I am a nester. Every house I’ve lived in, every apartment I’ve rented, each space I’ve occupied is in me still. Moving through them, living and sleeping in them, you can’t help but take on a sense, a flow, an inimitable soul that sticks to you long after you go. It’s a smell, a memory, a repeating loop of sights and sounds. Hardwoods creaking, a daddy long leg in the tub drain, calloused feet walking down a gravel driveway, the orange glow of ceramic heater tiles, getting mail with a key, watching summer rain from a screened porch, I can’t shake these memories, and I wouldn’t want to.
Growing up I treated my room like my apartment and rearranged my twin beds into various configurations, switched out the plants in pots clamped around my standing lamp. Things on the felt bulletin board over my desk could easily come and go which minimized my mom’s don’t put holes in our walls lecture when I’d occasionally want to hang things outside of my supplied rectangle, and then of course move them, too. Eighteen years there started my itch to change up and play with my space and set me on a lifelong course of doing it. I eventually moved away as did my parents who divorced and sold the house. Now a girl from my high school lives there and they’ve changed it to suit their own family. I still want to roam those woods (that have been replaced with a lawn) and look out those windows again and wonder. Even though my parents have long ago passed, these memories stay present.
As a little girl, I remember reading The Little House, a book about a well-loved house perched on a hill with sloped grass and shade trees, and the challenges it faced needing love and care. Its illustrations showed carefree children romping around it amid a colorful changing seasons backdrop, and as it gave its all year after year, each occupant was better for it. It had a soul and you rooted for it as you saw the city began to surround it and disrepair settle in.
In summer when we stayed outside late past dark, I’d look up at our own house and get a great sense of security, as if it would be there until the end of time and there was nowhere else that I belonged. The charming tied back curtains’ silhouette in the windows, the zinnias climbing the fence outside and the moon above magically decorated this already warm glowing place. The house was my beacon, wrapping itself around everything I knew and loved.
Leaving a place is weird – you get flooded with memories and the instinct to protect and preserve the space you’ve lived in. I moved from my own little brick house perched on a hill a decade ago, the first home we bought as a couple, yet I vividly remember life there. We knew it had been loved, but a forgotten yard and dowdy avocado trim inside and out said otherwise. Like peeling an onion, we went about undressing it layer by layer, and the kitchen floor alone had five: sheet vinyl, indoor/outdoor carpeting, sheet linoleum, asbestos tiles and the pièce de résistance under it all, hardwoods. Every Sunday we filled the curb with piles of debris which were gone by Monday’s trash pickup. We touched everything, but the moving parts (electrical/plumbing/hvac) we left to contractors, and we went about undoing shoddy work and restoring the house with our own enthusiastic vision of grace and dignity.
Sixteen years happened in a flash, and as our kids grew and more stuff accumulated, I began to want more elbow room. A big old Victorian house nearby caught my eye. It had good bones and intact details, and so we went for it using equity in our little house to buy the big one. We’ve been loving on it for ten years now in small ways, but it needs more. We’ve hung on to the little house and are now landlords. Every time we list it for rent, I worry that we won’t find a tenant, that we will go months into debt and that we made a terrible mistake. Then out of nowhere someone else inquires, I show the house and things fall into place, those fears tabled until next time.
Each tenant has nudged us in their own way to improve the house, tending to things we overlooked when we were there. And they’ve learned things too: don’t peel a bag of potatoes and think the garbage disposal will cooperate. Don’t install your own home alarm system and think it won’t derail the doorbell we had in place. If you leave the shades down all the time, don’t be surprised if the neighbors wonder. Don’t assume your large SUV will fit in our 8’ driveway and if you do, expect the stone wall to buckle as you back down. Sometimes I glorify the time I spent there and want to move right back and walk into my old life, but I remind myself that home is where I am, and besides, it’s fascinating to see others’ vision for life at our house unfold.
So far we’ve had five different tenants. First came the Irishman, G. He had recently split from his wife and our home had a good vibe – the calm he needed after the storm that is divorce. He loved it like we did, and that it was so close to an international farmer’s market. He often entertained, and dinner parties extended his dining table well into the living room. G appreciated the finer things in life. His cappuccino machine was serious, the size of a mini microwave. He turned a small bedroom into his walk-in wardrobe. My boys loved his accent and stories of Ireland when he was a boy there. Unfortunately, G lost his job so couldn’t finish out the year.
Next came S. Also divorced, she had two girls who lived with her part-time and a mom nearby who helped her feather the nest with custom valances and a shower curtain. It was fun to see my son’s former room dressed in pink and white gingham, dollhouses and ballet shoes – with nary a truck in sight! She cooked and entertained too and loved the house, even planting a garden out back. Her boyfriend visited often, and they eventually married. His son slept in my older boy’s room, which now had a tv and cool sports memorabilia on the walls. My boys were envious wishing that’s how their room could have looked, if only I would have allowed a tv. Poor things. After three years, S and her hubby wanted to buy their own house, and so they moved, saying they were sad to leave our house which they’d grown to love.
Next came T with her boyfriend and they quickly signed the lease. Like S and her husband these two were crazy in love and also seemed to enjoy setting up the house together with their two cats, whom I especially liked. It was a cozy haven for them in between going to work, to workout or shopping at the nearby farmer’s market, as our Irish tenant did. They soon became engaged and married several months later. They made the house their own and filled it with family photographs and plants and music. Eventually, they also wanted their own house and found one to buy just a few blocks away.
We found ourselves again on the hunt for a good tenant and had what we thought were serious leads. Some were a “sure” thing, a lawyer who definitely wanted the house and then bailed at the 11thhour – another, a woman who assured us that her ex whom she had mistakenly remarried “shouldn’t be a problem” because she had a court order keeping him away which she “hoped” would be effective. Then an older couple, R and his wife, arrived, tape measures in hand and in love with the place, hoping to be considered if the others didn’t pan out. The others weren’t contenders after all and R and his wife moved in. They loved old houses and ours worked well for them, retired and downsizing. They hired their handyman to pressure wash our driveway (a first!) and garden shed and steps. They brought in their big pie safe and other large dark antiques they’d amassed over the years, and their interior designer arranged their furniture and art. They also loved the nearby market and walkability of our town six miles east of Atlanta. However, nagging health concerns began in their second year and R wanted a walk-in shower and quieter street, so they left for the suburbs.
Once again, I posted the house online and a new renter, P, from western Europe, seemed particularly interested. He took videos of most rooms for his wife who still lived in their city out of town, and they decided after a few weeks that they wanted the place. With two small children and no pets, we had ourselves a deal. Now, it’s lovely inside with their white furniture and European minimalist décor. They’ve already planted a garden and made memories there, decorating for Halloween and now Christmas. Their kids look out the windows and smile and wave when I approach to visit, and they love the house just as we did. Once again, the house is full of new life and energy.
They say you can’t go home again, but you can invest in the home you’ve got, give it your all and make new memories there. The old ones will come around from time to time, but there are more ahead if you can shift your gaze from behind. The house we gave everything to has returned the favor and become a home for people who are helping to pay our mortgage, allowing us to start over and love on another house. It will be a few years before we can finish everything, but this house, like the others, is ready and willing.
We’re all looking for home. Big or small, lavish or lowly, beyond the obvious protection from the outside, it is so much more. Home seeps into your insides and stays there. There’s no place quite like it.