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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


Home, where my thought's escapin'

When we moved into our second house in South Orange more than 10 years ago, I started telling friends that when you buy a house it immediately belongs to you, but when you sell one, it remains yours long after the papers have been signed.

Because as much as I reveled in the space and additional bathrooms in the new place, a piece of my heart remained in the house we had left behind.

It was our first house, the home to which we brought our children, a broken-down old antique that required years of labor to bring back to life; we spent our first 15 months on the living room, scraping ancient wallpaper and patching 130-year-old plaster walls, finding someone who could replicate the failing plaster molding at the ceiling, and peeling paint off the intricate woodwork. We eventually redid every room and added a small mudroom and half bath, though nothing could really make it work for six.

Along the way, we found echoes of the lives that had been lived within its walls. Previous children had carved their initials into the wallpaper in a bedroom; someone had taken a Sharpie to the attic rafters. We unearthed faded photos in the recesses of the linen closet, and when we took the bathroom down to the studs, we discovered a bouquet of wildflowers wrapped in a newspaper from the 1870s. There also was a turtle shell. Whether the shell had gone in as we found it, or whether a pet turtle had crawled in and been lost to the dust of time, we would never know.

On the last afternoon, after the house had been emptied and everyone else had gone, I stayed to say goodbye and thank you, like bidding farewell to an old boyfriend, a shared life and love.  For a while we drove by the house at every opportunity; a child we carpooled to school once remarked that every time we passed, all of us turned our heads to take it in. I still dream of it. In the dream, we visit as a family, trespassing when the owners are out. Everything has changed and the new residents have found space I never knew existed.

I’m not sure I will ever feel as strongly about our current house, and yet there is no doubt that this is home. We have redone the kitchen and rid the halls of the peacock wallpaper. We have pulled out yards of carpet and taken sledgehammers to the bathrooms. Walls have been repainted; floors redone. The old couch the previous owners abandoned left sometime before our five-year anniversary. A school project forgotten in the garage found its way to a dumpster, and the gardening bench emblazoned with “Gayle’s Garden” got donated to a Turnover Sale.

The previous owners stopped by several times over the first couple of months: to pick up a fish they neglected to take; to ferry away a chandelier that meant something to them; to retrieve some mail.

The first few years I would gather their Christmas cards and pass them on. But that eventually ended.

One day, my husband, scrolling through LinkedIn, saw word of the wife’s death. I was unexpectedly moved. We’d had a few perfunctory conversations and exchanged several emails, years before. I knew her profession, little else.

And then, out checking the new growth on the peonies I planted the first year we were here, I caught a glimpse of the verdant stems of the daffodils Gayle had put in the ground. Her passion was bulbs and there are more of them every spring; in fact, just after the frost gives way our backyard is a carpet of purple, the progeny of some she planted years ago.

I don’t know how many times Gayle drove by, alert to every change, how often she dreamt of these rooms, if she ever looked to see if her daffodils were blooming. But I know I don’t really own this house, any more than she did. I get to occupy it for a while, to spend a chunk of my life in it. But I share it with her, and with all those who have taken, and will take, comfort in it; with all who have sat, and will sit, in the yard on a brilliant summer day, bathed in peace; with those who’ve glimpsed, and will glimpse, inside its lighted windows on a darkening winter eve and thought, and will think, “Home.”

Tia Swanson lives in South Orange and loves old houses, and the histories they hold within.


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