You Can Never Go Home Again
My First House
My first house was on a little side street in a quirky old neighborhood in Kansas City. We’d looked at maybe 10 houses before we came upon the 1905 shirtwaist style two-story on Clark Avenue. We knew 5 seconds after walking through the door behind the realtor that this was The One.
First of all, there is nothing like the smell of an old house. Decades of lemon wood polish, books, and musty corners hang like a soft haze over the stories of the generations who lived there before. You can almost get a whiff of the lavender and dusting powder the ladies wore in past generations, and the scent of wool, coal, and sharp shaving tonic that engulfed the men. I’ll be the first one to admit that I romanticize old properties. I know they’re a colossal pain in the rear on a practical level. Every repair costs a fortune, and there are a lot of repairs. Unless they’ve been totally remodeled, they usually have terrible kitchens, even worse bathrooms, and non-existent closet space and insulation. The foundations are often buckling, and you can’t run the microwave and dishwasher (if you’re lucky enough to have one) at the same time unless you want to feel your way through the dark and cobwebs to the fuse box in the (gulp) basement. But ever since I was a kid, I was endlessly fascinated by turn-of-the century structures – their smell, dim chandeliers, and endless woodwork. Those places have seen the grandeur of the Victorian age evolve into the Roaring 20s. They just feel right and are a place I want to sink into and remain.
The house on Clark was a girlhood dream come true. It had lots of rambling rooms and those six-panel doors for which I have a borderline fetish. There was original bullseye woodwork on the grand staircase and a lead glass window over the foyer. There were still gaslight plugs along the baseboards, and an outhouse platform in the backyard. The kitchen wall still had the plastered-over hole that used to be attached to an old stovepipe. The place had already sold itself before we even walked upstairs. The bedrooms were on the small side, and there was carpeting in the bathroom (WHY?), but this place had the tree house I’d always wanted as a child. This tree house was an add-on porch in the back that was all windows that looked out onto a big backyard and its canopy of mature trees. It was storming the day we looked at the house, and you could smell the rain and ozone right through the closed windows. We wrote the offer that day.
The house seemed to be bit haunted those first few weeks after we moved in. We would hear strange knocking noises on the second floor. Pictures would fall off the walls and we’d find them scooted several feet across the floor from where they fell. The silverware would clink in the drawers when we were standing across the room. It was more than a bit unnerving the time the doorknob to the attic was visibly rattling and turning. A music box I had in one of the back bedrooms would start up on its own from time to time. It all stopped after about a month.
The mass murders there were beautiful and surreal. Murders of crows, that is. In the spring and fall, hundreds of crows would roost in the huge trees around our house, all facing the same direction in the trees, and talking to each other in those gurgling, cackling, burbling noises, which remains one of my favorite sounds in the world. Then a giant whoosh of black as they all took flight simultaneously like some gothic ballet.
I became an avid bird nerd while living there, setting up various feeders and spending hours watching them feed and feeling a sense of personal victory each time I got a new species to visit. I laughed myself silly watching the squirrels chip ice out of the birdbath in the winter and scurry it back to their nests. To this day, one of my most pleasant memories is of lounging in that tree house porch, reading books and drinking coffee and watching the birds in the backyard.
After a couple years reality began to rear its ugly head. The basement got scarier each time I went down there to do laundry. Even after replacing about a dozen windows, the place was still freezing in the winter as there was no insulation. My beloved porch was only habitable six months out of the year. It seemed like each flip of the calendar brought a new and expensive repair, and we were still only scratching the surface of what the old place needed.
During our fifth winter there, we got another $400 gas bill just to keep the place at 58 degrees. It was time to throw in the towel. Although we sold the place 2 hours after it was on the market for double what we’d paid for it, it was with a resigned sadness that we left. A blind nun bought the place; while this is a terrible thought (I keep waiting for that lightning bolt), I was kind of irked that someone was moving in that wouldn’t be able to see the birds or the hundreds of tulips and lilies I’d planted over the years. We bought a 1960s split level across town that needed some cosmetic work, but was about ten times as functional and practically appointed as the old beauty on Clark. Growing up is hard.
I’ve since divorced and moved several times, the last move taking me two states away. A few months ago my friend told me the old house was up for sale. And in foreclosure shortly thereafter. I pulled up pictures from the listing and toured my old house online and it was like a sucker punch. Seeing those grand yet cozy old rooms that weren’t mine anymore felt exactly like being an angst-saturated teenager and seeing a recent ex with a new love. Weak in the knees and queasy and I couldn’t catch my breath.
I still have dreams of that old house. It’s almost always the same; the trees are all bare, a grey storm is rolling over the neighborhood, and I’m walking through the place thinking I’m going to buy it back. Then I look again and notice huge holes in the floors and missing walls and then suddenly other people are milling about and shooing me out the front door. Then I walk around the block of the old neighborhood smelling the spring blossoms and don’t recognize anything and keep getting lost. Always a sure fire way to wake up deeply depressed and just wanting to go back to sleep in order to be in that house again. What they say is true – you can never go home again.