“It’s Abi. I lived in this house, grew up here until we sold it 25 years ago.”
“Oh, how sweet. Would you like to come in and look around?”
That was my fantasy. I dreamed that one day I’d be able to return to my childhood home, be welcomed in by strangers, and be overcome with poignant memories of noisy family dinners around the dining room table, hot summer nights catching the breeze in front of the attic fan, playing with my Westie puppy under the kitchen desk, and gently petting the maple tree. On Saturday, it came true. Well, half true – up to, and including, the part about being let in the door.
My wife, Eileen, and I had gone to New York for the weekend (to celebrate our one-year anniversary), and decided to pay a visit to the old homestead in the leafy suburbs. We’d actually been by twice before, but had never managed to go inside. The first time, 8 years ago, we found the house entirely empty. No furniture, no rugs, nothing. Since the place was unoccupied, we walked all around the outside, peeking in the windows and surveying the garden. I pointed out where each piece of furniture had been and how we had used the rooms. The lifelessness of the place seemed eerie, but then I heard the familiar rumble of the commuter train in the background. I felt comforted. All was well.
A year later, we stopped by again. I figured that someone would be living there by now and we could swing an invitation inside. But even before we could get out of the car, I was struck with a different reality. The house had ballooned, with a huge addition on the back. In the front, the door was wide open. In fact, there was no door, as the house was under reconstruction. I approached gingerly, but once I reached the doorsill, I couldn’t bear to step across. The place had been gutted. No walls were to be seen. Only the fireplace on one outside wall was familiar. I turned around and slogged back to the car in tears, distraught about what they had done to my house.
This time I knew better. I didn’t expect familiarity or intimacy. Except for the tree. Yes, all three visits, I told myself, were really just an excuse to pet the tree. It was a Japanese split leaf maple – a very slow grower, a truly gracious and awesome being, deep red in spring and fall, and velvety green in summer. While it’s got a slender trunk that twists and turns, it’s not a tree that a young girl is allowed to climb. “It’s much too fragile for that,” my mother always told me. “It’s a tree you can pet.” And you do, every time you walk by on your way into and out of the house. Your reward is the soft embrace of its delicate leaves.
Tree petting accomplished, Eileen encouraged me to knock on the door. She wanted me to find healing from my previous experience, hoping that I’d replace the image of my childhood home transformed into a gaping chasm with something more positive. So, knock I did. And, welcomed in we were. It was a vast and unrecognizable place, a mansion with open atrium displaying a winding stairwell up to the third floor. The floors were finely sanded wood and the furniture was tasteful, color-coordinated and perfectly placed. And, the back yard was terraced with three levels of perfect weed free lawn.
While it was no longer my home on Overhill Road, it was a house inhabited by a warm and friendly family. It was a family to whom history meant something, a family who had preserved the quaint round windows that had once graced the stairway, and who had moved the front walkway to allow the split leaf maple to spread its girth. It was a respectful family who had created a home of their own, unlike mine in its appearance, but a place where new memories were being created.
Have you ever visited a home you used to live in? What was your experience?