The subject line of the email: “Stony Brook House.” The text was limited. Just a note from my dad, how pleased my parents were to come across the floor plan of the house my grandparents built in 1960.
I think they lived there for a little more than a decade. By the time I was six, they had sold it. They had their apartment in the city and the house where my parents live now, the one we return to every summer, the one “Out East,” we say, at the almost very end of Long Island.
But some of my earliest memories are from the Stony Brook House, and although the image in the email was merely a floor plan, just a map drawn up in pencil, I recognized each room immediately.
I was alone in my house when I saw it, but I think I gasped aloud. I looked down at a two-dimension drawing on the flat screen of my cell phone, but what I saw somehow was the full house, upright, entire. Room for room, closet, bathroom, window. The yard, the front porch, the smell of the boxwood out front, and the way the sunlight came into the rooms.
Lisa grew up just outside of D.C. Her house was a split level with columns across the front on a lot marked with grand old trees. She moved there with her family when she was two and called that house home through her college years. Now in her early forties, she and her siblings last year completed a difficult if not-uncommon task: they helped their aging parents sort through a lifetime of things, gather up what they needed, and move closer to family.
The house quickly sold to some people from Boston. They bought it without seeing it first-hand, via website and an obliging realtor. It fetched an excellent price.
Recently, Lisa told me she’d had news of her childhood home: it’s gone. They razed it. Not just the house, but the entire property: the trees and all the grass. So it wasn’t the house the buyers were after, apparently. It was the lot.
That is, of course, their prerogative.
But just yesterday, Lisa mentioned it to me again in passing. Just a quick comment that opened a view onto loss. “I’ve known the house is gone for a month now,” she said. And she has a full life here in North Carolina: a lovely home of her own, a thriving marriage, three beautiful children. But the empty lot reported by her sister is nonetheless on her mind. “I’ve known the house is gone for a month now,” she said. “I’m still sad.”
My sister and her husband have a large old house in the country in western Massachusetts. It’s set back from the road; you have to know where to look, when passing, to see one ivory peak under the roof and a window next to the chimney.
It was built in 1922 and is quietly grand: warm wood floors; glass doorknobs; built-in bookcases and a broad staircase, with landing, that descends into a generous center hall.
It has a second staircase that goes to what might have been servants’ quarters, but if the house ever enjoyed that kind of exalted service, it’s long lost to memory. My sister and her husband bought the house nearly ten years ago from a widow who had lived there alone for a long time.
But one afternoon, not long after they moved in, my sister found herself with smiling and unexpected guests in the driveway. It was a woman with her grown daughter, and the woman explained that she had grown up in that house, perhaps forty years before.
Together they walked through the rooms, the woman recalling to her daughter and my sister how her family had lived in those spaces. This had been her brother’s room; here they had done their homework. Her mother had the sewing machine in this room, and they would talk together while they did their school work and she sewed. And on Christmas mornings, she and her siblings stood like this on the staircase, waiting for their parents to call them into the living room, with the fireplace blazing to warm the room, to the Christmas tree and the presents.
The news this morning is of fires continuing to rage in California. With no rain in sight and a persistent dry heat, the fires have progressed, at times, to consume the length of three football fields in a minute.
The path of these fires is indiscriminate. Houses, streets, wineries, strip-malls– they eat through everything, and their wake is charred shells of places, barely recognizable rubbish. One can identify remains because of where they are, not what.
The damage from a hurricane is different: belongings disappear completely or are found the length of a football field away. In its rage, a hurricane trashes things, hurls them, twists rain gutter and rebar alike.
We have had too much of this kind of thing lately. And the news is of the loss of life and property, of businesses undone. Of the incalculable costs and where to turn for recompense or justice. Of fear and failed infrastructure and climate change, of when and where this will happen again.
Of course in all instances like these, the loss of life is the most terrible of the losses.
But in my privileged and safe distance (this time) from disaster, I find myself caught on the loss of homes. Be it trailer, apartment, or warm wood floors and columns out front, a home is a shelter from the elements. The place to come in from the wind and rain, a filter for light and weather.
At its best, a home is also a filter for everything outside. It’s a space where one can be still and can be oneself unmolested, where one can comfortably consider what it means to be alive in the world even while enjoying a little distance from it.
I know that not everyone has a home, and that not every home is safe.
But a home should always be someplace safe. And it should never be snatched indiscriminately from the landscape.
Waiting at the traffic light, Emma and I saw them emerge from the house: the boy, maybe seven; his sister, five. Both with their heads down, their sandy brown hair drifting at their ears, the napes of their necks. He descended first, and she followed with their mother, and each of the children wore backpacks.
The steps to their house are concrete and slathered in leaves. Their window blind was closed crookedly, and a bluebird house sat askew on the tree next to their front walk.
They live in one of those charming old neighborhoods that has recently been rediscovered in Durham, and as we drove away I wondered if those children knew that. I thought of their backpacks and their mother, of the school-day awaiting them both. Of the bluebird house and the window-blind and maybe the lunches inside their backpacks.
I am glad to think that the up-and-coming-ness of their neighborhood– for now, anyway– probably makes no difference to them at all.
We have an empty bedroom in our house. Will won’t be coming back to it, as he got married in July. And Everett is gone for six months, on the travel portion of his gap year.
The boys shared that room for fourteen years, and it looks pretty much the way it did when they slept there every night, except that, for now anyway, there are no clothes lying–clean or dirty–on the floor.
Many times as I walk past that room, I think how glad I am of where they are now, that they have left us and are on their own doing brave, interesting, meaningful things.
But more often, I think of a single afternoon –which may have happened just as I recall it, or it may be an amalgam of many:
It is late spring or early fall. Their sister is upstairs sleeping. They are eight and six, or seven and five, and the Legos are spilled around them on the floor. The sun is shining through the windows and they are playing in it.
All they know is the Legos and perhaps Star Wars and, in a peripheral and obvious way, each other. They don’t know the sunlight, they don’t know the carpet or the bunk-beds, the desk or the dresser, because these things are just as they should be.
And their mother is nearby somewhere. Upstairs, probably. It doesn’t matter. They don’t know that she is standing there, just for a quick minute, to watch her sons playing in the sunlight on the floor.