First Person: Moving On From An Old House
The little Tudor cottage bore witness to a writer's growing independence and her daughters’ childhood milestones. Who would they be if the house were no longer there?
The Spanish chandelier, last to leave our previous home five blocks east, swayed in the flatbed in front of me, rigged up to a horizontal pole. You can’t lay down crystal pendants, even if they are traveling just a half mile through sleepy streets. I followed behind, like Secret Service. I remember the day, 13 years ago, that my daughters and I moved into our little brick-and-stone Tudor, a cottage, really, with stained-glass windows, flowery moldings, and an arched ceiling that rose above the living room hardwood, and our new lives.
The chandelier winked in the sun as it made its way. Everything else had been trucked over earlier in the day, while my children were at school. Their beds went first, with their eyelet sheets and quilts, as is the pecking order when you move. I had done it eight times before, when I was married, so I was pretty sure about the beds. It feels as if you live there, when you tuck in blankets and fluff pillows in cases.
The electrician hung the light fixture in the dining room, and it tripled in size, the space so much more modest than the last. I hadn’t bought a house on my own before, and this one would be important, I knew. A New Yorker, I had landed in Dallas with Boston-born babies who would grow up as Texans, with a taste for biscuits and gravy, sequins and boots, and a measured pace, except on the athletic field. They would learn everything and become everything in this home, this 1931 bungalow with tiny closets and unexplainable drips, and it would need to anchor them, protect them, and, in time, send them off, ready.
I didn’t realize it then, but the little Tudor would do the same for me. An important house, yes. Once both of my girls had entered college, I would return to New York, where I was born and used to live. Last summer, two childhoods later, the day arrived. I sold the house to a builder who intended to make the improvements that I couldn’t; he would extend the kitchen out back, refinish the attic, and create more modern-day living space while retaining the architectural elements that characterized the original neighborhood. Too many of the vintage homes had been leveled; I was relieved that someone was going to preserve ours.
With my daughters’ sheets and quilts tucked in on campus, I returned to Dallas for a week, one strange week alone in the place where we all grew up. The kids had said their good-byes to the house, knowing that another family would be living under its dueling live oaks the next time they saw it. It was my turn for transitions and rites of passage, for marking time and moving along.
Two months after arriving in New York, I received a phone message from my younger daughter, who was visiting Dallas on a long weekend.
“They tore down our house!”
I was in the park with our dog, in front of Gracie Mansion. I called back, and Cooper picked up immediately.
“I thought they were keeping it,” she said.
“That is what they told me. I’m stunned.”
I was heartbroken. I had no idea that the house was gone, so I couldn’t prepare her for the jolt. So much is wrapped up in any childhood home, and it was difficult enough for Coop to leave it for college, and for good, at the same time. It would have been a comfort to at least drive by when she visited to take a look at her house, restored and shiny new, watched over and thriving in its next phase, as she was. The 1,500 miles between us felt cavernous then. I sat down on a bench.
“Are you okay?”
“It’s sad, and weird,” she said.
“I’m so sorry, Coop, but remember, it’s not the bricks and the wood, but the memory. We have a trillion happy memories.”
Parents say correct things such as this, knowing they are pat things sometimes. I had a hard time hearing myself say it, even. Maybe it was wrong to move here, I thought. It felt selfish, walking Charlie by the mayor’s house and sitting by the river while my daughter stood in her former driveway, shaky, no parent close by, no front porch or pitched roof. No fragment of the place she loved.
In her mind I imagined a rush of birthday parties and dinners at the kitchen draw-leaf and homework until midnight. Sleepovers on couches and school dances, teetering on first-time heels. Kicking balls in the yard and asthma attacks and getting pierced ears. Hiding from tornadoes in Mom’s closet. Trick-or-treating as salt and pepper shakers, tinfoil caps devised at the dining table. Homemade ice-cream cakes and old dogs. New dogs. Safety, worry. Joy, sadness. Little, big. Beginning. End. Next.
Tears welled, misting up the East River. Charlie, what have we done?
In the 12 years that we lived in the house, a tree root had pushed three inches up through the front path. My mother feared that someone would trip and break a jaw and file a personal injury lawsuit. When she visited once, she took a walk and returned with a man dusted in white, like a cookie. A mason, he wanted $1,500 to fix the walkway. Instead, I simply warned whoever entered and exited, calling out in time to avoid a spill.
No one ever fell, not even a stumble. Roots and houses and people chart intrinsic routes without our knowing, I thought, wondering about how I would come to make peace with this particular swerve, as I had done with the others before.
My phone buzzed. An image of an empty lot of land, bordered by chain link, flashed on the screen—and then vanished. I heard myself gasp and immediately sensed the symbolism of the scene in front of me. There was a lot to contemplate, if I let myself. The eradication of youth, impermanence of place and time, society as wrecking ball.
Standing up from the bench, I shook off the temptation to philosophize too much, and told myself the pat things that I had told my daughter, feeling a bit like the child, too. Then I located the photo of the empty lot, obliterated it, and headed home.