What stories would they tell?
Our daughter’s friend Shelly, who has been living with us since the spring, just moved along to college! She packed up her life in 9 hours. She’s taking some things to her mom’s place in Haverhill and others to her college residence near Boston.
Outside in the twilight, skyping by phone from Ipswich to Italy for a long distance BFF college good-bye between Shelly and Sarah.
She wanted us to see how tidy it all looked: boxes, bins and suitcases, zippered and capped, stuffed with her paraphernalia, organized into different piles depending on their destination. Then she carried down load after load of belongings. Filled a truck. She’s gone and the room is empty. Last night the street outside was filled with final hugs and reluctant good-byes.
We remain behind, as our children leave. Empty nesters? Us?
Well, there’s one empty room in our house, anyway. It has been home to several girls. It’s the same bright blue room that was once Jessie’s. (Jessie chose its colors back in 2005, when we were just moving in, right before she relapsed with leukemia for the first time.) Later it was the bedroom for two beloved Rotary exchange student host-daughters: Tina Danila from Belgium and Chicca Tizzoni from Italy. In between, it has often served as a guest room for family and friends.
Now it’s plain. Bare of any evidence of its latest occupant. Shelly’s “personality” drove away in a borrowed pickup truck … it used to be spilling off her corkboard covered in favorite mementos, a bright striped bedspread, the sprawl of her adolescent clothes and shoes and books. Now there’s silence where her music played and her voice rose and fell.
It’s a room that has known a series of comings and goings. Even when Jessie was alive, she only stayed there part of the time, because much of her life was also spent inside the hospital. We always had a suitcase handy, and the room was often the recipient of random bags stuffed with the evidence of her re-entry to home life, bringing along the detritus of hospital stays (craft projects, medical items, etc).
Over time, we have moved Jessie’s memorabilia to other parts of the house, and allowed the blue room to be a blank canvas for more recent occupants. So when they move out, it’s quite sparse.
Sarah’s room, on the other hand, is only temporarily empty of her presence. It remains filled with her “stuff.” She’s coming and going all the time. She’ll be back next week with suitcases and souvenirs from her cultural exchange in Italy. A week later, she’ll pack up and head out to her first semester in college.
In many ways, Sarah’s room won’t change drastically. We expect her to come and go for years, back home on many holidays and school breaks, using the house as her operating base, even when she’s always on the go. She can safely leave behind her overflow of gear and childhood belongings, and take only what she needs for a dorm room and college life.
For a glorious few months this summer, Sarah’s and Shelly’s friends, along with our exchange student Chicca, filled our house with their clutter, debris, noise and life. We loved it.
They made messes. Built bonfires in the back yard. Slept over in sleeping bags, in small groupings, unable to let go of each other. Generated odors from gym shoes and wet swimming gear. Cooked food for each other. Burned some of it. Moved furniture. Used computers. Ate all the snacks we put into the cupboards. Made noise late at night and early in the morning with their comings and goings. Played a concert of sounds in the house with slammed doors, shouts, chuckles, thumping footsteps on the stairs and in the hall.
They filled the house. And it’s meant to be this lively. To contain this much commotion. It’s spacious and old enough to welcome all of their activity, and not be more scarred for the experience.
I admit it. It’s lonely without all of them, even if it’s nice to have some privacy again.
Chris and I will stay here, while the girls are launched to their different destinations. Oh, the abrupt contrast between all those 18-year-olds, some so tall they had to duck to walk between rooms, filling up the space with their summer busy-ness before setting off for new adventures, and the current quiet.
The house feels too big now. In other ways, it feels as if our own lives are shrinking. Getting a little more hollow. Requiring less space … a smaller footprint.
Maybe that’s not true, but it’s part of how we experience the transition. It’s a natural and honest feeling from parents letting go.
Our house as painted by Miranda Updike in 2006.
In our town, our house is 130 years younger than the oldest homes. In other words, it was built c. 1770, but the oldest-standing residences in town go back to the 1640s.
Anyway, even if it’s only 230 years old, it’s seen a lot of life. Generations have been born, married, left home, returned and grown old within its walls.
Wherever you look, the house is full of stories of centuries of town life. It’s been a single home, it’s been wartime apartments, it’s been worker housing, it’s been multiple units with separate entrances of shared spaces, it’s been a combined doctor’s office and home, and probably seen many other configurations along the way.
It had two additions added in the early 1800s, so there are three chimneys and a total of nine hearths. The remnants of others, such as the large kitchen hearth, were largely removed during later construction along the back of the house, but nine fireplaces is plenty. Lots of cooking and warming of cold hands and feet must have taken place at these hearths.
Though its bones are solid, and were once built square and true, they have long since settled. Floors rise and fall, and some are thin enough to buckle or pitch with changes in the seasons. Walls tilt. Ceilings slope. Doors creak and latch with old cast iron hardware, but swing open mysteriously of their own accord (we often tease that Jessie is visiting, but then again, we mean it, too).
Every room and story has different details, as they have been altered over time for different uses. Soft or hardwood floors, plaster or panel walls, plaster or strap and tile ceilings, wooden trim (or not). Fireplaces are much-changed: none their original size, since all were made shallower. Chimneys lean, bricks curve unnaturally, and a few are missing.
When you leave the light on in the basement, you can see it shine up through cracks between the wide ancient wooden boards on the first floor. Some stairs lead to nowhere, or turn aside abruptly. Wallpapered rooms are still tucked up under the attic eaves, probably the former too-hot, too-cold territory of servants, household workers, or poor relatives (just guessing). Some doors don’t have a purpose anymore. Closets and cupboards were tucked into odd niches around the leftover space of the chimneys. Some rooms have been kitchens, later converted back into bedrooms or other spaces, but they retain leftover sinks, wiring or stove holes.
Despite centuries of use, we don’t think our house is haunted. Unless you consider Jessie’s visits to be that, and it doesn’t feel that way to us. She’s a lively, active presence, not a ghostly one. We never detected any other activities or presences before hers.
Like every other generation who has lived here, we have put the house to work and made it as useful as possible to us. Once upon a time, some of the rooms were used as classrooms and medical staging areas for Jessie, since she couldn’t always attend school. Some rooms have been (or remain) offices. This year, we added an accessory apartment downstairs, by restoring a wall that had been removed in the kitchen with some better plumbing and restoration of kitchen fixtures (granted through approval by the zoning board of appeals — ZBA — as a permissible use). We have a friend completing work on it. Eventually it will produce some rental income to help with college expenses.
Since our needs have changed, the house is changing with us. Sarah will continue to come and go. When she’s home, maybe her friends will land here, too. So the noise and activity level will continue to ebb and flow for a few more years. But in many ways, a long-term change in our lifestyle is setting in.
We’re (almost) empty-nesters. Aaaahhhhh!
Phew. At least we have friends from England coming to stay in October. They’ll roost in Jessie’s blue room. They’ve stayed here before, contributing their adventures to the collection of intangible experiences that fill our house.
Our family stories are being added to centuries of life that have animated this swaybacked antique house. We’re part of its old bones and skin. We’re part of its memory.
And it is part of ours.