The place where old voices linger
By Deborah Salomon
Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again, virtually, at least. Beware: The journey may be enlightening or sad, affirming or bittersweet.
I have lived under 12 roofs — apartments, duplexes, condos, houses — in 80 years. Each represented a life sequence although, at the time, you only think about the stairs, stoves and bathtubs. Google makes homecoming easier because should the property be for sale, chances are the real estate agent will post a slide show.
I discovered this 10 years ago, after moving back to Asheville, where I lived as a teen in a house my parents occupied almost 40 years. The first buyer renovated and flipped it after my mother moved to a senior residence. It was for sale again. After poring over the photos I asked the agent for a walk-through, which I anticipated, naively, would be like a mother-child reunion.
This house in a very ordinary neighborhood was constructed entirely of stone in 1947 by a builder, for his own family. Poor guy knew more about materials than layout. A hopeless kitchen, tiny dining room, oversize living room, two main-floor bedrooms, two more upstairs plus two vaguely art deco black-and-white tiled bathrooms. The house was empty, with gleaming original hardwood throughout and ridiculously ornate crown moldings added later. Wall colors — bright and hard, unlike the soft green and rose of the ’50s — smacked of too much makeup on an aging beauty. I cringed seeing the mantel painted, ugh, black. Without drapes the huge picture window was a gaping wound in the living room wall.
Once inside the heavy front door, voices long ago absorbed by the walls came seeping out: my mother’s voice, complaining about the cramped kitchen, now gleaming stainless, more like a hospital OR than a place to simmer beef stew. Gone was the wall separating it from the tiny dining room. I heard my father insisting that because the house was made of stone we didn’t need window air conditioners. He deemed “cross ventilation” sufficient. So we suffered.
The basement became his castle, housing a workshop where he made and fixed everything. I had forgotten the tiny, windowless basement bathroom, my introduction to segregation. The African-American man who did “heavy cleaning” for my mother insisted on using that bathroom to change from the clothes he wore to work at the V.A. hospital. Leroy ate his sandwich in the basement, too, although we invited him to eat with us. I always took him a cold Coke, in a bottle.
The massive oak which dominated the backyard — gone, replaced by a fire pit and meditation garden, whatever that is. The flagstone patio added under the critical eye of my grandfather, a retired brick mason, had been roofed over — now “an Italianate veranda.” I could almost hear Granddaddy shuffling along the back hall, where the carpet runners (with a hideous “carved” pattern) had been removed, lest he trip and fall.
At the top of the stairs was a sewing closet. My mother rarely fired up the Singer but my father, in search of a project, had built slanted shelves fitted with little spindles, to hold thread spools. How was the Realtor to know? “Custom carpentry,” she called them.
The upstairs was mine (an only child’s perk) until I left for university. Then it became an apartment with kitchen, sitting room, bath and bedroom but no separate entrance. That lasted one tenant, a cranky old lady who was either too hot or too cold. I peeked into the storage room under the eaves which had a window facing the street — and shuddered. My mother insisted I go on a blind date with the son of a college classmate. From that window I watched him get out of the car and approach the front door. In an absolute panic, I ran downstairs, told my mother no way, dashed into the bathroom and locked the door.
Now, for the last time, I looked through the window and laughed, a laugh that echoed through empty rooms painted garish colors.
A lot transpired in that house. My grandfather died in the back bedroom. I graduated from high school, college and married from there. I brought my three wiggly kids who made a terrible mess. When my daughter was at Duke she sometimes appeared for the weekend, unannounced, with her big dog and a boyfriend. I watched the furniture and household goods carried away at the tag sale — all except my father’s tools, which I gave to Leroy, who had admired them for 30 years of basement lunch breaks.
Why pretend? Angst outweighed nostalgia as I walked through the empty, pristine rooms. Mine was not a storybook youth. But it was my youth. Beginning in 1953, this youth played out in my father’s pride, something the sixth son of a desperately poor immigrant family never dreamed of owning — a solid, attractive, comfortable home. And now, except for the spool spindles and a few glass doorknobs, that house had been washed clean of his presence.
I found an apartment and two more houses online but have no desire to follow up. Because, I learned, only the house remains, not the home.
So maybe Thomas Wolfe was right, after all. PS
Deborah Salomon is a staff writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at email@example.com.