I Used to Know This House

posted in: Family Ties, Nostalgia | 41

Last week, my grandparents’ old house went on the market. It has been inhabited by another family for almost twenty years now, yet every time I drive by it, I still think of it as Grandma and Grandpa’s house…despite the many renovations. My mom, my aunt and I decided to go to the open house, to see what had changed and what had stayed the same. And perhaps just to be there one last time, now that my Grandpa is gone and my Grandma is mostly lost within her own mind. The following is my reflection on that experience.

As I turned the familiar door knob, I could almost picture the sign on the door that said, “Back Door Guests Are Best.” It was the exact same door knob that squeaked a bit. The one I had turned so many times before. The one that opened up to the small galley kitchen, the sound of KMOX talk radio, the smell of Virginia Slims, and the sight of Grandma drinking her instant coffee or Grandpa reading the paper. But this time, the door opened up to a scene totally unfamiliar to me.

The “cookie drawer,” filled with wafers and devil’s food and rogue pretzel sticks for the taking as soon as you walked in, was no longer there. Neither was the rest of the kitchen as I had known it. Instead, a wall had been knocked down to make way for a rather grand culinary room…one with space enough to have kept Grandma from shooing us out of the kitchen when we all inevitably ended up in there during family gatherings.

While the new kitchen was beautiful, the disconnect troubled me. Standing just inside the back door that had seemed so familiar and real, I felt the old kitchen, yet it wasn’t there. Like an amputee who can still feel her leg itching after it is gone.

Santa always put candy, pens and scotch tape in Grandma's stocking. I've never had an adequate supply of tape since Santa stopped visiting Grandma's house.
Santa always put candy, pens and scotch tape in Grandma’s stocking. I’ve never had an adequate supply of tape since Santa stopped visiting Grandma’s house.

My memory did not have to work so hard upon walking into the dining and living rooms. Though a little paint and paneling did some transforming, the two rooms felt essentially unchanged. Our family could have easily sat around the table for some Turkey Tetrazzini or gathered to open presents on Christmas Eve without feeling as though much time had passed.

And the staircase…with the same wobbly banister. The one Grandpa descended every Halloween, wearing the rubber mask of a crotchety old man biting a cigar, terrifying us grandkids as we sifted through our candy hauls in the living room. The one I used to run up upon arrival, to greet the pair who often sat in their respective recliners in the master bedroom, excited to show them a good report card or tell them about my latest soccer game. Funny…these other people had somehow managed to take the creak out of the third step from the top.

They also managed to make the entire top floor unrecognizable to me. Between the addition and the repurposing of existing rooms, I struggled to feel my childhood lived among the comfort that used to be here. Spending the night in the room that had once belonged to my mother and my aunt…now a bathroom. Feeling the silky softness of Grandma’s stockings as they hung to dry in the bathroom…now a storage closet. Creeping into the dark, cave-like office and watching Grandpa pay bills, the sound of his adding machine clicking away to the beat of Nat King Cole…now a bedroom with blinding track lighting. And that spot, in their recliners, where we could almost always find Grandma and Grandpa watching Jeopardy or Murder She Wrote…where we would tell them about our day…where Grandma would tie a perfect bow in the back of our dresses…where I interviewed Grandpa about his time in World War II and saw him cry as he retold the heroic death of a fellow soldier…where they told us over and over again that they were proud of us or loved us…now, a laundry room.

A whole life had been completely erased. These two people who used to live and breathe and love and fight and clean and clutter could not be found anywhere. Like they had never existed. It was enough to completely break my heart in two. And in many ways, it did.

But then the basement made it whole again.

I will look after you and I will look (1)Perhaps the part of the house most unattractive to potential buyers, due to its lack of updates, was the part I cherished most.The basement was where my eyes welled up with the sadness that can only come from being in the exact place that made you so happy once upon a time, knowing it hasn’t changed, but you have. In this particular space, my mind did not need to recreate the vision of what this house used to be, because there it was. There was the corner where the television sat, the one I used to watch Nickelodeon and MTV on, since we didn’t have cable at my house. And there was the built-in bookcase the fugitive squirrel ran up, scaring the begeezus out of me and my sister. And where the couch was, the one the fugitive squirrel burrowed into and died in. And there was the bar we always played behind with the same ancient sink. And the spot for the air hockey table that yelled “Good shot!” whenever you scored a goal. And the same banister my cousin Julie got her head stuck in. It was all there. It was just missing my family…and a couple of swirly bar stools, “his” and “hers” rocking chairs, a few hundred Irish trinkets, and things like forty-cup coffee pots and serving platters, given to Grandma and Grandpa by people named Mary Kay and Crazy Betty, jammed onto the storage shelves.

I wondered if I was motionless enough, maybe I could transport myself back. Maybe I could will Grandma and Grandpa to come down those stairs one last time. Maybe the current owner would let me stay here just a little while longer…

But it wasn’t my house to stay in anymore. It actually never was my house, but it felt like home every time I walked through the breezeway and opened the back door. Because after all, it was made crystal clear by my grandparents that “back door guests are best.”

Customers who like this blog also follow me on Facebook, Twitter (@RYouFinishedYet), Instagram (ryoufinishedyet), and Pinterest.

41 Responses

  1. Several years ago, I drove by the house I grew up in and felt punched in the gut when I saw how the current owners let the place go. My parents took meticulous care of that house and now it’s an eyesore among the others on the block. Sometimes, going back home in your memory is better than seeing the physical space transformed.

    By the way, we had an air hockey game in our basement too and I can still hear my brother and his friends yelling “Score!” from down there.

    • That is so sad to hear…to see a place you loved fall into disrepair. Fortunately, the people who bought my grandparents did take very good care of it…it just doesn’t look so much like their house anymore. I am grateful that it seemed another family had made many wonderful memories there, because life does go on.

      And you’re right, our memories are often so much better than the real thing. I hope you have many happy ones of your childhood home.

  2. Thank you for the trip down my own memory lane. As you wrote about your experiences, I took a parallel trip in my own grandparents house. Bittersweet for sure. I sometimes dream about them, and being in their house.

  3. Wow you expressed your feelings so vividly that I imagined my own grandmother’s cookie hideaway place… A house holds so many memories… Thanks for sharing

  4. Oh, I groaned when I read the first sentence of your post, because I knew what was coming, and I was right. How deeply you evoked the sense of love and belonging that remains where loved ones have gathered through the years. And what bittersweet feelings I experienced as a new grandmother reading about all the wonders of your grandparents home. Why must everything change?
    Currently the home where my maiden and bachelor great aunts and uncles lived is on the market for much more than they ever could have dreamed of paying. I saw the ad for the open house but couldn’t bring myself to go. I was afraid I would burst out with remarks like ,”No! This is where the telephone table with the reindeer lamp is supposed to go!” Or, who pulled down the wall in Aunt May’s bedroom?” I decided to stick with my memories, unsullied. Marvelous post.

    • So funny you say that about the phone table, because one if the things that made me so sad was that they had walled over the little enclave shelf where my grandparents kept their phone in the hallway. That was the phone where I found out I had a new baby sister. And I always loved that little enclave. It seemed so special for some reason. So yes, parts of the experience were upsetting. And it is the worst feeling to know all the life that used to be there, and now it’s all just gone. At the same time, I would do it all over again for those few things that brought me right back. The back door, the basement…and the garage. I didn’t write about it (my internal editor told me I needed not go on and on as I had wanted to), but the garage was much the same as well, and even smelled the same. I was overwhelmed with emotion because I could suddenly feel my grandpa, who was always puttering around in the garage, getting tools for yard work. I miss him so very much, and I need that little moment.

      And yes, one day your grandchildren will feel this way about your home. I am pretty certain of that 🙂

    • And p.s. I always adore your comments.

  5. Absolutely, positively my favorite blog EVER and I am sure it always will be!! Thanks for taking me back!! <3 <3 <3

  6. I’ve never had a chance to go back into a house where I used to live. I wonder what it would be like.

    • Weird. I can tell you that for certain. Regardless of if it would be a good or bad experience, it would be weird either way. In so many ways, the house still felt like “mine,” yet I had absolutely no claim over it. Overall, unless you are the kind of person who is immensely bothered by change, I think it is a worthwhile thing to do if you ever get the chance.

  7. Anne Nestor Blind

    Thanks for putting into words how I felt! That kitchen door… With my bedroom (Now a bathroom 🙁 )being directly above that spot I can still hear when Ed would come in at night – Door opens, keys thrown on counter,shoes kicked off with a thud and cookie drawer opened… every single time! Not only could I see in my mind all the memories and special times I could actually hear conversations of all those family memories – so many memories and feelings. The house wan’t the same but at least I am glad the family made their own memories there even though – “They ruined my house!”

    • And hopefully now a whole new family will make wonderful memories there too. And I totally thought of Ed coming in and going straight for the “nana cookies”…and Mike with the pretzel sticks, with ketchup, of course 🙂

  8. This is so sad. I have tears on my face. I know this feeling. Thank you for the softening of my heart. Great writing.

  9. What a beautiful, moving blog post.

  10. that’s so poignant. you are brave to visit the house… braver to right about it from your heart! wonderful post.

  11. You did it again! Loved this so very much!!!

  12. Elizabeth R

    My mom finally sold the house I lived in from age 17-24 after my dad died and a lot of reconstruction for selling. This article totally gets my feeling of the last walk through in the last place I saw my dad, the home I lived in for years….but by then it wasn’t my home. If I hadn’t seen the outside I’d have had to to really think about where I was when I was inside. It’s like the uncanny valley but for structures. I know I used to know you….but you really aren’t mine anymore.
    But houses are just walls and roofs. It’s the memories you can take with you that matter. And that probably sounds incredibly cheesy, but repeating it over and over is how I’ve gotten through the past few months. <3

    • “I know I used to know you…but you really aren’t mine anymore.” Beautifully put. I am so sorry about your dad, and it makes sense that you want to hold onto the last place you saw him. My grandpa has been gone for over seven years now, and though they lived in two other places after this particular house, this is where my memory of him lives most strongly. Sometimes you just need to be in the place where you were together. But thankfully, our memories don’t have boundaries. Prayers for you and your family.

  13. Great post! It’s definitely a sad experience to see all the changes done to a house. I recently toured the house I grew up in, and surprisingly, there were NO changes! Even the hideous wallpaper that my mom hung in the early 90’s (that probably wasn’t in style then either), was still stuck to the walls. I held myself together walking through, but cried coming out.

    • Aw, that is remarkable in this day and age to have had nothing done to the house. I kind of love that, even though I am the queen of redecorating 🙂 I bet that was certainly an emotional experience.

  14. This post struck a chord. My dad died in August (Mom bought her rainbow 15 years ago), so now my siblings and I are dealing with The House. Since I live on the East Coast and the house is on the West, they’re doing most of the work preparing it for the estate sale next month before putting it on the market. It makes us sick to sell off our parents worldly goods, but none of us have space for china, silverware, the cabinetry, furniture, etc. My sister made sure to save all the photos and we’re going to have the home movies converted to digital. In the cleaning out, she found an afghan that my grandmother crocheted for me 45 years ago with a note written by my mom. It was put away in a chest and forgotten until my sister discovered it. I’m visiting in a few weeks to go through everything again with her. It will likely be the last time I will ever set foot in the place I knew as home. That house was like a museum of our lives. Even across country, seeing this place that I have not lived in in 32 years go on sale is very heavy emotionally. It drives home the fact that we’re orphans and it’s a reminder that the only thing constant in life is change. I know that I’m lucky to have so many treasured memories.

    • Museum of our lives. Yes. I am so sorry about your dad. I think I remember you writing about him? Yes? I am sure going back there one last time will be so emotional and hard…but how nice to know you have a little gift “from beyond” waiting for you. Good luck with everything.

  15. And this is why place matters. Historic preservation isn’t about just saving the best of the most architecturally significant buildings–it’s about people’s stories and their shared histories–the places that give us a sense of belonging and community.

    Less than a year after I sold my house the new owner let me tour it. It looked beautiful–much like the way I always envisioned but never experienced. But this new owner couldn’t know that I was picturing my mom in her hospice bed in her now lovely living room with newly refinished floors. Just as I couldn’t know the 80 years of prior history–people’s stories–it held before my residence there.

    I love how being in a space can immediately bring to mind hidden memories–much like a scent can. And I love this!

    • I knew you would have something amazing to say about this 🙂 Whenever I am in an old building, I always try to imagine the hidden stories it holds. And I love that the new owner of you house transformed it in a way that made you happy, but that also allowed you honor the past you had had in it.

  16. As sad as this makes me in many ways, it also makes me pretty hungry. As you know, I WANTS that tetrazzini, Kelly. It would go with our beer, right? Tell me it would. OK though, for real, nice post. I feel your pain … but loved this 🙂

    • So funny because I went back and reread that tetrazzini post and your comment about wanting it at 7am! And it would totally go with our beer. It’s a date. Turkey Tet and a frosty ale.

  17. That definitely brought the tears! Wish I could have gone with you guys. I so wish to be back in that house with Grandma and Grandpa so often. So many great memories. Regardless I feel like I will always remember every detail of that house not matter how much it changes. I think this is my favorite one yet!

    • You and mom 🙂 Wish you could have been there too. But the memories are the only things we can take with us yesterday. And it’s probably better you didn’t see the laundry room where G & G uses to sit…

  18. This is so beautiful and bittersweet. I know that feeling of wanting to see things that prove it all happened just the way we remember and being left with only memories instead. It’s like the energy of the past remains in the physical and we want to hold onto it for a little longer. And if the house had remained exactly the same (and if you’re anything like me), you probably would’ve enjoyed your walk down memory lane then said, “I sure hope the new owners renovate this dump.” 🙂

    • So true. The new owners didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t have done…or that we HAVE done to both houses we have owned. It was an old house that needed updating. I totally can’t fault them for that. And I knew going into it it would be different. It was obvious from the outside they had done extensive renovations. Which is why I was so tickled when I saw they had kept the original back door, door know included) and had barely touched the basement. So I guess it was a win for everyone.

  19. I’m crying. Seriously. My grandparent’s home sold a few years ago after my grandfather passed away and my grandmother moved in with my parents (before passing away shortly thereafter).
    While I was growing up, their home had flocked wallpaper, scalloped tile, wood paneling, the whole gamut. I knew, of course, it would change with the new owners (and even before then to get it ready for sale), and luckily I never saw it. Before anything was updated, I went through the house and took pictures of everything I could to savor the memories. I can still picture every room in my mind, with the beautiful details only my family could understand and love.
    When my husband and I moved into our current home, we were “those people” who took over a house that had been a home for 20+ years to the previous owners. We tore out the bathrooms, the carpet, repainted, took down walls, etc. I knew I was doing exactly what anyone would have done to my grandparent’s home, and I felt bad doing it. But I knew it had to be done on both sides – to my grandparent’s home and to our new home.
    Change is sometimes a sad reality of life. But luckily there are memories and photographs to keep close what I hold so dear (and hopefully you have the same!).
    Thank you for sharing this story. 🙂

    • So many happy memories 🙂 And you are right…the people who bought my grandparents’ house didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t do…or that we have done ourselves to the houses we have lived in. But I love how you bring up those “beautiful details only my family could love and understand.” That was just perfect.

  20. […] “I Used to Know This House” (October 2014): A reflection on my recent visit to the home that used to belong to my grandparents, and how I was affected by what had changed, and what had remained the same. […]

I'm Listening...Really.