I hope you don’t mind my addressing you this way. You addressed me as P., after all—no last name. Although we’ve never met, you offered condolences for my loss.
The loved one in this case was my mother. Her death came as a shock. Besides occasional spikes in blood pressure, she was in seemingly perfect health until the hot day in August when an aneurysm burst near her brain stem—only hours after her yoga class and less than a year after my father’s somewhat less sudden death from cancer, although none of us could have foreseen his steep and swift decline.
You offered to ease my burden. Your company, you informed me, makes “cash offers for properties in any condition for fair market value,” which “may help to resolve [my] current obligations.” Honestly, you weren’t the first. I received many letters offering cash for my childhood home on Macon Street. Twenty-seven in all and I’ve kept every one. I got a little shiver watching them pile up, seeing how my private loss had become so public. Of course, it took no great skill to track me down. All you had to do was drive to the courthouse, pull the latest probate files and scan for my signature and address. It was right there, under my mother’s name—yours for the taking.
So much sympathy! So many promises of “quick” and “hassle-free” sales! One kind gentleman even thought to include a packet of aspirin—to cope with the “many headaches of dealing with a property in an estate.” I received two more letters just like yours—same lined yellow paper, same bright-red shade of ink—one from a man who identified himself as Shamara that cut right to the chase: “Dear Sharon S. heirs, hi, I want to $Buy$ your house on Macon Street. I buy as is, any condition and close fast.” Upon closer inspection, it was clear that Shamara’s letter, like yours, was not in fact hand-written but only designed to appear that way. You care, of course you care, but writing by hand takes time and you are busy men with many condolences to pay.
I do not mean to question your motives, Brian; I understand them perfectly well. For years, the real estate market in northern Virginia has been a playground for well-heeled lobbyists, contractors and others attached to the teat of federal government. The area’s crawling with them. They pay handsomely for an easy commute to Washington. They prefer walk-in closets and great rooms, kitchens with islands and glossy granite counters. Developers have made (and continue to make) millions catering to that crowd—snapping up older homes and razing them, replacing them with mega-mansions that boast faux stone exteriors and garages big enough for three SUVs.
My childhood home, while by no means cramped, has none of these things.
Some might accuse you of preying on folks at their most vulnerable—punched by loss and slammed by new, unforeseen burdens. Yet who’s to say you don’t offer a legitimate service? Who can begrudge the need to make a buck? Even so, please understand that I don’t harbor dreams of sitting atop the piles of cash you feature so prominently on your web site (I was curious). I don’t see my childhood home as a headache, or something to dump, flip, unload. You see it as my ticket to resolving obligations. I see it differently—as the place where I became me.
We are all creeping clusters of atoms, born in the stars. Yet those atoms shift like sand—98 percent of them shed and replaced each year. We are no longer who we used to be. I’m reasonably sure the house on Macon Street holds more of my younger self than the vessel I call my body does.
As such, I will forego your offer. Thank you all the same.
I appreciate your sympathy, but just wondering: Since you’d like to buy my home in “As-Is” condition, have you actually seen it for yourself? If not, I invite you to swing by sometime. You would quickly notice how similar it is to others on the block—carport, boxy brick, floor-to-ceiling windows. You couldn’t miss that huge birch tree towering near the kitchen (a six-foot sapling when my parents moved in.) If it were spring, you’d see the purple clematis climbing the trellis and the half-dozen azaleas banking up the north side, blooming pink, peach and magenta, azaleas my father watered and fertilized year after year.
Step inside and across the foyer. Climb the staircase leading up to the dining and living rooms. Notice the high ceilings and open floor plan so common to mid-century moderns, built to bring a little of the outdoors inside. Check out the garden through the sliding glass door. See those knockout roses? The robins scrambling for purchase on the birdbath? That was the view on my father’s last day. He lay right where you’re standing now, in the hospital bed my mother and I set up for him, only steps from the patio door. We slid the door open so he could feel the moist, warm air on his skin. I like to think he picked up the late-autumn sounds: the whoosh of jays’ wings, chipmunks pawing hard clay, the pileated woodpecker plundering the maple tree for grubs.
Slide that door open, Wilmer. Close your eyes and listen.
Now, breathe deep. Can you smell traces of the BenGay my mother rubbed on my father’s back in the last weeks of his life? Or the lilies she kept on the dining room table the next summer, her last?
You’ll find ghosts there, too—in the sofa cushions and the pile of the carpet. Remainders from all those afternoons we cheered on the Redskins, from watching Masterpiece Theater and Family Affair and Friday Night Videos. Strains of Bach etudes and Beethoven’s fur Elise, Winter Wonderland (which I memorized) and the theme song from General Hospital—my mother’s addiction for more than 30 years. Corn as high as an elephant’s aaaiiiihye, high notes from my dad sitting beside me at the piano. The thump of my 10-year-old fist punching the stairwell after my little sister lost my prized four-leafed clover collection.
I blew out candles there, cut out paper dolls. I wrote my first feverish stories, about talking bears and grasshopper plagues and families that were happier than my own. I stumbled in drunk from the brandy my friends and I pinched from my parents’ liquor cabinet one night and passed around before our high-school sock hop.
Even after I moved to the frozen tundra (as my sister liked to call it), I came back each Christmas and most summers. I returned there one cold December day when my sister was dying in a hospital halfway across the world. She was only 28 and we could do nothing but wait, so we waited in that house, and later we hugged friends who streamed through in the hours and days after, bringing lemon bars and lasagna and crying on our shoulders.
My son took his first steps just outside that sliding glass door. He teetered on the soft green grass and tumbled into my outstretched arms while my father caught it all on camera.
Four years later, my father took his final raspy breaths. And only ten months after that, my mother locked the front door and walked outside with a crushing headache, past the azaleas and birch tree to a waiting ambulance, and never returned.
You might have guessed by now that I’m not interested in selling. Be well.
Every week, it seems, bulldozers rip more houses from the earth. Metal teeth clamp and tear like those of feral dogs. Gone in minutes: walls, roof, windows, banister, floorboards, replaced by cavities of red clay.
The eyesores with buckling shingles and peeling paint, whose aging owners long ago gave up on upkeep—those were the first to go. The well-kept but modest homes were next. Now, real estate being what it is, the size and condition, the carefully tended flower beds—none of that matters. It’s all about location. What counts is cold, hard cash.
You tell me you’d like to “piggy back” the development of my home with the handful of others already being torn down in my neighborhood and transfer the considerable savings to me. But I’m afraid I take issue with your terms. What you call engineering, I call teardown. What you call development, I call wrenching loss.
Raze a house, and you rip out all the things it held: every cross or kind word uttered; every game of Candy Land and Crazy Eights ever played; every happy face superimposed in fat red crayon over tulip-patterned wallpaper. You suck out all traces of steam left from hot bowls of oatmeal, silence the tender words whispered in a dying man’s last days.
I live halfway across the country now, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a house I bought twenty years ago. It’s considerably smaller and older than the house I grew up in. We’ve remodeled the kitchen and raised the ceilings, torn out the orange shag carpets and replaced the wood paneling with drywall. I keep a small perennial garden out back that my father helped design. It’s the only home my seven-year-old son has ever known. But it will never feel like home in the same way my house on Macon Street did, and still does.
You see, Robert, this house and I—we’re the last ones standing. This family you write of? I’m it. Sure, the house holds memories—but it goes well beyond that. I hang onto it for the same reason a parent feels the urge to keep her dead child’s bedroom exactly as it was—for years, even decades. It comes from an impulse to preserve sacred space, to inhabit a past that exists there and nowhere else.
My life is in St. Paul now, so I’ve found renters—a young, thirty-something couple who replaced my parents’ paintings and books with their own. They’ve filled the outdoor patio with clay pots of herbs; they throw barbecues and water the knockout roses. The husband, a botanist by trade, has relied on my father’s nine pages of fertilizer notes written in spidery scrawl. He regularly sends photos of blooms from the garden out back. Within a week of moving in, he informed me he’d already found six different species of native bees (“not bad for the burbs…”) as well as a “fantastic genus” of spider. “You would probably miss them,” he wrote, “because they really look like ants.”
My father, I’m sure, would have enjoyed the botanist’s enthusiasm. I can see them out on the patio, coffee in hand, discussing the challenges of Virginia soil—so dense and sticky when moist, so hard when dry. In an ideal world, the botanist and his wife, a writer like me, would buy the house and live out their days there. I would happily cut them a deal. But the booming market has pushed real estate so out of whack, unattainable even for college-educated professionals, that it’s not a discussion worth having. The only people who can afford my house now are the lobbyists and lawyers who likely care little for spiders and roses. Which explains why, more than two years past my mother’s death, I keep getting letters from folks like you.
Thanks for writing again. Things have changed, as they always do, since you wrote me a year ago. After returning to the house on Macon Street a handful of times—to clean it out drawer by drawer and prepare it for renters—I stayed away for well over a year. My dreams, though, kept bringing me back. There I was, standing in the kitchen as my mom made hamburgers, or in the downstairs bedroom helping my sister (or was it my son?) try on a clown costume for Halloween. And then, always, the sudden jolt: I’m trespassing. Other people live here now, and they’ll be back any minute.
When I finally did return, it was an unseasonably cold day in May. By then, most of the things that make a house feel like home—the paintings and dishes and much of the furniture—were gone. I’d begun to think the unthinkable: Maybe I should sell. Maybe hanging onto this house, with its ghosts and memories and vapors from long-ago breakfasts, was no longer healthy. I thought all these things as I stepped inside, heart thudding. I wondered if the old ache and pull of the place would be gone. Just inside the entryway sat the ancient philodendron, as huge as I remembered. I took another step and stopped in my tracks. It hit me full on, right in the nose and gut: the musky scent that belonged to the house, so deeply ingrained in my skull and skin that I hadn’t been fully aware of it until just then. It was sweat and bark, grass stains and forty-year-old cigar smoke. It was piled-up lumber, still-wet umbrellas and newsprint. It was Shalimar and the cork under ancient Samsonite folding chairs. It was a smell I knew as well as myself. It existed there in that house, and nowhere else.
But that wasn’t quite true. Anna, my home is a carapace, fused to my bones. And what billowed up that afternoon—it lived in me, too. Rainwater and bergamot, creosote and kugel. It was my in breath and out breath, and I had not even known it.
I admire your persistence.
With all good wishes,
Pamela Schmid is the creative nonfiction editor at Sleet Magazine. Her work has appeared in River Teeth, Sycamore Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Blue Mesa Review and most recently, Bellevue Literary Review. She lives in St. Paul.
Photo by the author.