Walls absorb feelings. Beams, floorboards, layers of paint, all of it soaking up joy, grief, love, desperation—all the things felt by those living within. When these physical structures are disrupted, fractured, broken apart to discard and replace, those emotions disperse into the air like pulverized drywall and sawdust. You’ll feel them on your skin; breathe them in. It might be pain, or elation—feelings running the gamut from benign to severe, floating around in your home like displaced ghosts, until the place settles once again. Your life painting over another in modern hue. New fixtures to pour light and water energy, mixing with the energy left behind. All of this woven into a kinetic tapestry that is place. That is home.
I’ve always felt that what greets me when I enter my home, wherever it is, is more than just the feeling of being safe and sequestered from the trials of the outside world. It’s more than a comfortable chair and low lights and a favorite TV show. It’s more than the color I’ve painted my walls or the fabric I’ve chosen for the sofa. It’s us. The house is thick with us, the way your friends’ and families’ homes smell like them—their detergent and food and perfumes. It hits you the moment you step into their space, but your own smell—you don’t notice, and you can’t describe it until you’re gone from home for a long time.
I lived in the same house from the day I left the hospital, until the day I left home as an adult. A white house on a corner lot on the outskirts—the city population sign at the edge of our yard. The roof was red when I was small, later grey. One bedroom on the bottom floor, three up top. One bathroom right off the eat-in kitchen. An enclosed front porch that was too cold in in the winter; a side porch where we left our snowy boots, where the dog slept on frigid nights. An unfinished basement where the rock walls crumbled fine, sparkly dust. Wooden shelves stocked with ice-cream pails full of agates we collected from gravel pits in summer.
Up the stairwell to our bedrooms, the walls are painted the same lemon-yellow shade left by the college kids who moved out when my parents bought the house in the early 1970s, with a ten-dollar down payment. The paint flakes off in big chunks, revealing a Pepto-pink job underneath. The bannister is painted a dark brown and is made of something that feels like petrified wood, or cold metal. The spindles are unevenly spaced, so you can stick your small head through the opening between these two, but if you move one space over, your ears will catch and prevent you from pulling back out.
My room is first, then my brother’s, then the spare with green carpet and yellow walls. A closet in there holds Dad’s military suit and hat. Mom’s fringed suede jacket. A liquor box full of used but carefully folded wrapping paper, tags and bows. Dad’s signed photograph of Johnny and June Carter Cash on a USO tour. A box full of upholstery samples that make great Barbie Dream House rugs. Dad’s blaze orange hunting gear. A locked cabinet full of rifles and bows.
In this room, and my brother’s next to it, there are square holes in the floor, two feet wide and half a foot deep. Vents in the living room ceiling. We remove the heavy slatted covers that open and close with a sliding latch, and lower things down into the room below at the end of a length of kite string.
Outside stands an old white garage. The rafters drip with barn spiders. Too small for a car; the inside holds workbenches full of tools. Rusted coffee cans full of nails, screws, and bolts. A push mower, and Dad’s Italian Harley with the American flag sticker on the saddlebag. On a wall hangs his helmet—white with stripes down the center, and the one I wear—sparkling, electric, metallic blue. I ride in front of him, clutching the gas-cap. When we go around corners, we lean so much I can almost reach out and touch the ground.
My brother and I play H-O-R-S-E and around the world at the basketball hoop on the front of the garage. Later, it’s torn down and we find newspapers from the nineteen-teens stuffed inside cinder-blocks that make up the foundation. Mom and Dad and a team of men build a new garage at the end of the driveway, which is now paved. It holds our car. Our snow-blower, sleds, basketballs, bats and badminton net. My brother’s drum set. All summer long, we sit on plastic lawn-chairs in the open doorway with a radio on, holding cold cans of Pepsi.
As time goes on, the creaky little landing down to the basement will be rebuilt into a long, clean hall, with new carpet and doors. Furniture and wallpaper will move in and out. Televisions in cabinets will be replaced with larger tube versions with remote controls. Deep shag carpets will give way to shorter, cleaner weaves. The curtains in the kitchen move from pale yellow, trimmed with lace, to white with crawling green ivy. Out in the yard, old farm equipment is cleared away. The chicken coop is torn down. Rabbit hutches sit on the old foundation, then disappear too. Trees are cut down, new ones are planted. One patio made of alternating pink and grey bricks gives way to another of smooth cement. A Mexican chimney shows up. A wrought iron fence goes up and comes back down. A doghouse in the side yard, flanked by haybales in winter, moves away. The dog is buried in the garden, alongside many rabbits. The landscape changes. The hilly edges of the yard, once hemmed with white cross-beam fenceposts and barbed wire, where we dug up countless, dirt-crusted treasures, including a carved red Chinese snuff bottle, something we thought exotic but probably available at any dime store, are now smooth and borderless.
I move away, and return only a few times before the house is sold. It’s always been a busy corner, but traffic has become bothersome since the new school was built down the road. My parents buy a house in the country, among corn and soybean fields. The sounds I grew up with—cars and motorcycles in the night, snowmobiles across the lower-lot, are now replaced with frogs, and silence.
I’ve gone back two or three times—just to drive by, or once, sit parked in the empty driveway. It all looked so small. The tall oaks standing sentinel on either side of the driveway are long gone, as is the once giant white lilac bush out front. The trees Dad planted on the side of the house, once spindly and held upright with strings and pegs, have grown massive. The side porch has been completely removed. And the white horizontal siding has been replaced with vertical red, the greenish shutters giving the whole thing a gingerbread look. Zillow lists it for $158,000, though it’s not currently on the market. It was built in 1903, five years after the one I’m living in now. My whole childhood is there on that page, in that photo. The interior is unrecognizable. My throat gets tight and my eyes well with tears as I scan the pictures, and stare at that red house that should be white, with trees in front, and a black and yellow dog in the yard, and an old wooden garage off to the side and two kids hanging out the window, dangling a green plastic army guy attached to a parachute made of Dad’s red bandana. There should be a big tree in back with a tire swing and a birdhouse on a pole and a dirt driveway, the ruts full of mud and matchbox cars. The skeleton of an antique tractor should be rusting on the edge of the backyard.
This should be my house.
2125 Oak Grove Road Southwest, Saint Cloud, Minnesota, 56301.
But it’s not.
I don’t know what it is. Just a building. A structure. It’s just a photograph of a house that had families in it before us, and families after.
It was the home of the Spodens, who owned the local grocery store. It was the home of Felix and Sophie Klaverkamp, who haunted me on and off throughout my time there.
Someone by the name of Jennifer lived there shortly after my folks, but didn’t stay long. I have no idea who lives there now. Maybe there’s been other kids, other childhoods. It stopped being the Bonovsky fifteen years ago. That house was never just mine.
But if I could just go inside—
If I could touch the walls, I might feel us. With my palms against the Z-Bricked chimney in the living room, I might faintly hear the rumble of the furnace and smell the heat coming in through the vent under the coffee table where the record and 8-track players sat. With my ear against the bumpy cool wall of my bedroom, I might be able to still hear the train clacking on the tracks miles away.
I might feel twenty some years of my life, my brother’s life, my mother and father’s lives, pulsing inside like a live being. The seventies, eighties and nineties rushing through the rooms. I might see us scraping paint, peeling off wallpaper, stapling down shingles. I might see us lugging the big box of Christmas stuff down from the attic, laying down sleeping bags on the living room floor to sleep on hot nights with lightning streaking through the sky. I might see Legos and Lincoln Logs and Barbie Clothes strewn across the porch, smell Dad’s Chow-Mein cooking in the kitchen. I might see us bounding around the living room, whapping sofa pillows at each other while Johnny Cash played on the turntable. I might hear Crosby Stills and Nash harmonize Suite: Judy Blue Eyes while I soared on the wooden swing under the clothesline poles.
I might feel us—the us I knew before the us I know now. My family before my family now.
The house I live in now is up for sale. We’ve lived here five years. This is the house I brought my first and only baby home to. The only house he’s known.
When we move, will he remember the sage-green color of his bedroom walls? Will he remember having a whole room just for his toys alone? Running in circles from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen? Will he long for the sound of the thermostat clicking just before the furnace rumbles and kicks in? Will he miss the white wooden beams across the ceiling, the slight slope of the floors in the hall, the blue bathtub, the brass knocker on the front door, the pillared porch and the school-house roof? Will he remember anything?
He most likely won’t, or if he does, it won’t be with the sense of loss that I feel over my childhood home. Children adapt quick, and can move around with little trouble, especially before they start school. My husband moved something like nine times before he was eight years old, and since we’ve been together, we’ve lived in ten different places by my count.
I guess it’s good that we leave now. If we stayed too long, It would be even harder. As I walk around my house lately, getting it ready for showings and trying to see it through prospective buyer’s eyes, I touch the walls and feel our lives as a family steeped within. This was our first house, the only place my son has ever lived, and it’s become so saturated with us in five short years. I know when we leave here, I will drive by it and cry. The same way we drive past our old apartment on Champion Street, where we lived for six years—the place I called home for the first seven months of my pregnancy. Every place we’ve lived holds memories, and has a bit of nostalgia attached. The thought of leaving this home now, this house, triggers the largest and deepest blow my sentimental heart ever took—that of leaving my childhood home.
When I drive by houses at night, I look at their lighted windows. If they’re big enough, and I can see inside, I get a quick taste of that feeling—of home. Anyone’s home. It gives me comfort to think that someone else is wrapped in that feeling. I’ve become rather obsessed with houses, and dream about them frequently. Of the one in St. Cloud, the one here, and others I don’t know, or haven’t lived in yet. They are like people who have passed on but still visit me.
I wish I had gone back one more time. I wish I’d been there when they left—when they were tearing our old life out and plunking it down somewhere else. How much of my former life disintegrated in the process? How much was lost, and how much was left behind? I just want to stand in that house one more time. I know it’s changed. It’s not the same house, they’ve said. But if I could just touch the walls. Feel us, the us that came before, one more time.
I know it’s still there.
Below are images of the strongest memories I have attached to my house.
An antique tractor, the red snuff bottle, white lilacs, and the house itself.