Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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An era in the life of our family ended last fall, with no ritual of mourning, when a handful of $99,000 checks landed in my sister’s mailbox.
No, we didn’t win the lottery. The money came from a home that sold, one of those Gold Coast California houses that we all keep hearing so much about. And no, the profits are not being sunk into some glass-and-steel monstrosity in the San Juan Islands. Instead, what’s left after capital-gains tax will sit solidly (one hopes) in accounts with my mother’s name on them, paying her monthly expenses at a nursing home. (Her upkeep there costs twice what it takes to support my family of four, but that’s a whole other story.) The stroke struck a single devastating blow last Easter Sunday, and suddenly, strange to say, nobody was left to live in the house.
This was the house I grew up in, the only home I ever knew until I moved into a university dormitory and then embarked on the nomadic existence that has been my adult life. One home for the first half of my life, twenty for the second half; I don’t think that figure is unusual for my generation.
The house is old and barnlike, with ghosts that lurk by the lower fireplace, and six doors leading out to the yard. Frowzy straw pushes up between the bricks of the front walk, and when I was a child there was a towering eucalyptus on the back hill, the tallest thing around, where a great horned owl would come and hoot at twilight.
It’s true, the property has certain marketable points: there is space to stretch out in, woods to wander through, a view that looks out over the bay and Silicon Valley. But these did not translate into rarefied upper-class living back in 1955. My parents in that year couldn’t even manage a down payment, and they had no credit worth mentioning, so the whole $18,000 purchase price was owner-financed. Raccoons lived in the foundation, opossums in the furnace room, squirrels in the attic. This was not a hot item on the 1955 real estate market.
And yes, for those following the arithmetic, the house did indeed sell for thirty times what my father paid for it. Sound like a California dream come true?
When you have grown from infancy to adulthood in one home, you can close your eyes at any moment and effortlessly walk the familiar floors into every corner. The smell of each leaf, the light through a certain window, the sound of rain on the roof — there will never be another place you will know so intimately. The shape of the rooms becomes indistinguishable from the shape of one’s consciousness. I’m thirty-four years old, and that house and land are still the setting for half my dreams each night.
The pain that I struggle with seems itself to belong to an era that has largely passed. How can children growing up in a series of homes (as my own children are) comprehend this grief, or the relationship to the land from which it springs? Will it become something that only refugees feel, displaced native peoples?
But refugees are driven across the face of the land by the forces of war. What are the forces which have been brought to bear in my case? Who is responsible? California isn’t at war with anyone. When the costs of my mother’s round-the-clock care made it necessary to turn the house into numbers in a checkbook, the equation was simple. With whom could I argue?
My parents did what they were supposed to, paid their bills, bought their insurance. If this land, so solid and so tangible, could disappear from my life, then what faith am I to put now in the act of shepherding numbers which appear on some quarterly statement?
While I stayed alone in the house, for the first and only time in my life, supervising my mother’s initial hospitalization and listening to the silence, I made some vigorous excursions into denial: what if somehow we didn’t have to sell it? Maybe I could come back, set up housekeeping, transplant my mate and children from our ramshackle rented duplex in Seattle’s Central District. In my mind’s eye, I saw my daughters playing on the rope swing under the ancient oaks. I saw them climbing to the musty, warm attic with old pieces of curtain and rug, picking pomegranates in the meadow, catching lizards on the stone wall: the high points of my own childhood, of course; an irresistible vision. Not a used syringe anywhere for miles around.
The fantasy, however, always grows shaky as I approach the boundary lines of that shaggy acreage. How would my present-day family, with our artists’ penchant for a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, coexist with all the half-million-dollar neighbors of 1990? Could we wrap the property in a time warp, retreat into it, and be hermits?
The only people in that neighborhood who bought their houses for a sane amount of money are the ones of my parents’ generation, the Old Guard. Their children are grown and gone, many no doubt struggling to get hold of a house somewhere worth a quarter as much as the one they grew up in.
The New People have infiltrated, erecting designer homes on the wide, bright meadows; huge houses with curious angles, plate-glass windows, and professional landscaping. Children of these families are not likely to spend their days outside digging for salamanders and nailing up tree forts. I can’t quite see them sliding down hillsides (what hillsides are left, that is) on chunks of ripped cardboard. Come to think of it, the times I’ve been back to visit in recent years, I’ve never seen any children at all. They’re not out on the roads or in the fields, at any rate; I imagine the little ones are with nannies, the middle-sized ones are engaged in some sort of enrichment activity, and the teenagers are shopping.
It’s a curious transformation to be wrought upon a neighborhood; the disruption of a delicate social ecology by the encroachment of a class of people with more money. (Funny how the world never seemed delicate when I was a child; it was all solid as a rock back then.) Although we did not set out to do so, my family participated actively in gentrifying the neighborhood when we put our house up for sale. And in that puffed-up real estate market, it can’t exactly be said that we got the bad end of the deal. But — the big question of the nineties — are we all better off now than we were before?
There is some relationship between homelessness and the redefinition of home as a financial asset. It goes beyond the simple spectacle of a $4.25 minimum wage balanced against average house prices of (fill in this week’s number). In a larger sense, I wonder if we are becoming homeless as a culture. Not moneyless — certainly not that — or even houseless, but home and money don’t equate in the human soul just because they do on paper. Most of us can still afford to pay the rent or mortgage, but we can’t buy a sense of belonging. How many of us now have a true home, a place in which to put down roots? How many of us are even conscious of having “roots” to put down?
Without a definition of home that extends beyond financial planning and real estate trends, I doubt whether the swelling tide of fellow humans washed up for the night onto our doorsteps and hot-air grates will ever be stemmed.
In contrast to the ravenous conversational interest that I encounter regarding the gory financial details of housing, I find that it’s not quite socially acceptable even to mention the spirit of the land. Such talk sounds affected, or embarrassingly religious, as if one is trying to lay claim to a spirituality never meant for modern civilization. I do not deny that a few decades on one two-acre Bay Area lot make a pitifully shallow stand when placed beside the unimaginable loss of ancient peoples and their living earth. I am not a people; I am only one person, and this was my place.
The spirit of my land was not on the title deed. It was not for sale, Buyer, and you did not buy it. You bought only real estate with your half-million dollars, and when you raze the old house for a new one with three baths (as the realtors assured us you would), when you set loose your landscapers in the pungent bay laurel woods and put a swimming pool where the meadow used to be, you will never truly know the land. Without that, what remains?
Buyer, if you had looked with slow, keen eyes and a knowing heart, if you had earned it, I would have gladly passed into your keeping the spirit of the place. I would add to what I know of its hundred years’ lore the tales of our time there, the two in my family who died on the property, the Indian arrows my sister found under the house when she was a little girl (and the ghost that came with them), the trees who cared for me. The telling would be a great gift, something irrelevant to the marketplace, and the giving of it would ease my own loss.
But when you buy it for profit, for prestige, for tax write-offs (and what other reasons are possible in that neighborhood now?), the spirit of the land wanders orphaned. And I am so identified with the land myself that I don’t know what’s left of me after the sale either. How do I mourn? Where is the funeral rite?
My family has lost something that it had (no — it has lost something that it was). Like ice left out in the sun, my childhood home liquefied before my eyes into a puddle of cash. A money-wise friend likes to point out that I will someday be an “heiress,” albeit at a modest level. When the time comes, a check will arrive in the mail for me. What I want to know is, what am I to do with this piece of paper that used to be my home?