The first time I wrote about my childhood home was in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments in 2011. A year later, I saw the house for the first time since it was sold in the fall of 2004, five months after my mother died. It was occupied in 2012, but leased. The buyer who purchased it from my mother’s estate had moved away.
This month I saw it again -- once in late afternoon light, a second time in morning rain. Ten years after buying it, and making surprising, large structural changes in some parts of the property and almost no changes in others, the owner has put it on the market.
The lawn looked parched and the unoccupied house, lifeless. The 35 online photos posted by the realtor showcase an empty house where first floor period decorating has been cobbled together with a finished attic that looks like an Ikea ad. The only change that appeals to me is the use of a warm cocoa paint in the foyer, oddly similar to the original shade my mother chose for the entire downstairs in 1952.
The house that was so long Home to me was not a plantation house. No crops were grown in the subdivision. It was a make-believe post-war plantation house, one that incorporated white columns to suggest a storied past. Now it has that, and the stories are sad.
Yesterday I read Derek Walcott’s poem, “Ruins of a Great House.”
It seems that the original crops were limes, he writes, Grown in the silt that clogs the river’s skirt;/ The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone/The river flows, obliterating hurt.”
Decay overtakes institutions that were once powerful, in St. Lucia and in small towns in western Pennsylvania. My childhood home has not fallen into physical ruin, and its institutional power was limited to a small, nuclear family.
But there is some familiar sense of the tragic attached to that empty house. My parents’ dreams were the original crop, grown in fertile discontent and escapism.
The original house reflected my mother’s Southern roots, her fantasy attachment to a lifestyle she had never lived down home in Washington County, North Carolina. (Well, maybe there had been a few imperious rakes.)
The house is a clash of dreams: built to evoke plantation on three lots in the North; altered by its current owner to insert modernity where it seems least needed; designed and redesigned for hospitality, but uninhabited, ghostly, and a place you don’t go back to.