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Musings

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My House: Out of Fashion and Running Out of Time

Estate sale

Amidst rumors of possible demolition, one woman wonders what will become of her childhood home and the memories created there.

It is springtime, a Sunday afternoon, and I am seated with friends in lawn chairs in the front yard of my family home, where people come and go and pay small money for furniture, ladders and silly things like buttons, all displayed on tables inside and out. The consensus after nearly two days is that this is a fantastic house, this 90-year old white brick cottage with a yard that circles out way farther than any other on the block.

Has it sold already, they wonder? These customers stay and talk, suburban neighbors I will never know who wish they’d seen the listing. Me too, I think.

Between chats, I lie back and view the world through the woven branches of our petite dogwood, where sky breaks through in cut-out shapes, a habit from childhood. My parents planted this tree once the old apple trees dotting our property toppled one by one, even overtaking our yard a few times and blocking the front door.

The dogwood now told the story of the apple trees, where I once sat and read in high-up branches. And those were reminders of the orchards that thrived here before that. Would the dogwood even remain after the sale?

After a while we simply need to laugh and invent Hallmark cards marking this strange milestone:

Rest in Peace, house that was worth more dead than alive.

There is no place like home - soon, there really won’t be!

Our thoughts are with you, though, seriously, in this economy? The place didn’t stand a chance. Just saying!

Remember, when one door closes, you order more!

Since my father’s death 14 months earlier the house had been unoccupied, save my periodic visits. The builder who’d bought it after no one else would wasn’t showing his hand. But a quick Google search found he’d eliminated the past few he’d bought and constructed replacements, “nice ones,” our agent assured us.

And ours perfectly fit the profile of a tear-down: located on a large lot, in an expensive New York suburb – and up for sale in a notoriously poor economy. Add to that the out of date fixtures and wall paper and obvious need of new paint. And, our reluctance to spend thousands of dollars to convert the house into the specimen shoppers apparently wanted.

My certainty that the house would soon be history was tempered by my arrogance. After all, wouldn’t even one family see the place, admire its cottage style windows and sunken living room and the dormers upstairs?

Built in the 1926, it was white brick punctuated by a pair of slightly crooked white brick lamp posts at the street. Linking posts and house was a slate path flanked by my mother’s flower beds. The setback gave the house a more stately air than its compact size really warranted. We guessed that it had once belonged to the estate up the road of tabloid journalist Walter Winchell.

The long ago history of the region had involved the Indians who sold Manhattan island, a Dutch aristocrat who owned just about the whole region and, later, Revolutionary War troops marching through. Our own history involved a dozen or so kids on the dead end block, the manhole cover that marked home plate and the woods we ran through to our elementary school one street over.

My parents first laid eyes on the house in 1960, after my mother found a New York Times listing for a “Dutch Cottage with apple trees and charm” and my dad learned they were house hunting.

Father and daughter 

But this was now. Our bedroom community had escalated in status as its school system moved to the top of “best” lists. The real estate market had all but collapsed, prices plunged and there were many, many homes to choose from. House hunters, were, well, specific in their wants and, our agent gently told us, they were not interested in ours.

For starters, the front door opened to a large central room, not an introductory vestibule. Then there was the eat-in kitchen. A simple rectangle between living room and dining room, it was perfect for our family of four and perfectly situated for my parents’ frequent parties. But it was small, enclosed space, not the family room-dining room-kitchen combo now in demand.

Then there was the airy master bedroom on the first floor – not, the agent said “a master suite,” and not “upstairs with the other bedrooms,” where master suites apparently belonged. I didn’t bother asking about the shed and garage, a separate barn-like building we had loved for its rafters and hiding places.

What today’s shoppers were looking for, our agent said, was “Pottery Barn.” This was the first I’d heard of the retailer as a design style. Even so, wasn’t ours the real thing? This house even had the sash windows, ceiling beams and plank flooring splashed through that store’s catalogues.

Not that it was frozen in time. The windows had recently been re-glazed. Over nearly five decades my parents had replaced a patio with a deck and hot tub, installed central air conditioning, garage door opener, burglar alarm, custom shelves and cabinets. They’d replaced a back porch with a bright living room and filled it with my mother’s Deco furnishings. My parents’ first-floor master bedroom, an add-on by a previous owner, was a sanctuary with windows on three sides.

Now, people close to me had died, many of them, in a small space of time. The family home was a hedge against the endings; a protection from obscurity. Wouldn’t the next owners want to know about us and glimpse a time when rooms were small and yards were big?

Not even a little bit. It turns out that in towns like this one, houses were regularly cleared away like the breakfast dishes so newcomers could arrange a neighborhood rather than join it. I began seeing listings for suburban “development sites;” expendable domiciles located on juicy real estate.

My own father was appalled by this brazen activity, once even forcing me to walk up the street with him as a large home was being replaced by a giant one – which he railed against loudly as we trespassed on the offender’s front lawn. A retired executive turned stringer for the local newspaper, he photographed such acts of real estate upscaling, his disdain not apparent in the captions I am guessing his editors toned down.

Now I contemplated the likely demolition of his own beloved home, the place where he’d insisted on living out his days and where he ultimately died.  And for the first time I appreciated the architectural story offered up by the 12 houses on the block. Brick, vinyl, stucco, split-level, Spanish, stone and modular, they spanned time from a single phone jack in the kitchen to wifi in every room. If they had been phased out with each new trend, I realized, our street would no longer have a yesterday.

At a high school reunion, talk of teardowns joined updates on children, careers and deaths. By then, a classmate had begun posting a sort of house death watch on Facebook. “Ok, who lived at 300 Glendale?” read one entry, above a photo of rubble. “It’s gone.”

A friend from elementary school said she actually hoped for such an end to her house now that her parents had died. Others, though, were moved by the poor prognosis for my house, recalling the center staircase and generous yard.

Months had passed with no offers. My sister and I had dropped the price. We had paid taxes that were not a lot less than my annual income. We’d paid a cleaning person, someone to cut the lawn and plow the snow. A super storm turned the basement into a bathtub that wrecked photo albums and mired my father’s WWII Purple Heart in mildew. FEMA declined to help with clean-up costs because we did not actually “live” there – a logic that did not apply to our expenses.

So, we spent several thousand dollars having the back yard virtually excavated so a drainage system could be installed. We bought a remote storm alarm. Now I got phone calls at home upstate when wind and rain pummeled the house downstate. Visits there had more to do with fixing things than gathering with friends. I developed asthma, then eczema, as the prime summer months came and went and our high-maintenance relationship – the house’s and mine – plodded on.

In the fall a builder materialized, offering less than our asking price and no details about his plans. We tried for more money and he walked, prompting us to acquiesce. I looked at a few houses he’d built in place of others I had probably seen hundreds of times. All memory of the originals was wiped clean by these multi-floored upstarts with three-bay garages and driveways as wide as a traffic lane.

Talk about awkward.  How do you tell neighbors who ask about the buyer that a construction site and not human beings would probably follow soon? You don’t. You walk a little faster as you haul junk from house to rented Dumpster, signal you are running low on time and try for answers that are not out and out lies. Things like “I don’t really know them,” and “I hear the daughter plays basketball.”

This went on until the day I broke down and tearfully told the truth to the beloved woman across the street who had moved to the block even before my family had. She said she understood, and guessed that her house would be also leveled someday soon.

And so I cleaned out every corner of the house and obsessed over things I found. We had the tag sale and reveled in the many people who loved the place, who walked out with my grandfather’s watercolors under their arms, the faded Oriental rugs and the chairs with loose legs they planned to repair.

These were not the not the people who said the house had bad bones. And they brought scraps of our family history to live with them. A neighbor I’d never met even came by to say she’d always liked our cedar tree. Who knew?

When the last day came I frantically yanked things out; scraps of wallpaper, glass shelves and shrubs packed in rich soil. I turned the key one last time. But not before I left the new owners a note asking them to consider that lives had been lived here and suggesting how nice it would be to add a room here or there rather than eliminate the place. This, I saw was operatic even by my standards.

How many other people at this moment had been only too happy to “unload a white elephant” and deposit the check? How many, like me, saw the moment as the one that separated “then” and “now?”(Hallmark,take note.)

Our house bore witness to our younger and older selves, and, with our help, lived on to mark our place in time. Houses didn’t need to die of old age, doing us humans one better. And when we moved out, successive owners might call to ask about how to turn something on or off or maybe report finding a treasure.

It had happened to my uncle. A young mother who lived in his childhood home tracked him down to tell him that during a renovation she had found his parents’ love letters and his sister’s porcelain dolls stashed in a wall. This prompted an emotional visit, a celebration of continuity. HGTV devoted hours to such stories.

My own story was shaping up more like a round of Grand Theft Auto.  After the house sold, friends did surveillance and for months reported no change. Then, they reported that the new owner’s son moved in, raising hopes the house might be spared.

But ultimately came word that the yard had been cordoned off with plastic orange fencing. Soon, our high school house death-watch reporter put out the word: “Anyone live at 154 Highland or 123 Ferndale?” he wrote, over a pair of photos of flat nothingness. “Both houses are teardowns.” I identified the wreckage on Ferndale.

I called the beloved neighbor across the street for the details. She described how she’d pulled up a chair to her living room window that day and watched a big yellow rig do its work. First, she said the roof and chimney were lifted like a jaw, then the back came down and, last, the front door tumbled as she silently voiced profanities.

“A giant dinosaur ate up this cute little house,” she said. “That was how it looked to me. And in an afternoon it was gone.”

And after looking across the street at our white house for more than 50 years, she suddenly had a view of a faded blue one on the next street that startled her at night when the lights were on. But this would not be for long, as trucks were already busy digging out a foundation for the house that would replace ours.

I had cinematic and harsh dreams, one after another, for a few weeks: The house was pristine, freshly painted and, most important, upright. Or, it was tarnished, the furnishings crumbled and family members sat around, waiting for something.

Could it have been the pumpkin-colored faux Colonial affair that went up in less than two months? (My parents and grandparents always had been a rather judgmental lot). They might have railed at the size of the new house, perhaps twice as large as ours. There was now a driveway that nearly lashed the house to the left. There was no longer a dogwood to the right. The cedar tree, the hedges: also gone.

The only point of reference was telephone pole with our house number out front.

In truth the pumpkin-colored thing wasn’t so bad. But it didn’t register as any place I’d ever been. The piano lessons, Thanksgiving dinners, adolescent angst, the visits home after breakups and visits back with new boyfriends, and, eventually, children, and then the protracted period of time dominated by my parents’ illnesses. Where was the record now?

In one last punch to the sentimental gut I found it not long ago among boxes of my father’s things. As if speaking from the grave, he furnished an account of the home’s heritage, a product he hoped to sell called “This House: A Journal.”

Created in 1987 on his IBM Selectric, it was an attractive notebook filled with lined paper, which he asked homeowners to use to document the continuous story of a house.

“When it is no longer yours, whoever comes next will be grateful for your jottings,” he explained in an introduction titled “Come on In!”

Ever the journalist, he had gone to the courthouse to get the story. He used the Journal to furnish a floor plan, the names of the builder, the previous two owners and what they’d paid. My father filled a few dozen pages with details about our family, the color scheme they’d inherited - pink and yellow! – and the updates he made alongside his father in-law. “I still recall the quiet joy of waking up those first few days in our own house,” my dad recalled on these pages 30 years after the fact.

Well, at least the acid-free pages were perfectly preserved. It would have been something to see him take out his pen and camera as the place was tumbling down. The conversation through the ages he had hoped for had been abruptly stilled.

But he might be heartened to know that another use for This House: A Journal had been born: an intrinsically precious and appreciated record of our family in its time. Corian countertops and master suites had not been nearly as important back then.

And even if I could not alter the swing of this particular pendulum, I had just one request. Could we at least retire the house number, like we do in tribute to our prized athletes?  I was sure the new owners would have no objection. And I heard Pottery Barn makes nice ones.


Jane Gottlieb is a freelance journalist who has lived and worked in New York's Hudson Valley for many years.