Fifty-four and still single, I created a profile on a dating website and began corresponding with a man who said he had once lived in a tree. I was in Vancouver, Canada, and he was in California. We spent hours talking on the phone. Sometime during those conversations he won my trust. We arranged to meet.
As I flew to spend the weekend with him, I wondered whether this was the right thing to do. But then I got off the plane and spotted him at the back of the waiting crowd, and I was reassured by his warm smile.
Driving me to his house, he turned off the highway onto a private road flanked by redwood trees and tangled vines. We arrived at a two-hundred-acre property once owned by the American artist Morris Graves. The man I had come to see had worked for Graves while going to college and had helped maintain the property and even build the house in which he now lived. The Japanese-inspired home had been constructed around a large tree, and the front door-knob was set low, so that you had to bow when entering.
While my host busied himself making a fire in the woodstove, I admired the view of the lake whose waters came up to the back deck. A large table cut from the center of a spruce held a vase full of feathers from red-tailed hawks, herons, and peacocks; two Tibetan singing bowls; and a sculpture by the deceased artist. I ran my fingers around the edge of one of the bowls.
We had a cozy dinner together by the fire. Outside, the light of the moon reflected off the lake. A solitary blue heron raised its wings to fly. I wondered: Was I falling for this man or for his house?
My parents got married in their early twenties, two students whose religious convictions (and student loans) led them to a life of simplicity and poverty. When my dad proposed, he presented my mom with a fish sandwich from Burger King instead of a ring. She still has the greasy yellow wrapper in a scrapbook.
They went on to have six children, and we were well cared for, though we sometimes envied our friends’ new clothes and Game Boys and American Girl dolls. We wore hand-me-downs and got free lunch at school, but we always lived in a proper house with a yard and a porch and a laundry room.
Today my husband and I both work in San Francisco, and our combined income is more than twice as much as my parents ever made. We are free with our money in a way they never could be and don’t think twice about buying a cappuccino or eating out once a week or paying for a Netflix account we rarely have time to use. But there is one luxury that seems unattainable to us as long as we live in the Bay Area: a house of our own. The absurd real-estate prices here mean we will never be able to buy, or even rent, a place with a yard.
Our two-bedroom apartment is perfectly adequate for our needs, but it’s cramped and damp and cold. The kitchen and living room are too small to hold four adults comfortably. We don’t often have friends over, because we don’t know where to put them. We have to take our toddler son out on the sidewalk for fresh air and games of catch.
We sometimes talk about moving to another city where the cost of living is lower — i.e., anywhere else in the country. I dream of a house with a yard where our son can play; of a roomy kitchen where we can host a dinner party; of a garage where we can store our bikes. I remind myself to be grateful that I have a home, yet I pine for a house.
San Francisco, California
My mom was a hoarder. Even as a kid I could tell something was wrong with the way we lived. I’d seen how children on TV and in the movies had to clean their rooms, but I would get in trouble if I tried to clean mine. Every bit of space was taken up with my mother’s possessions except for a pathway to my bed and a little section of toys. I was ashamed of how I lived and tried to hide it from other kids.
My mom’s hoarding got worse as the years went on, and the home became even more unsanitary. I moved out at the age of twenty, but I’d still come over on occasion to try to clear the pathways and throw a few items away. My mom’s mental and physical health was declining. I was scared her stacks of paper would catch fire, or a neighbor would report her to the city. I was scared about the long-term impact of her hoarding on both my parents’ health. I was scared my dad would leave her and she’d die in that house.
Eventually my mom couldn’t climb the stairs anymore, and my parents moved to an apartment, which my dad kept clean. He let me empty out their old house so it could be sold. I couldn’t believe the ordeal was over.
But the shame I felt because of my mother’s hoarding continued. Living on my own, I’d discovered that I didn’t really know how to clean. I hadn’t realized that people mopped floors and shampooed rugs and washed windows. Every time I learned about some new household chore that everyone else did, I was embarrassed. I also had no idea how to cook, because for most of my childhood I’d had no access to a functioning stove. I hadn’t even used a knife and fork until I was twenty-one. I couldn’t help wondering if there was something wrong with me.
My mom developed Alzheimer’s and passed away in 2015 at the age of sixty-five. My dad says she’d forgotten about the house, and I should, too. But I doubt I’ll ever be able to forget.
I grew up in a family of eleven kids. Thirteen of us were squeezed into a two-story, four-bedroom Victorian house. When the old woman who lived next door died, my parents bought her house, too, and we lived in both, moving freely between them. Before, I had shared a bedroom with my three younger brothers. Now I had my own room. So did each of my parents, who slept in separate houses.
Though we ate dinner together every night and gathered around one TV, the distance between my parents grew as the years passed. My mother, a staunch Catholic, would not divorce my father, even after he fell in love with another woman who looked strikingly like her, only less angry and angst-ridden.
As my older siblings went off to college, the rest of us moved into Dad’s house, leaving our mother by herself in the other. Only at Christmas did both houses fill up with siblings, spouses, and kids.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my parents got cancer and wasted away next door to one another. My father died at home on February 26, 1990; my mother died just twelve days later.
When I got to prison, I learned that other prisoners sometimes called their cell a “house,” as in “I need to clean house,” or “He moved into my house.”
Many of us in here take pride in the condition of our cells. A guy might pay a buddy on the painting crew to put a fresh coat on the walls. He might buy floor wax and perhaps even sneak the buffer in to polish it smooth as glass — all in the interest of caring for his house.
But whatever affinity a man may feel for his cell, even if he’s lived in it many years, you will never hear him refer to it as “home.” That’s a place beyond the razor wire that we all long to see again someday. These houses are just where we live in the meantime.
In 1979 I was living with my boyfriend, Sam, in Boulder, Colorado. We were in our early twenties, and I thought he was the man I would be with for the rest of my life. He would sing me songs he had written or recite original poems as we walked home from work. Once, while we embraced on the front porch of our rented home, he said to me, “This is the house where we used to live.” I laughed and asked what he meant. He said that someday we wouldn’t live in Boulder anymore, and we’d come to visit and drive by this house and say, “This is the house where we used to live.”
Things didn’t work out that way. I was ready to start a family, but Sam didn’t want children. We eventually split up. I moved to Wyoming, where I fell in love, got married, became a teacher, and raised two children. I didn’t miss Sam or doubt my decision to break up with him, but one day, while I was at a conference in Colorado, I called him on impulse, just to find out how he was. He seemed happy to hear from me, and we arranged to have lunch at our old favorite restaurant.
As Sam walked toward me, I was impressed by how slim and youthful he looked. He told me he had never married. Though we talked for two hours at the restaurant, he never once asked about my family. When I showed him a picture of my children, he just nodded his head. I remembered that he had always been a little self-centered, and I began to feel awkward about being there with him. I was more certain than ever that I’d made the right choice all those years ago.
Finally I told Sam that I needed to get going, and he walked me to my car, which was parked on the street in front of our old house. Before we said goodbye, Sam took my hand and led me up the steps to the front porch. Then he wrapped me in his arms and whispered in my ear, “This is the house where we used to live.”
When I was six, we moved to a drafty farmhouse in rural Virginia. Snow blew through cracks in the walls, and the closet under the stairs smelled of mildew. I loved that house, but my mother hated it, so my father set out to build us a new one.
I watched our new home rise from a cleared patch of dirt in a cow pasture. What my father couldn’t do himself, he contracted out to the lowest bidder. Mom and Dad framed windows while my brother and I pedaled our bikes around the concrete-slab foundation.
Each night after dinner my father went back to work on the house, often until after my bedtime. Once, I begged him to stay home with us instead. “Just one night,” I said.
“The house is built with one nights,” he replied.
Slowly the tall cinder-block walls went up, and the shape of the structure emerged. In it I saw only time my father hadn’t spent with me.
Five years after he’d broken ground, we moved in. Finally I understood the love my father had put into that project. The house was beautiful. There was a sun porch where he could pot plants in winter; warm alcoves for beds on either side of the chimney; and double sinks so Dad could wash dishes while Mom finished cooking dinner.
A year later my dad told my mother he was gay. I wonder now whether the house-building project had helped him keep that confession at bay, one night at a time.
My family had a house once. I remember forsythias running the length of our backyard fence; my mother pinning clothes on the line in the summer heat; a squat fir whose boughs touched the ground, creating a space I could crawl into and breathe the tree’s spicy aroma. Our property sloped down to a clear, cool stream where I would play for hours and sometimes come across buried arrowheads. The woods were free of litter and pierced with light.
I also remember playing at construction sites, unaware what the new development meant. I knew only that there were towering hills of dirt to climb.
An out-of-state power company was expanding its operations almost into our backyard. The company made buyout offers to all the local residents, and my parents accepted, probably afraid of the noise and emissions to come. I was twelve when we moved. The money they got for my childhood home wasn’t nearly enough to buy someplace new, and we spent the next fifteen years renting.
I occasionally drive by where our old house once stood. There’s no sign of it now, not even the remnants of a foundation. The property is overgrown and looks too small to have ever been home to five people and a garden.
The rest of the neighborhood is intact, however. All the other houses remain. My parents must have been the only ones to accept the offer.
Shomriel T. Sherman
In his mid-thirties my friend C. was struggling to find his calling. His family’s business did not inspire him. A few short stints in the corporate world had been disasters. He claimed to have an artistic bent but hadn’t much to show for it, though he did make a mean tuna-melt sandwich. C. stayed home and cared for his three kids while his wife worked, but I could tell he was unhappy not having more to do.
One day C. announced that he was going to build a house. My immediate thought was: This will be an epic disaster.
Within a month C. had purchased a lot and was researching Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural style. He drew up plans, got permits, rented a big yellow excavator, and set to work. Several months later, on a cold December evening, I visited him at the construction site. The sun was going down, and the Midwest winter chill had started to set in. Sitting alone in the excavator, C. was embarrassed and apologetic at the lack of progress. His fantasies had collided with the reality of machines and earth. Driving home that night, I wondered why he hadn’t just bought a house. There were plenty on the market.
I had given up checking on C.’s quixotic project when I got an invitation the following summer to his housewarming party. As I approached the gravel driveway, a swath of trees hid the house. Then I parked, walked up, and saw a small yet elegant Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired home: Clean lines. Minimalist. Warm.
Amid family and friends we celebrated the work of this eccentric friend of mine: a misfit in the corporate domain, unable to earn a daily wage, but an artistic genius.
If I ever decide to build a house, my first call will be to him.
San Francisco, California
we moved to the country after my mother married my stepfather. The cozy ranch house they’d bought was supposed to be a fresh start for all of us, but for me it was the beginning of a terrible, secret pain. Unbeknownst to my mother, my stepfather had a predilection for young girls. He viewed my gangly, preadolescent body as his possession. Though his advances repulsed me, I’d been raised to obey my elders and found it hard to assert myself against his authority. I dreaded being alone with him in the house, where the shadows were long and the hallways were dark. I never knew when I would wake early in the morning, after my mother had left for work, to find him standing over my bed.
Finally one day, in a shaking voice, I threatened to tell my mother if my stepfather ever touched me again. He left me alone after that, and I kept his secret out of shame until one day, years later, I couldn’t anymore. I told my mother, and she called the police. We fled that house with our belongings stuffed into cardboard boxes and trash bags. My stepfather would be jailed for nearly a decade.
I knew what had happened to me wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t stop me from falling into a deep depression as a teenager. I hated what I saw in the mirror and hid my body in baggy clothes. I drank and used drugs to dull my pain. He couldn’t hurt me anymore, but I could. It took me a long time to start to trust other people again, and longer still to trust myself.
I eventually built a life that filled with joy, but I still needed to face the past. I hadn’t been back to our house since the day we’d moved out. The few times I’d driven through the area, I’d felt a panic attack coming on.
One day I got in the car and took a drive to the old house. Though I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there, somehow I found the road, and then the house. I half expected to see my little brother playing in the sandbox and my dog running around the yard. Here it was: the place I’d hosted slumber parties, made snow angels, and planted tulips — and also the place I was afraid to come home to and to sleep in. For so long this place had loomed in my mind like a haunted house, but other people lived there now. I saw patio furniture on the porch, a slide in the backyard. I didn’t feel panicked or sick. I was no longer the child who had lived there. I could choose to leave behind the shame he had passed on to me, when it never should have been mine to carry.
When I proposed to my girlfriend, I had just turned twenty-eight and was living in a basement apartment next to a boiler room in Washington, D.C. The pipes that zigzagged along my ceiling would clang loudly as they carried water and gas to the apartments above. Clearly this was not a suitable environment for my new bride.
We felt we were too young to move to the suburbs, and the only D.C. neighborhood we could afford to live in was Ward 6, where the drug trade — and its accompanying violence — was centered. During our housing search, we encountered squatters in an empty home along Florida Avenue. Almost every street corner had a liquor store, and the commercial properties in between were boarded up. “Are you sure you want to move here?” our realtor asked.
We settled on a 1916 brick row house with plaster walls and hardwood floors. There were crack houses on our block, and a drunk once passed out on our small patch of grass out front. More disturbing was the time a woman was murdered in the alley behind our home.
But we also built friendships with people who had been in the neighborhood for thirty or forty years. There was Memphis, who installed carpets for a living and whose wife held loud revivals in their living room each week; and Charmaine, the social worker who fell in love with a man who wrote her letters from jail. (We attended their wedding reception after his release, but the relationship didn’t last, and he ended up back behind bars.) Ms. Estelle, the elderly matriarch who sat on her porch all day, was eager to see us start a family. “There’s only one way to have a baby, so you two better get to it!” she would say. We smiled with embarrassment and assured her we would try.
We felt welcomed into that community. When, after six years, we announced that we were moving, some of our neighbors cried.
Now we live in the suburbs, where we have more space and a proper, stand-alone house. It’s safer here. And quieter. I might talk with the neighbors once a month, if that. We don’t know them, and they don’t know us.
About fifteen years ago my parents’ house — and my childhood home — burned in a New Mexico forest fire, along with the homes of four hundred other families. My folks had been there for forty-three years. We were devastated.
My parents handled their grief in different ways: my mom became deeply depressed, while my dad was scowling and resentful much of the time. I had vivid dreams in which I sat looking out a window of our old home into the pine forest, and I could see, clear as day, everything that had been on that particular windowsill: the china cat figurine, the big calcite crystal, the philodendron planted in my grandmother’s cracked gravy boat. When I awoke, I felt a powerful sense of loss.
Six years later my father became terminally ill and died. Although a terrific father and husband in many ways, he had also been difficult, distant, and even hurtful at times, especially after the fire. I soon began to dream about him: He was dressed in his pajamas and looked puzzled, as if he hadn’t yet realized he was dead. (Toward the end he’d been in denial about his condition.) Furious, I yelled, “Dad, don’t you get it? You’re dead!” He stumbled away, confused and indignant.
More than a year later Dad came to me again in a dream. He was wearing regular clothes and appeared relaxed and vigorous. “I’m doing some important work with your mother,” he said. A few months after that, I dreamed of him again. This time Dad was beaming. He told me proudly, “I’ve built a new house for you and your mother and me.” He pointed to a home that looked familiar. It was much like our old one, only bigger and more beautiful and filled with light.
Mary Janet Fowler
I grew up working on a ranch in central California. I remember the chore of “rock-picking”: My dad slowly drove his ancient Dodge truck ahead of my three siblings and me while, working in a cloud of dust, cigarette smoke, and exhaust, we plucked large rocks from the soil and heaved them into the back of the truck. No matter how many rocks we removed, there were always more. That’s what ranching was for me — a life of interminable toil, suffocatingly small and excruciatingly boring.
I married a man from my hometown, and he and I got as far from the dirt roads and the smell of fertilizer as we could. We moved literally to the other side of the globe, where we lived in the city and swore we’d never go back to checking well pumps and scooping horse manure.
Now, in my early forties, we’ve returned to a ranch in our hometown. When we first moved here to care for my mom’s horses, I told myself it was temporary. I hated the green carpet and the tiny, cupboard-less kitchen with its burgundy laminate countertops. But with each passing season we’ve been steadily putting down deeper roots.
This Saturday my husband and I woke early, shuffled across the green carpet into the kitchen, and poured coffee into mismatched mugs. Then we meandered outside, mugs in hand, to feed the horses and begin our chores. As the sun slowly burned away the coastal fog, the kids woke up and hollered out the window: “What’s for breakfast?”
Wiping the sweat from my brow, I hollered back, “Whatever you make!”
They made biscuits the way I’d taught them, measuring flour by the palmful and cutting in the butter with their fingertips. (The cooking lessons are finally paying off now that both girls have reached double-digit ages.) Forty minutes later they called us inside to eat. The burgundy countertop was well dusted with flour, and the table was set with butter, jam, local honey, and a basket of the fluffiest, crispiest biscuits I’ve ever eaten.
There’s a pump to keep an eye on. There’s so much horse manure to scoop we can never get caught up. There’s also a chicken coop to keep clean and eggs to collect, and if we don’t get more wood chopped soon, we’re going to have some cold winter nights. But I’m home.
Jessica H. Glentzer
Soon after I was born in 1952, my parents bought a home in a subdivision called Sun-Tan Village on what was then the outskirts of Miami. The house I grew up in was advertised as “atom-bomb proof.” In 1960 Hurricane Donna hit Florida, bringing normal life to a halt and initially terrifying my brothers and me. To quell our anxiety, our father explained that the walls of our house were made of poured concrete with steel reinforcement, the roof was held up by concrete beams, and strong steel shutters could slide down to cover the windows. We had nothing to fear in our fortress house. “Hit us with your best shot” was our attitude toward hurricanes after that.
Two years later came the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union and the United States seemed poised to launch a nuclear attack on each other. The magnitude of the danger became apparent to me when my father came home and began stacking cinder blocks against the outside of our house.
The next day in school my science teacher grimly informed us that if a hydrogen bomb were exploded at nearby Homestead Air Force Base, the blast would reach us in twenty-five seconds and incinerate almost everything. The lucky ones would be killed instantly.
No, he replied when I asked: there was no such thing as an atom-bomb-proof house.
Todd Thornton Lewis
My grandmother lily lived in a small green house with a chain-link fence around the front yard. A strong, quiet woman, she often sat on a weathered recliner (I never saw her recline in it) and watched her grandchildren through the front window as they made mud pies, threw rocks, and climbed the loquat trees.
Lily had been born in Mississippi. Her father was a Choctaw Indian — she would hum old Choctaw chants — and her mother, if not a slave herself, was certainly the child of one. I get the feeling that Lily escaped something terrible in Mississippi, though I don’t know exactly what. I know only that she married my grandfather Bobby in the early fifties and came to Southern California, where somehow, despite having very little money, they managed to buy a home on the east side of our racially segregated town. She lived there the rest of her life. They had two girls, four boys (my father being the oldest), and a multitude of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of whom still live within a mile of that small green house.
Grandma Lily’s yard was a familiar meeting place for my cousins and me in the early eighties. We were often dropped off there to play within the confines of her fence. The older cousins were allowed to walk to the corner liquor store to buy candy, and they always brought some back to share. We’d squeeze onto the meager porch and sit sucking our sweets. Sometimes we ventured across the street to visit Mrs. Hutchington, who had butterscotch candy, or a few houses down to play with the Martinez kids, but we knew to be back to Grandma’s house by the time the streetlights came on.
I remember my parents picked me up late one evening, and the bright searchlight of a police helicopter shone on us as we walked through the front yard to our car. The experience was frightening, but I didn’t question it. It was the way things were on the east side. Just a mile away, over a wide bridge, the houses were much larger and had driveways so long you couldn’t see the front doors from the street. As a child I assumed this wide disparity was some natural phenomenon, like rain or drought. Not until later would I understand the systemic forces involved in maintaining that divide.
In 2012, a few years after my grandmother Lily passed away, my cousin Ashanti died in front of her home, killed by a bullet. She was twenty-nine. I don’t know how Lily, as strong as she was, would have taken the news that one of her grandchildren had been shot thirty yards from the front porch where we ate candy as kids. Police attributed my cousin’s death to “gang violence.” No arrests were made.
Months after Ashanti’s funeral, when there were still no leads, it became clear that the investigation into her killing would dissolve the way such matters do in the neighborhoods of the poor, as if death by bullet were just some natural phenomenon.
Alicia M. Mosley
In the summer of 1975 my wife and I bought some land overlooking a glacial lake in western New York State. The plan was to work regular jobs for ten months, then return to the site in early spring with a few thousand dollars, build a home, and begin living off the land.
By the time the snow started to fall the next winter, we had the shell of a house that was at least enclosed and dry, plenty of firewood, a gravity-fed plumbing system, and kerosene lamps.
It took us almost two years to figure out that we were not compatible, and that our chosen lifestyle was more like grinding poverty than our romantic dream of self-sufficiency. My wife moved out, leaving me alone in the house. Although I loved every stud, board, and nail, there were just too many reminders of the pain, and I decided to move on. Because my career in education gave me summers off, I hung on to the property, making small improvements when I could, which wasn’t often.
One cold fall day my closest friend asked if he could live in the house for the winter. He needed to kick a serious drug addiction and felt he could do it only in isolation. I agreed and heard almost nothing from him until early spring, when he let me know that it had been hard, but he was clean, and grateful. He had christened the place the “House of Pain.”
Over the next three decades five other friends lived in that house for short periods of time after the failure of businesses, marriages, or relationships. In the mid-eighties I stayed there myself for a few months after a divorce and the death of my closest friend, who had been shot and killed in his home by an intruder. Only through solitude, prayer, and much reading and crying at the House of Pain was I able to pull out of my depression.
Last spring I retired and returned to the property in western New York for six months. I replaced the home’s old secondhand windows and doors, reshingled the leaky roof, added more insulation, built a mudroom, and spread a few tons of gravel over the dirt driveway. But mostly I just reacquainted myself with the wind in the trees, the sounds of animals walking on brittle fallen leaves, and the ghosts and spirits in my house. I owed the place an apology, I decided. It didn’t deserve its old title. So I e-mailed or called all the friends who had stayed there over the years and told them to come visit me anytime — at the House of Healing.
Douglas W. Mann
Hammondsport, New York
Growing up in the seventies, I knew three boys who lived in identical split-level houses. This wasn’t unusual in my suburban neighborhood, where the homes had all been built at once.
Gerry’s house was sparsely furnished. His family had a jukebox but no dining-room table. There was a keg of beer in the garage, and we snuck sips from the tap while Gerry’s stepfather was asleep on a lounge chair in the backyard. Gerry slept on a mattress on the floor. The only other items in his room were a slot-car racetrack, an old dollhouse (used as shelves), and his enormous collection of trading cards, which he stored in garbage bags. Once, he brought me into his teenage sister’s bedroom to show me the condoms in her dresser drawer. I’d heard of rubbers but didn’t understand what they were for. I was only nine.
In Michael’s house the white living-room furniture was covered in plastic. He and I would lie on the ivory carpet there and listen to comedy albums by Bill Cosby and Mel Brooks. Michael’s father was a strict disciplinarian. When his three children wouldn’t stop fighting, he lined them up in the white living room and slapped their faces in front of me. In the master bathroom copies of Playboy were stacked atop the toilet tank. One day Michael and I came across a box of magazines his father had hidden more carefully. Turning the pages, we saw naked women tied to chairs while men did things to their bodies. I didn’t understand why someone would want to look at pictures like that.
Roger’s home life was the most like mine. When we got hot playing soccer in his yard, we went inside, where his mother poured us glasses of Hi-C. Roger’s bedroom was decorated with posters of martial-arts master Bruce Lee. His older siblings teased him, but he didn’t get into screaming fights with them. At school one day Roger invited me to sleep over. Excited, I went home and asked my parents’ permission. They said no; it wouldn’t be appropriate. Why not, I wanted to know; I’d slept over at Michael’s house many times. Because, my mother and father said, white people didn’t sleep over at black people’s houses. I was only nine. I didn’t understand.
As a social worker for In-Home Supportive Services, I made sure that my clients — all aged or disabled people on limited incomes — were able to live safely on their own. I would assign part-time caregivers to help them with cooking, shopping, bathing, and housekeeping. Most had tiny apartments or lived in senior housing. A few had paid off the mortgage on a small house.
My female clients were the better housekeepers. They regularly served me freshly baked cookies and tea or coffee in comfortable, clean surroundings. Not so with my male clients, many of whom lived like abandoned children. After opening the door for me, they typically trudged back to their favorite chairs and sat there helplessly, waiting to be rescued.
One man, whose lungs and skin had been damaged by exposure to asbestos in the shipyards, lived in cold, messy seclusion until the care provider I assigned him got his house in order and stocked his freezer with healthy meals that could be heated in a microwave. He begged her to marry him.
He wasn’t the only one to make such a proposal. Another man, who hid liquor bottles all over his house and rued that he was too old to show me a “good time,” lived in near squalor until his care provider inspired him to change his ways. He quit drinking, lived to be nearly a hundred, and died sober — and still hoping that provider would become his wife.
Not all the women kept neat houses. One elderly client was a hoarder. Newspapers and outdated magazines were piled to her ceilings, and mice ran rampant. With my encouragement she managed to reduce the pile to waist height, but a public-health nurse reminded me that the client’s safety was our first imperative, and the mess was a health and fire hazard. Professional disposal people came in and, against my client’s will, carried her treasured trash off to the dump. She was horrified. Afterward some friends joined me in cleaning that client’s house, but there was little we could do about her anguish. Within months she was in a nursing home.
I learned a lot from my clients. My experience with the hoarder reminded me that we can sometimes harm people with our well-intended interventions, and also that possessions can take over your life. From others I learned that a one-story home is ideal for the aged; that a kitchen sink should have a window over it; that the laundry room should be on the main floor and not down treacherous steps; that a small yard is preferable to a large one; and that access to public transportation and a grocery store is a necessity.
When I talked about buying a house, clients advised me to ignore what the banks said and not seek the largest mortgage I could get, which would leave nothing for travel, emergencies, and special projects. Get a home you can maintain, they counseled. Forget about resale. Make it comfortable for you.
I have followed their advice, cutting into walls, reconfiguring rooms, and making my house fit my needs. Thirty-one years later I thank them every day.
Santa Rosa, California
My family has never owned a home; we have always rented. For the first ten years of my life I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my uncle, mother, brother, cousin, father (until he and my mom separated when I was five), and sometimes my grandpa, who came for annual visits from Mexico. My brother, my mom, and I all slept on a queen-size bed in the living room.
During my parents’ separation, my mom cleaned houses to make money, and my brother and I would often accompany her. It became our fantasy to live in one of the “beautiful white-people houses.” The owners would sometimes be home attending to their blond-haired, blue-eyed children while my mother washed the windows and bent to clean dusty corners.
We will probably never own my fantasy home with four bedrooms, a huge yard, and many windows that let in the sun, but we have a little more room these days. My cousin has moved back to Mexico, and my grandpa doesn’t visit as much, because he is grieving my grandmother’s death.
“We may not have a house,” my mom says, “but we have a home full of love, laughter, tears, and yelling.”
Passaic, New Jersey
My job is to inspect houses scheduled for demolition. I identify and report hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead, and fuel oil, so they can be properly removed before the structure is torn down.
I begin on the inside, mapping the floorplan and describing the quantity and location of the materials. I’ve inspected old farmhouses, vacant rental properties, and foreclosures that had been looted and stripped. I have also surveyed still-occupied homes destined for the landfill because their owners wanted to tear them down and build something bigger.
I have been doing this work for twenty-eight years, but lately it has occurred to me that I am no longer suited for it. Inspectors with significantly less experience than I have are often far more efficient. It’s because I find myself spending too much time wandering these empty homes and contemplating the stories of the previous inhabitants. I’ve stopped to read homework assignments lying among old dolls and piles of blankets. I’ve noted the record of children’s heights on a door frame. I’ve paused to examine a sun-faded floral nightshirt draped over a walker and wondered if it belonged to the same person who’d canned the vegetables in the basement.
These houses remind me that every place we live is temporary; we are all just renters here.