husband got a job and we moved 2 hours away. I cried leaving that place, and cried moving into our next duplex, a place so dark and sterile we thought of it as "the motel."

    But here's where it gets funny. We just bought our first home, reminiscent of that sweet, bright, Petaluma pad, which we LOVE...but sometimes I miss the dark little hovel because it's where we brought our baby home from the hospital; the place where I nursed him in a glazed and sleepless stupor, watched him develop into a 1 year old boy. So...sometimes a house is built on its memories.

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  2. Jordan,
    That's a lot of moving in three years! Plus a baby. What you said is wonderful. Wanting light and getting dark, then getting light and wanting dark--it's funny how we get attached. What you say is so true--a house is built on memories. (And on the darker side: maybe destroyed by them as well.)

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Jessica

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  3. I think this attitude that a house is an "investment" to be lived in only until profit is turned is one indicator of the illness rampant in our society. If we don't love our homes, the places where our memories are created, and our communities, the extension of our family--if this is merely a place to remain until we trade up--are we really living?

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  4. Carolyn, this is a brilliant insight. I know I've gotten into that mindset and it didn't fill the void of home, the one I'm trying to fill, the home I'm really trying to find. Thanks for raising this important issue.

    (By the way, Carolyn's new thriller, Greedy Bones is out. You can find out more about it on her website: www.carolynhaines.com.)

    Jessica

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  5. Love this blog, Jessica. I'm actually in the process of house hunting right now. I've done a lot of moving since I hit adulthood. In just the past few years, I've moved from Houston to San Marcos to Austin to Houston again. The funny thing that I've noticed is that, even if it was just an apartment that I lived in for six months, there is always a sense of loss when I drive away for the last time. It always leaves me a little sad and quiet, as though I am leaving behind the memories made in those places also.

    Memories can certainly destroy a place. The memories from my first marriage are the main reason I will never go back to Oklahoma (yes, the whole state!), even though he no longer lives there and I have good friends that do.

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  6. Jennifer,
    I'd love to hear more about your house hunting. Is there permanence in the air for you? Pulling up and resettling like that barely gives you time to feel where you are in the present.

    As for banishing an entire state? Wow. I know people who don't want to return to a town or city. Then again, my grandparents left Russia and never returned. And, the more I think about this, the more obvious it becomes. Our country is made of people who have left their motherlands, fleeing from horrendous memories.

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  7. I LOVE this blog. I have been thinking/reflecting about my homes since joing this blog. So much has been stirred up. I promise to write when I have more time. Thank you, Jessica...

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  8. Mary, I'm glad you're reflecting. And please don't worry about time. I welcome drop-ins, short comments, whatever works.
    Thanks for stopping by.
    Jessica

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  9. Hey Jessica,
    I left so many houses behind, but I think the house I live in is in my mind. So anything is very "homy" as long as I have my mind.
    The day before yesterday my not jet 23 years old daughter Pia became a medical doctor. That for me is a big house!
    Peter

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  10. Peter, nice to hear from you all the way from Vienna! I love your concept of creating a home in your mind. Congratulations on your daughter's achievment.
    Jessica

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  11. We are definitely looking for a place where we can stay for a very long time. I told my husband that I plan to die in whatever house we buy. That may be a bit of an exagerration, but not by much.

    We've looked at both new and used houses, and I've noticed that it's the older homes that seem more "homey". All of the new houses these days seem to be made exactly the same as each other. Most of the houses I've really liked were built back in the late 70s. For some reason, they seem more like homes to me and less like fancy show pieces. I think part of it may also be that older neighborhoods like that remind me of the one I grew up in.

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  12. Jennifer--I, too, want to find a place that doesn't feel like a stopover to the next destination in my life. As for what you're attracted to--once again your childhood associations are shaping your choices. I can't wait to hear about the house that makes you fall in love.

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  13. I resonate so much with what Carolyn said. When we were buying our house we got to see first hand the mess that those speculators and greedy mortgage types created. All we wanted was a home to raise our boy in, to live in and feel embraced by community...that's all I've ever wanted of a home (well that, and a great big garden)... So amen. Profit has corrupted so many beloved elements.

    I also have moved a gazillion times in my life and was a kid who went back and forth between divorced parents every 2 weeks from the age of 3, so home is REALLY important to me.

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  14. Wow, Jordan, I can't imagine what it's like to flip flop, as you did, between homes.

    Why do children typically endure this switching? It seems to me that kids should be in one house and the divorced parents should do the flip flopping instead. I know one family, actually, who did that.

    It's a trying situation no matter what.

    Jessica

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  15. What a wonderful blog! The house that remains with me through strong memories is the one my parents bought and moved us into when I was five years old. It was a tiny Cape Cod that had been someone's summer home in the country and was situated on nearly two acres. It had a huge ash tree (actually four trees so close together that they grew into one) that spread shade over most of the back yard where our swing set and sandbox were located. It was a great place to grow up. My mother had to sell the house about a decade ago when it became too much for her physically to take care of after my dad died, but a young couple with children bought it and it makes me very happy that other kids will get to grow up there. I live in a different part of the state, but I always make a point of driving by to look at our old house when I go back to visit my mom.

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  16. Hi, Dory.
    What a wonderful memory you have of your childhood home. You're lucky. I know many people who wish they'd had that positive experience of their childhood home but didn't. I love the image of the four trees growing into one. It's as if the trees were the elders watching over the young ones. Thanks for stopping by! I'll be talking about trees in a future post.

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  17. I just love your posts and the comments you're getting.

    There's a house in my parents' neighborhood I'll always think of as Eileen's house. She had a miswired kitchen so you'd get an electric shock if you held the refrigerator handle at the same time as you touched the metal rim around the counter. Talk about fun on a boring day, two little girls seeing who could hold on the longest!

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  18. Susan--I have such a fear about electric shocks, I can't imagine trying to hold on as you did. But I've heard stories of people getting electric shocks from their stoves. Your story reminds me, though, of why I don't like electric things. I'll write about it in a future post.

    Thanks for stopping by and congratulations, again, on selling your novel, The Ruby Cup! I can't wait until it comes out.

    Jessica

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  19. With a couple of exceptions, I have become attached to the many spaces I've lived in since I was young - I have said many times if money were no object I'd just keep them all and loan them out and hermit crab my way from one to the other during the course of the year.

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  20. Hmmmm. That's an idea. I'm not attached to many or most of the homes I've lived in, including the one I live in now. What does this say about me?

    Jessica

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