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This old house
An abridged 50-year history of my childhood home
I was in first grade when we moved in. A 60’s era ranch house, drab and beige when my parents bought it in the 70s.
I walked to school on that sidewalk, past my babysitter’s house and the house with the barking dog. I rode my bike down that driveway to middle school and then high school till senior year, when my friend drove me to school in his old red VW Bug which you could hear putt-putting from all the way up the street.
The front yard used to be a desiccated jumble of red lava rock, overgrown juniper hedges, runaway clumps of gazania and weeds. It wasn’t pretty, but it was drought-friendly. There used to be a towering liquidambar tree by the sidewalk which dropped prickly seedpods Dad made me collect and discard every week. And there were Dad’s beloved rose bushes, which he planted so close to the driveway that the thorns snagged our clothes when we got out of the car.
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There was a lopsided basketball hoop (no net) hanging over the warped garage door. I heaved the ball at it after school, and spent many hot, boring summer afternoons chasing the ball into the street.
Our dog, a silver poodle named Pierre, scratched a hole in the wall under the front window in a years-long attempt to attack the mailman. Teenagers gunned their hot rods and ran the stop sign in front of our house.
Mom and I played hundreds of games of cribbage and Mastermind and rummy tiles in that dining room. We macrame’d and colored and read and did jigsaw puzzles. In the kitchen, Dad cooked his famous crab curry and his famous stuffed zucchini. He barbecued his famous smoked turkey for Thanksgiving on the old Weber kettle in the back yard. He did daily exercises in the laundry room while standing next to the water heater.
Mom sewed all my childhood bedding. A frilly bedspread, pillow shams, bed skirt, and even a canopy. She needlepointed and embroidered all the art that hung on the walls of my bedroom, including a portrait of Holly Hobbie which I stared at for hours.
We watched Cosmos and Star Trek and Jeopardy. We listened to John Denver and Abba and the bossa nova records Dad brought back from a business trip to Rio. I remember the day we got our first cordless phone.
I spent the better part of the 80s locked in the bathroom moussing, blow-drying, curling and spraying my hair. I dressed for Senior prom in one of those bedrooms and my date placed a corsage on my wrist in the living room.
I commuted to university during my freshman year so my parents could save money. I hunched over my college homework in that house, and mooned over my boyfriend, and began to grow up.
After I moved out my sophomore year, “my house” gradually became “my parents’ house.” I visited often, but never moved back. I was grateful for my stable and loving childhood home, but was never particularly attached to the house.
I graduated from college.
A couple years later I met my future husband.
Six years later we had our first child.
We moved to Portland. I visited my parents as often as I could, and they visited us.
We had our second child.
My husband and I worked and bought a house and raised a family. I went from being a Californian to an Oregonian.
“My parents’ house” became “Bubbie and Ajja’s house” (what my kids called their grandparents). My parents spent 20 years of retirement there. Twenty years of puttering around, reading the newspaper, taking road trips, watching TV, arguing, making up, opening the mail, watering the plants, wheeling the garbage cans to the curb, chatting with the neighbors.
The house gradually grew more cluttered. Dad continued gardening, but the weeds got away from him. I was used to the mess, but it was a constant frustration for Mom. Neither of them knew how to deal with it, so they just went on living their lives. Those lives were imperfect and not without complication or disappointment, but they were good and full of love.
I knew it would one day become my job to clear out and sell that house. The prospect terrified me. Not only was this an overwhelming task, I could barely face the idea that one or both of my parents would someday be gone. I tried to ignore the kernel of fear that lodged itself in my heart. The little kid in me wanted them to live in this house forever.
My kids grew up.
In February 2020, Dad died unexpectedly. A month later, pandemic lockdown. The story of that moment till now is still unfolding; I’m trying to make sense of this new life (writing to you helps).
Somehow Mom managed to get through years of paralyzing grief and COVID isolation alone, hundreds of miles away. Somehow I did, too.
As pandemic restrictions eased, she made improvements to the house. I spent weeks there clearing it out. The lava rock got hauled away. In its place, a garden.
But Mom’s health was declining and the isolation was unsustainable. Mom and I came to accept the difficult reality that it was time for her to move.
Last November, she relocated to a retirement community in Portland. Her apartment is lovely with a stunning view of Mt. Hood. Her community is friendly and full of energy and support, but the transition has been so hard. After almost fifty years in that house with Dad, a whole new life was foisted upon her in a matter of weeks. She’s glad to be near us, and she’s devastated and disoriented by the loss.
We have dinner together, go to the grocery store, go to doctor’s appointments. We grieve and laugh and make our way through the million details of an interstate move. We sit on her couch. My husband builds IKEA furniture, I try to help with the “goddamn computer passwords.” We wonder about the future. We’re planning a mother-daughter road trip. We’re sad and grateful and aggravated and tired and full of love. Day by day, we’re redefining home.
Soon my old house, my parents’ house, Bubbie and Ajja’s house, will become someone else’s home. Another family’s story will become intertwined with ours. Perhaps another child will walk to school along that sidewalk or ride a bike down that driveway.
This old house will become new again.