- “She doesn’t understand why loving something purely will not save it. I have never understood this either.” –Katie Krautkramer, via CowBird Story “Literal”
This house has been in the Meyer family since 1938. It has seen better days, for sure. I’ll spare the details of how we got to this point. I’ve hinted in other blog posts about things getting mixed up in families, things fought for, and fought about like jewelry and houses. I know through my work at Starfire that “things people fight about” sometimes includes people, who can’t be heard over the shouting, can’t be seen over the long emails back and forth, or aren’t listened to during uncomfortable meetings about them. This isn’t that kind of story though. This is just a story that needs to be told.
I suppose that this is always bound to happen eventually. The loss of something important. The moving on. It doesn’t matter how much you love someone or something, love doesn’t stop dying, leaving, or losing.
This house is leaving my family. The finality of it like a nail in a coffin. I took pictures on Monday to memorialize it. Pictures of the details everyone knows so well, and things found that others forgot or left behind. Those diamond shaped windows above didn’t keep the cold out. I would cloud the glass with my breath and draw on them, smudging shapes and words onto the glass.
To those of us who grew up here, it feels as though the final family member of a gone generation has died–the last of that Meyer generation died in 2006. But, in a way, this is death, too. The confusion, denial, and anger surrounding all of it. The questioning that something could have been done. Why didn’t anyone do anything to save it? What were the other options? To be honest, I tried, not in the chest pounding CPR type of way, paddles trying desperately to resuscitate a heart, but damn near close. In 2008 I offered to buy it. I just needed a year or so to get some things together, say like financing, a down-payment, a little nest egg for the many, many repairs it would need upon move-in. I’d convinced my not-yet-husband that my family homestead trumped any dreams we had for our own home. We had to keep this house. It didn’t have as big of a yard as we’d like, or as many bedrooms as we wanted, and it was in need new electric; many walls would need to be gutted and new drywall installed, and very likely some foundation work in the basement sooner than later, and it didn’t have any of the updates potential home owners look for like central air, but damn it, it was my house. Our family’s house since the 1930s. It was important. We could do it. Our children could be the 5th generation to live there.
Plans changed and another family member moved in then– and now out– and some years later we find ourselves in this situation. It was not to be, I guess. There are no more interventions that can be tried at this point. No clinical trials for one last chance of survival. No miracle drugs. No donors and transplants in queue, waiting to be a match. We’re saying goodbye, packing up the belongings that belonged to those who have long been dead and claiming them as our own. We are turning off the lights. It will not be “mine” anymore, though I haven’t lived there in some time. And it won’t be “ours” once the ink is dry and the locks have been changed.
I already know someone will paint the green outside a very different color. I can’t blame them, it’ll be their house. But I will never forgive them for betraying the color that I know the house to be. They won’t even know that I will drive past looking, curious, furious, and in mourning. They won’t know where so many of us road our bikes down ‘the big hill’ a few doors down, the places in the cracked pavement where we skinned our knees, where trees and bushes used to be in the neighbors yards. They won’t know who used to live where. They won’t know where the dogs are buried in the backyard.
This house has seen days spanning through out WWII, and 4 of the 5 original Meyers were born during those war years. It has seen young ones dress up for First Communions, proms and graduations, and I have seen the pictures of the styles of dresses and the styles of the curtains on the windows changing over the decades. I’m sure my family members watched the civil rights movement on a TV in that front room, saw the coverage of JFK assassination, MLKs assassination, RFKs assassination, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, 9/11. I remember watching coverage of the Columbine HS shooting on the floor of the living, a few months before I started high school.
My grandmother’s father ran a lawn mower repair company in the garage in the back of the house. We still have the embossed pens and ledger from the business. This was before he got sick and had his legs amputated, before he died in 1979. This was also before my grandmother got sick and had her legs amputated, before she died in 2004. It’s a sad family tradition, diabetes. There used to be a crab apple tree in the backyard by the garage that I’d climb and bite into the sour fruit, spitting out each chunk after sucking the bitter juice. It’s limbs were cut down too.
The house has sustained itself through a fair share of natural disasters, the tornado of ’99 that hit Harper’s Point and Montgomery, the flood of ’97 that flooded my soccer fields on Kellogg Avenue. Weeks later we drove past and saw the dead fish at the goalie line, scattered midfield, and into the parking lot. Many of my childhood memories include sitting on a chair or a cooler in the damp basement waiting for tornadoes to pass by. Maybe there were more tornadoes back then, or maybe my family has always overreacted with weather. I know I was always told to have shoes and socks on during a storm, just in case and I always did. I still do. I remember my grandmother rushing out to get the ferns off the porch and the clothes off the line before a hard rain. I don’t know if we just didn’t have a dryer then (this very well may have been the case) or if she preferred to dry clothes this way, but I loved running through the cool wet sheets in the summer, the smell of bleach and wind on hot sweaty kid face.
So many babies were brought home here including my grandmother, and including me. (Many) deaths happened, and ghosts still haunt the halls. I have seen these ghosts throw pictures from walls, felt them chasing me down the stairs. For the longest time I couldn’t stand to walk down the stairs, I had to run. Children couldn’t go to the bathroom alone. We’d all sit on the steps outside the door waiting our turn, giving puppet shows to those doing their business. Other relatives has seen, or heard, or felt ghosts, too. An eerie presence, a man in a top hat at the backdoor in the kitchen, a sound attached to no one. My grandma slept with a rosary and a knife under her pillow. A perfect mix of superstition, prayer, and practicality.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this except to say that these things happened. This place existed and it was important. So much of our work is about sharing common, ordinary places. In a way this wasn’t a common, ordinary house. Families don’t often stay rooted in one neighborhood, let alone one house. People don’t live in the same house their great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother did. But I did, and I hoped my children would have been able to say the same. It taught me something about being rooted to a place, and staying. There’s a marked difference between being rooted and being stuck. I’ve always felt grounded.
There was coal furnace in the basement used until the 1990s, the same winter I developed asthma (no coincidence, I’m sure). You could look between the basement steps and see it’s iron mouth glowing red and orange, and barely heating the house, and the coal room off to the right, thick with black smudged walls. The front porch had a swing, where my grandmother and any visitor, child or adult could sit and talk, swaying more than swinging with a fly swatter in hand on summer days. Lightning bugs drunkenly stumbled across the lawns, their lights giving way to our small hands and dying inside our pickle jars once we’d forgotten them.
Front yards were everyone’s, connected in a vast expanse of grass, rosebushes, sidewalks. Neighborhood kids ran wild in the street yelling “car!” to keep each other safe and interrupted softball games, rounds of ghost in the graveyard. There were unfortunate injuries due to pogo sticks and rollerblades and snow balls packed with ice. There was, and still is, a clubhouse under the porch where the names of bygone children are drawn in the rafters in chalk and pens and markers. We’d hide out, being spies, watching the mailman’s and passing neighbors’ every move. We learned to ride our bikes by crashing into a neighbor’s pristine hedges, ripped its leaves off for confetti celebrating fake New Years Eves. We tunneled through them and under them as infantrymen, fell into them during crash landings without training wheels. They never had a chance, and were dug up some years later. We never apologized for ruining their hedges. I guess they saw it coming, and it was a fair price to pay for the safety of neighborhood children. We hopped back fences for “shortcuts” to the house next door until the moms and grandmas one by one started calling our names home. Home.
I guess this post doesn’t fix anything or make it feel any better. Thanksgivings, and Christmases and Easter egg hunts in the backyard, or on Halloween when Grandma would dress up as a witch, buy dry ice to fill a plastic cauldron, and decorate the house with witty and inappropriate tombstones and horrifying displays of bloody mannequins, bats, spider webs, strobe lights, fog machines and wooden coffins.
You don’t realize how much place matters until that place is not your own anymore. Until you’re no longer welcome there, or allowed to be there, or allowed to call it home. And this is just one of those stories.