My parents’ house sits on a landmarked block in Brooklyn, a place that felt far from “the city” — which is what people from Brooklyn called Manhattan when I was growing up — but wasn’t really.
It’s a place where old trees line and arc up over the street, a green canopy in summer, a properly creepy backdrop for Halloween. The houses there are Victorian, with nice backyards and small-town front porches. Every year, I held my daughter’s birthday parties there. I took a photo each birthday of my little girl sitting in one of the big, white, wicker porch chairs, a yardstick that showed, year by year, how she’d grown and changed.
In the summer, the front porch became my parents’ living room, the place they spent their days. That’s where you visited with them, where they sat every day together. It’s where I stayed up with my father deep into the night after the day my mother died, when he howled with grief into the dark air, intermittently fuzzy with street lights. It’s where he sat every warm day after she was gone, neighbors coming up to say hello, chat with him for a few minutes, have a glass of wine. He greeted the same people as they passed by at the same time each day — Sue and Alan; Tony and his brother Bob who live in the same house next door, but don’t speak.
When my family first moved to that block, Tony’s wife and his in-laws all lived there. Now it’s just Tony and Bob, but the house has been in the same family for many years. The house on the other side has turned over. When we first moved in, an older woman who reminded us of Queen Elizabeth — she wore kerchiefs and had corgis — lived there alone. She sold her house to Larry and Linda, followed by Larry alone, followed by Larry and Selma. For a long time though, it’s been Alan and Sue. Their two daughters were born there; now they’re grown up and gone.
My parents’ house has big comfortable rooms with dark, burnished wood and stained glass lamps; a dining room made for Norman Rockwellesque Thanksgivings. I made Thanksgiving dinner for 23 people in that dining room last year, and 23 people fit. There’s a nice backyard with a 150-year-old tree that screened the apartment houses behind it and that had to be taken down after Hurricane Sandy. And one day, I came home from school and looked over the entryway, and there was an old brass plaque nobody had noticed before that said “Glad Hall.” Someone had named the house. Someone who had expectations for it.
When my family moved in, the neighborhood felt quiet, almost sedate. We’d come from a block of tiny houses in another part of Brooklyn, each house stuffed with kids, all of us running in and out of each others’ basements and backyards. But there were only two other houses with children on the new block. Most of the houses were occupied by elderly people who’d raised their families, whose children had grown and moved to other lives in other places — the city, beyond. Who’d outlived the need for a big house, a backyard. Like Queen Elizabeth and the corgis.
Slowly the old people left and younger people began to move in. The block regenerated: it’s what neighborhoods do. Houses emptied of families, meant for families, slowly filled up with families again. The sidewalks were noisy with kids on bikes and blades, kids pushing doll carriages, kids rushing back and forth to school.
Houses — neighborhoods — have cycles: young families, middle aged people with empty nests, the elderly, young families again: the circle of life. It is both hopeful, and sad. My family’s been on both ends of the circle or, because it is a circle, at that single spot, twice. It’s the same spot, really. Because Dr. and Mrs. Crow had to die (her) and move on (him) so my parents could buy the house and move all of us in.
I wasn’t a young child when my family moved to the house — we were a middle-of-the-cycle family, rather than a young one. I was 13 and starting high school — Midwood, not Madison, where I would’ve gone had we gone on living in the tiny black-and-white house with the red door where I grew up. My history was there, my friends — Susan next door, Jody and Ellen across the street, Nancy down the block. Mrs. Caiafo who saved the Sunday comics for me, and whose house I went to when there was a blackout and nobody at my house was home.
“I won’t miss this house when the time comes to sell it,” I’ve said many times, meaning Glad Hall. “I didn’t live here very long.”
That’s true — I was out at sixteen. But I was wrong about the other part. I may not have lived there very long, but my family did. And while there were years I did not go home at all, there were others — many more — when I did. For family dinners and reunions and celebrations — my daughter’s birthdays, the photographs in the wicker chair. I have the same kinds of memories everyone does of their childhood home even if, technically, this house wasn’t mine.
I used to occasionally drive down the block with the little black and white house where I grew up, if I happened to be in that neighborhood. It didn’t happen often. There weren’t many reasons to go into that part of Brooklyn — hardly any. Though my friends on the block and I swore we’d visit, we’d keep in touch, I wasn’t moving that far away, it never happened; I never saw a single one of them again. Susan from next door; Jody and Ellen across the street, Nancy down the block.
Then, about a year ago, I did have a reason to go there — an estate sale a block away. I was more excited about seeing my old house than about the sale. And the house was still there — but the block wasn’t the same. The big house at the corner and the one next to it had been torn down and a massive, concrete structure had been built in its place, some kind of community center. It changed the whole character of the block, the neighborhood. It wasn’t how I remembered it. I won’t go there again.
I won’t be in the neighborhood of Glad Hall often either. It’s not the kind of place you go unless you’re visiting someone. It’s residential, a place of houses and children and front porches.
“I’ll never have any reason to come here,” I used to say, so blithely, turning the corner, heading to my parents’ house at the end of the block. “I won’t come back again.”
And I’m sure that’s true: I won’t go back again; I won’t have a reason to. But I was wrong to sound blithe. Because it is bothering me to leave this house behind. The parting is painful.
My father died not too long ago. He outlived my mother by about three years, years during which his enjoyment of the house — the front porch, his engagement with his neighbors — diminished. This past summer, he only sat outside a couple of times, when one of my sisters or I urged him to and sat with him. At the party I made in June for my daughter: the last one. Last year was the last Thanksgiving.
Within weeks, I was back at the house clearing it out so it could be sold. Packing up dishes and mementoes; clearing the surfaces of all the things my father had put down and kept — rubber bands and Chinese takeout noodles in waxed paper bags; books; tons and tons and tons of photographs. I hired people to clear out the basement that was full of stored junk nobody wanted but nobody could throw away either. “Okay,” my mother said when one of us asked if we could store one more thing down there. “But you’ll have to clean it out when I’m gone.”
I threw things away and stored the rest in dozens of boxes, stacking them on a tarp in the newly-cleared basement.
It was hard, and sad. “Things jump out at you,” Deborah, one of the neighbors told me — the neighbors, who’d come in streams the day after my father died because they’d heard the sirens the night before, seen the EMT’s, knew where they were headed. They told stories — to my sisters and me, and to each other — of how my parents had welcomed them to the neighborhood, remembering their own early days here. How their children knew to go to them in an emergency, as I’d gone, as a child, to Mrs. Caiafo’s. They returned the keys they held to my parents’ house in case of emergency; I returned theirs to them.
“Things you don’t expect will make you emotional,” Deborah said.
My father’s hairbrush.
A pile of quarters.
The stories the neighbors told.
Houses hold memories — even if not all of them are good ones. They hold the life of a family — its beginnings, its end. I didn’t make Thanksgiving in the house this year. My father wasn’t there, of course, but beyond that, the house didn’t feel like the family home anymore.
The realtors wanted me to leave it more or less as it had always been. They liked the art, the wall of books. A family lived here. It was comfortable, warm. Another family would be able to picture themselves living here too. They wanted the house to tell its story.
But the house they wanted to present wasn’t the “real” lived in one; it was a sanitized version. No family photos (except for the one of my parents I left on the piano.) No personal objects. No perfumes in the medicine cabinet. No clothes in the closets. No hairbrush. The hint of people, but not the people themselves. The rest is packed in those dozens of boxes. Or its been moved to my apartment in the city, or to the homes of one of my sisters. Or it’s waiting to be sold — the dressers that held our little girl socks; the piano that belonged to my grandparents; the wicker chair where my daughter’s birthday photograph was taken.
I am sadder than I expected to be, ambushed by sadness — Deborah was right. Once the house is sold, I know, I won’t be coming back here.
But it’s also exciting in a way, to think another family will live there. Bring and raise their children. Have Thanksgiving in the dining room. Summers on the front porch. That they will fill Glad Hall with what it’s meant to contain: the lived life of a family. We had our turn. Now it’s theirs.