A few years ago, I fell in love with a house. It was just like love at first sight for a human being—the kind of instantaneous, unreasoning wallop that has reduced many a better writer than I to clichés. It caught me off guard; it took my breath away; it floored me.
I’d admired the house from afar for years. It sits well back from the road in a charming if overgrown garden just around the corner from my home. The pale yellow siding, low gabled roof, and riotous garlands of wisteria twining the balcony railing pegged it as a “homey house,” the kind I felt I’d like to know better if I ever got the chance.
My chance came when I saw by the driveway first a “for sale” sign, then a sign announcing an open house. I dragged my husband from his Sunday paper and my son from his play, and we walked around the corner to see the house.
A sign on the front door said in stern letters, “Do Not Open,” and directed all visitors to the kitchen door on the side. I climbed the few steps to the side porch, walked in the kitchen door, and started to cry.
I still don’t know why. The house simply opened its arms to me like a loving grandmother, and I laid my homesick head on her ample bosom and wept.
There was no logic at all behind this reaction. The house did not remind me of any of the places that felt like home to me in my youth—neither my grandmother’s shingled split-level with its wide lawn sloping down to the Chesapeake Bay, nor my great-aunts’ Victorian townhouse full of high ceilings and polished mahogany. Nor did it boast many of the features I’ve always considered mandatory in my dream house: where the fireplace should have been, an ugly gas heater squatted on the sealed brick hearth, and no tower or window seat was to be seen. Not only did the staircase not rise grandly from an open foyer, but the house had no foyer at all and the staircase was on the outside.
Further inspection and questioning revealed that the house—built in the twenties and never remodeled—had major structural problems as well. My husband and I lacked the time, talents, and resources to restore an old house; therefore, my dream home would come ready equipped with a good strong foundation under the weathered pine floors, computer-friendly wiring behind the plaster and beadboard walls, and capacious PVC pipes to feed a steady supply of hot water to the clawfoot tub.
But love is blind, and none of these drawbacks made any impression on my affection for the house, which only deepened as I moved from the airy, light-filled living room to the cozy den—just right for a writing room—and on into the warren of tiny rooms at the front of the house, where the precipitous slope of the floor provided a clear explanation for the “Do Not Open” sign on the front door. Upstairs, a blue-and-white bedroom nestled under one gable; I knew my then-twelve-year-old daughter, who could not be dragged from her book to accompany us, would feel just like Anne of Green Gables in that room.
Outside, my son capered across the wooden bridge that arched over the little brook and gazed longingly into the branches of the eminently climbable trees. Dotted about the yard were several tempting spots to linger with a spouse, friend, or good book for companion—one in a rose bower on the east side for coffee in the morning sun, another under the trees by the brook for tea in the afternoon shade.
I walked through the downstairs again, trying to memorize every detail. What was it that called “home” to me so strongly? Surely it had something to do with the deceased owners’ furniture and belongings that still filled the house, untouched. Would the kitchen have been so welcoming if the tall dresser that faced me as I walked in the door had not been filled with brightly colored Fiestaware pitchers and plates? Would the living and dining rooms have seemed so much my own if the ranks of built-in shelves had not been overflowing with gold-stamped hardcover books, if the sideboard had not held hand-tinted photos of the owners’ 1940s wedding in silver filigree frames, if the green nylon plush of the loveseat and chairs had not invited me to sit a spell and chat? I half expected at any moment to see the woman of the house come bustling in from the back porch with a basket of clean laundry, looking just like my Aunt Adee and asking me whether I’d like hot soup or a grilled bacon-and-cheese sandwich for lunch.
We lingered in the garden as other prospective buyers toured the house. I longed for Jedi or wizard-like powers to blind their eyes to the charm of the place, to let them see only the magnitude of the work it needed so they would go away unimpressed, and the ridiculously low offer that was all we could ever afford to make would have no competition. But whatever it was in that house that brought tears to my eyes seemed to affect others almost as strongly. The real estate agent broke gently the news that good offers had already begun to come in.
I sobbed all the way home—not in despair at knowing I could never own the house, but just because seeing it had shaken me to the core. The despair set in gradually over the next few weeks, as a real estate agent friend opened my eyes to the reality of the current market and the cost of restoration. The seller was reportedly impervious to any sentimental approach; my love for the house would not impress him. Not even the cleverest, most devious financing tricks would avail to make that house legally mine. At the end of a month, it was sold.
I pass the house several times a week, and I always check for signs of progress. My great fear was that the new owners would tear it down and rebuild, or gut the house and remodel it into a typical generic modern box. But so far very little seems to have happened. The external appearance of the house is unchanged. No construction crew has trampled the garden coming in to jack up the foundation or replace the roof. Either the new owners are willing to live with the house’s flaws, or they’ve perfected the art of stealth remodeling.
I’m mystified. And since I’ve never seen people there, only a car, I persist in thinking of it as “my house.” I’ve even named it: Wisteria Cottage—a homey, humble, welcoming name.
Perhaps someday the new owners will put the house on the market again, either untouched or restored with a fittingly reverent hand. By that time, perhaps the novel I’ve written, The Vestibule of Heaven—in which the house is not so much a setting as a character—will have become a bestseller, and I’ll have another opportunity to respond to “my” house’s imperious call.
But even if that never happens, I know now what I mean when I say the word “home.”