Houses and Homes

My wife and I are in the middle of buying our first house, a 150 year old farmhouse on half an acre of land. As we talk about moving into this old home with all its history, I was reminded of the summer of 1995.

A few months before my senior year in high school my family took a two week vacation in Colorado. We flew into Denver and rented a Winnebago. It was to be a two week road trip around the state arriving back in Denver with enough time to visit my parents’ old neighborhood. They lived in Colorado for most of the seventies, until just after I was born, and they hoped to end our trip with a visit the first house they bought together.

On the last day of our trip my dad wound the big Winnebago through the city streets of Denver. However, when we got to their old block the tight rows of small houses that they had describe to my sister and I were missing. In their place was a monstrous grocery store. The gray cement building stretched across three blocks in one direction and its parking lot extended for two blocks the other way. My dad drove slowly around the perimeter of the building, gawking in confused disbelief. Tears streamed silently down my mothers face and filled the big vehicle with a tense silence.

As my father turned the corner, now three quarters of the way around the behemoth store, we saw one row of houses pinched awkwardly between the sidewalk and the store’s chain link fence. There were only four houses in the row, and with a sudden stir of excitement my parents spotted their old house. It was the second to last one in the row.

We would later find out that the grocery store had bought the whole five or six blocks but hadn’t needed to tear down these houses so rather than pay the demolition costs they left them as low rent housing for their employees. Had the architects added twenty feet to their floor plan the house would have been demolished.

My father pulled up in front of the little house, jumped out of the Winnebago and walked without hesitation into the side yard, already launching into stories of barbecues and home repairs. At the same moment a young woman came out the front door and down the two short steps to the sidewalk. She stared at us as we observed her house with museum like attention, pointing and talking about the features. My parents introduced themselves and she invited us inside to look around.

Walking through the narrow halls, I listened to my parents reminisce about the times before children and steady jobs. After a while I stopped listening and just wandered behind them staring at the odd nic-nacks that people collect when people have shelves to put them on. There was a tired look to the walls. It wasn’t so much a color or a décor, but more a curvature. The entire house seemed to sag.

When my parents crossed over the threshold into the kitchen I heard a short cry from my mother. She gathered a section of the kitchen curtain in her hand and tears gathered back in the corners of her eyes. Holding the sun-faded fabric in both hands, she said, “I made these,” and began to weep through a tight lipped smile. As I get closer to owning my first home, I think I understand the significance of that moment in a way I never did before. Our houses and homes are places that fill – not just with nick-nacks on shelves – but with the collected hopes and aspirations, the work and tears, the sweat and love of every plan and dream that hatches there. If the walls sag, they sag with the weight of our lives, with the heft of lifetimes.

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  1. Adrienne says:

    This definitely hit a chord with me in so many ways! I am a strong believer in “home is where your heart is” and so many memories are a part of those four walls. I feel like the stages of my life have been “defined” by my homes-Denver-Spencer-Trumansburg-Geneva-Trumansburg. Each home represents a chapter in my life. Even early on when I was growing up-every move to a new house was a new chapter in my life. I have always had strong ties to “home”. It is something that is very important to me-maybe because I moved around so much growing up. I never wanted you and Jenna to have to move during your school years like I had. Would love to talk to you more about this.

  2. Nathan says:

    Thanks for sharing this story Josh. I think this is particularly poignant in the context of all the foreclosures these days.

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