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