Written January 2013
As I anxiously awaited the camera’s flash, I clutched a metal “SOLD” sign in front of my chest. The sun bright over the Mississippi in the east, I squinted to see the camera. Today, I realized, I stand on the front step of what I can now call “my own home.”
A month previous, I walked through an estate sale and looked at the old furniture and pieces of someone’s once-collected elephant menagerie. I wasn’t interested in collections, nor did I care for the nicotine stained walls, furniture I didn’t have a place to put, or the oddly charming Italian decor in the kitchen (a warm-looking, obese chef statue welcomed me in, his burly mustache and chalkboard “Let’s eat!” sign at the ready).
I wanted the house, not the stuff.
Flash. I knew the photo had been taken only because my father stood up; the sun so bright, any unnatural light was indistinguishable. The house was mine. Realtor Paul, my father, now had another closing photo of a client becoming a homeowner, this time his daughter. Later, I mused, I’ll get this picture in the mail with a “thank you” card–as if my dad has made any money off of this purchase… as if it’s not likely killing him that his daughter and grandson won’t live just down the hall any longer. That’s business, I guess.
Shuffling off the front step, I knew I had too much work to do. It was July 31st, the day before my twenty-second birthday, and I would have company coming to visit in a week. How does one move into a home in one week? I thought. How the hell do you clean nicotine off of walls, floors, and cabinets? Can I even eat in this room right now? …what is that smell? Can I paint this? (Suggestion: Do not move into a home formerly owned by a chain smoker. That filth comes off of nothing; nicotine still oozes from the kitchen cabinet wood when I get ambitious enough to truly clean it.)
Paint went up in shades of blue, yellow, and something-akin-to-a-Wendy’s-Frosty. Molding was adjusted. Floors were refinished. Eventually, all was fixed up to the best of its beauty. Yet, while struggling to wield a power sander along the bottom edge of floor molding, wooden bits–on purpose, I swear–flinging themselves into my eyeballs, I thought perhaps this work was not worth it. Maybe all those people on decorating shows with less than desirable homes had a point–sometimes it is just too much work to fix everything.
It has been over three years since I stood on the front steps, smiling at my father’s businessman candor. Standing at the kitchen sink, exactly the same as it was when I moved in, I hear the wind rattle the window within its much-aged pane. In every room, I trace the outline of plaster lines, cracks from settling due to recent drought, that have yet to be filled in and repainted. In the basement hallway, I see forgotten nicotine stains wave goodbye on my way out the door in the morning only to welcome me home again at night.
I remember the front step on my son’s first day of school: wide smile, Dinosaur Train back pack, and kitty-cat Beanie Baby almost falling out of his bag’s side pocket. I recall the time I woke up–toes, fingers, and nose all cold to the touch–to see the thermostat read fifty three degrees (I always did wonder what happened when a furnace breaks mid-winter). I remember waking up unmarried for the last time, my son’s feet pushing into the small of my back as if he’d had enough of that life; let’s move on to the next.*
My house has seen a great many occurrences in my so-far life, and I’m sure it has and will see many other lives move past. Just as it has seen me, I have seen it; I fixed what I could, left alone what I couldn’t, and watched both age over the few years I’ve been within it. The cracks in the walls I’ve now named “character,” and the nicotine stains left behind pay tribute to those who’ve come before me. The first days of certain rites, and the last days of others, are, in some part, pieces of the house itself.
What I’ve come to realize–appreciate, even–is that even though my home has plenty of areas that need fixing, these walls are still my home. I’ve come to understand that even I am not perfect, and if my house and I were both fixed up, we wouldn’t quite be ourselves. After all, one can only cover up so much before it becomes known that you once housed an elephant menagerie and a chain smoker… at the same time.
At the end of the day, we are what we are, and we are who we’ve been. That’s home.
*Clearly, I am no longer married, but I love this piece of writing. I don’t want to change it, because at the time that line meant a lot to me.