Marking my Territory

Ten months is a long time to be gone.  Saturday morning, after the family who rented our house had left, I pulled into our driveway.  It all seemed familiar, but I still felt as if I were entering someone else’s house.  Our lives had been emptied out of it, somehow, maybe taken to Goodwill with all our old clothes and books and belongings.  Or maybe the house simply looked too uncharacteristically neat and clean to really be ours.

I’m hopelessly sentimental about real estate, deeply convinced that houses have souls.  But, let’s face it: Houses don’t love you back.  Or if they do, they’re serial monogamists.  They’ll likely outlive you, welcome new people into their interiors, display new decors and personalities when change is wanted.  Why get emotionally enmeshed with an inanimate object?  Because you want to believe in stability and permanence, you want to believe you have an enduring place on this earth, rumors to the contrary.

We bought our house from an estate in 1997.  I can remember looking at this house, as I did others I liked over the years, with a kind of predatory interest.  I was younger then, and it never occurred to me that our  family’s entering a new era and place in our lives meant another family’s time in the place was over.  I would say the house itself was indifferent and neutral, but I don’t really believe that.  Again, I do believe houses have souls and memories linger and echo in them.  I’d always thought this was a house that was warm and inviting, that its former owners had been happy here.

“We had so much fun there,” a woman once told me.  She was the best friend of the daughter who’d grown up here in the bedroom that became our daughter’s.  “We had so many great times in this house.”

“I could feel that,” I told her.

Coming back after 10 months, everything felt strange, though.  Did I even belong here?  My husband wasn’t here yet, so I couldn’t ask him.

I took a shower, which seemed like a brazen act of ownership and territory.  Drying myself off, it occurred to me that women and men seem to mark their territory in very different ways; our way is certainly more hygienic.

And, by the way: I’d left New York and it was midnight.  Was I going to turn into a bumpkin?

Outside, I noticed the sky once again — that sky that had been overwhelmed and obscured by New York’s tall buildings.  Here, it’s a whole world unto itself; you can get lost in that great sky.  Here’s what Willa Cather wrote about that same Southwestern sky in Death Comes for the Archbishop (which I’ve finally got around to reading after being deterred by required high-school reading of Cather’s My Antonia):

“The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world.  The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was the brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud.  Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it.  Elsewhere, the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.  The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

So maybe I was wrong about the illusion of permanence and the objects I invested myself in.  Much as I love this house, it isn’t, “The house, the house!”  It really is “The sky, the sky!” that makes me feel most at home.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about what I shouldn’t have said at the top of my lungs

12 comments… add one
  • Welcome home, Ruth! Enjoy your sky, and getting to know your house again.

  • No doubt you’ll settle right back in and everything NYC will feel like a weird Yankee dream!

  • Welcome home! I relate – as a fellow wanderer. I thought this post was great. I love the part about a shower being a brazen act of marking your territory. It so is! As is the first meal cooked in the kitchen. It is hard to divide your life between places, and weird too when you see that you have moved onto a different stage of life.
    I also really relate to what you said about houses storing memories….it feels that way to me. We’ve just returned to the apartment where my young children played happily when they were very tiny (and where my third child was born, literally, in the bedroom), and it is so full of memories it’s unbelievable.

  • I feel that houses do have souls. We have attempted to sell ours – twice – but when it came down to actually doing it, I backed out both times. We raised our kids here and have so many wonderful, healing memories…and it’s hard to walk away. I’m with you (and Willa Cather, who is a joy to read) on the sky and its power. Beautifully said (by both of you!)

  • I’m terribly sentimental about houses. I cried when we left our rental house for the starter house. I cried when we left the starter house where we lived when my babies were born. And we got to know the owners of both houses we have owned a bit when we bought them and I have always kind of thought I’ve felt their vibes. My aunt lived in a house that had a lock on the outside of a bedroom door and scratches and marks all over the inside of the door and always felt uncomfortable in that house.

    It’s nice that you’re home again and hope you settle in soon!

  • Funny.  I spoke to a friend just yesterday who was moving out of her house.  I called on her cell and she said the car was pulling out of the driveway. She was leaving the house for the last time after 20 years. Emotion caught in her throat as she said that. I suggested calling back later.  I’ve been there, done that, and know these are times when one needs to be alone.

  • Cindy A Link

    About ten years ago, I drove by a trailer house dump where it looked like old mobile homes went to die. There was this blue and white striped one that looked exactly like the one I lived in from babyhood to third grade.  Just could not help myself.  I stopped, looked around to see if anyone was watching, and stepped inside. OMG, it WAS the home of my childhood, all beat up and thrown away.  I sat on the battered linoleum floor of the living room, stared up at the little space where the TV used to be, and relived watching Kennedy’s horse-drawn carriage take his body to the grave in 1963. Guess even mobile homes can have souls.

  • My home is the one my parents bought before I was born.  The three-bedroom house was built by a spinster woman, nearing retirement, for herself and her elderly mother.  But in less than a year she sold the property, having to relocate with her job during her last year before her retirement.  The house remained empty and on the market nine months prior to my parents’ purchase of it.  I’ve lived here all my life.  In my early childhood, the city limits were a block past this lot, with farmland and a silo beyond.  In the following decades I watched the town develop and expand miles beyond those earlier limits.   The red-brick silo remained, becoming a landmark at the grassy end of a neighborhood shopping center.  I started life on the eastern edge and now live in the geographic center of town without ever moving.  Most families in the neighborhood maintained the same homes through decades.  Slowly, playmates grew up and flew away.  Eventually their parents aged, stooped and returned to dust.  New people have replaced them.  They don’t linger in their yards nor do their children scamper the lawns as we once did.  But the silo and I remain friends.  We greet each other on my afternoon walks.  I wonder if that silo will miss me after I exit my front doorway for the last time– feet first.

  • Craig Link

    I used to think that I could lay down and just by looking at the clouds overhead tell you where I was, somewhat like your sky, your sky. But having tried that out in differing geographies I find, sadly, it’s not true. It’s all in the houses, streets, and alleyways of my mind I form these allegiances to place. I don’t like to admit it, and least of all to other Texans.  If we are not about place then what is we are about.
    It’s so nice  to have you back Dolly
    Winston- that was beautiful

  • Cindy A Link

    Winston — The most notable change since we were children is the freedom that children stopped having. My brother and I used to leave the house early in the morning and come back before dark. Now, if children were gone that long, they would send out an Amber alert.  So sad that fear is the most emphatic change between my childhood and my daughter’s.  Anyone reading this, if you haven’t seen Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” it totally explains American fear.  I still feel the fear, but now I know why.

  • I so know what you mean. When I go home to Sydney it’s the big sky that makes me wanna cry. I feel like things are shot in film in my hometown, versus video in my adopted country. It’s not just the sky: the trees, the birds, the smells…I know you know what I mean.

  • I know what you are saying about houses. Yet, at the same time, I think my house likes me best out of all of the people it has slept with… or had sleep in it. Welcome home. I think your house will love you back.

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