This weekend will mark my 6th year in this house.
One more year and I will have lived here as long as I have ever lived in any house, and one more year after that it will be the longest I have lived in any home.
The first house we lived in when I was a kid was a little brick rental on the 125th block of Fremont Avenue. The houses across the street from us backed up to the power lines which backed up to a large cemetery, where I learned how to fall off my bike while riding downhill. On my birthday. I also got a Chrissy doll that birthday, the doll with the hair that "grew" by pulling it out of the top of her head. I remember sitting at the kitchen table holding my new doll between my knees, pulling her hair out and pressing the button to wind it back inside the hole on the top of her head with one hand and holding a washcloth full of ice against the road rash on my lips and chin with the other.
We had a mix of families with school-age children and older couples in the neighborhood. My brother Ken hung out with Chris and Jay and I played with Kirsten and Jay's little brother Rich until Kirsten moved away. Rich and I still played together although sometimes he got tired of me and hung out with the big boys. I would try to catch up to them when this happened but they were mostly successful in their evasion efforts.
Right next to us lived the Lawlers, who tended to drink a little too much and got into extremely loud screaming matches with one another. Often Mr. Lawler would be dispatched to the detached garage where he would sleep in his car.
One night they were having a particularly contentious argument. On his way out to the garage Mr. Lawler decided to stand in the back yard and get a few more words in edgewise. He woke up my Dad, who got up and made his way into our back yard. Mr. Lawler apparently took offense to my father's request for him to shut the hell up and go to sleep. He started yelling at my Dad, which pissed my Dad off to the point where he finally just hauled off and punched Mr. Lawler. It was spot-on to the chin and Mr. Lawler dropped like a bag of rocks. Dad crawled back into bed afraid he'd accidentally committed a homicide. He whispered to my mom, "If anyone asks, I never left the bed tonight."
Mr. Lawler did survive the incident, although one summer afternoon while drinking with a buddy of his on his back deck he was overheard saying "...and then the sonofabitch just up and cold-cocked me!" I guess he wasn't drunk enough to forget.
Not long after that my parents had the chance to buy a much bigger house for not very much money. It had been standing vacant for several years after the owner died, and her son was eager to unload it. Vagrants had been using it as a flop, so there was not only a lot of renovation to do but some pretty horrible messes to clean up.
My Dad did most of the work on his own in his spare time. At the time it was one of the biggest houses on the street, and it was very old. It still had a coal bin next to the oil furnace that had replaced its coal-burning predecessor, and a full basement with workshop. It had a detached garage and another outbuilding that must have been used by a gardener. It had both a formal living room AND dining room. My brother and I had bedrooms upstairs, both with enormous walk-in closets. My bedroom had built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Those shelves were filled with books and I read almost all of them.
My ceiling was angled with the pitch of the roof and in the back of my closet there was a square piece cut into the wall that you could pull out. Behind it was empty space, a small corner of the roof and ceiling below that was between my closet and the bathroom wall. On more than one occasion the thought of that empty void gave me the heebie jeebies. I remember sitting on my bed and listening to a recording of Dicken's Christmas Carol on my record player. Right about the time Marley's Ghost was talking to Scrooge and jangling his chains, my Dad called me for dinner and turned all the hallways lights off as a little joke. It nearly scared the piss out of me.
The property also included a vacant lot next door and behind that a small two-bedroom house which we rented out for a while to a lady and her daughter. The daughter had been in a car accident and broken her back. She was in one of those halo contraptions that included four screws into her skull to hold everything stable and had to sleep in a specially designed bed they kept in the living room. I would go visit from time to time and the sight of those screws going through her skin made my knees feel funny.
After my Grandpa died my Grandma moved into that house for a little while. Our dog Queenie stayed with her, and as Grandma was one of those women who showed love through food, Queenie got quite fat. Even after we left the city and she became a country dog she never was able to retain her former figure.
I've lived in many houses since then, some for even longer than we lived in that big old house, but for some reason it is the home that figures most prominently in my dreams. Countless times I've dreamed that I lived in it again, or visited it or it appeared in passing in a dream about something entirely different. Since moving back to Washington I've driven by it a few times but have never managed to find anyone home. I'd love to see what it looks like now that I'm grown up. Childhood memories tend to add a size distortion to spaces. Nothing is nearly as big as I remember.
My children now have vague recollections of our house in New Jersey. I wonder sometimes how long we'll stay in our house now, and what their favorite memories will be of it when they are all grown up.
I think this is why I love old houses. New houses can be anything you want to make of them; old houses retain the memories of all who have lived there before. Even renovated, the bones of the house still remain. When we bought this house the doorjamb in the kitchen still had all the marks where the previous owners recorded their son's growth. I left them as they are and my kids' own growth record is on the opposite side of the same door jamb. I'm sure someday someone will paint that mess over, but it won't be me.