The House That Haunts Me
My mother’s drive-bys began even before mine.
Twelve years after my father died when I was sixteen years old, my mother remarried and moved into her new husband’s rambler on the other side of town. Shortly after this, she sold the house our family had lived in on Vernon Street for thirty years to “an unmarried woman, a lawyer, who works morning to evening. Why would she need a house the size of ours, just to sleep in all by herself?”
Mom’s updates came periodically, over lunch or at a family gathering.
“She’s not taking care of my flower beds.”
“The lawn is covered in dandelions.”
“All of my azaleas are dying.”
And finally, strangely, the one that seemed to hurt her the most. “She’s cut down the hickory tree. There’s just a hole torn in the yard where it used to be.”
That my mother would mourn the neglect of her azaleas made perfect sense. Those pink blossoms were her beloveds, her focus for decades of springs as my sister and I grew up beside them. But that she would grieve for the hickory was a surprise. Every autumn, hickory nuts and broken shells would rain down on our lawn, turning the grass into a rolling minefield of debris. My mother was out front constantly, armed with a rake. Coming home from school, I learned to lift my books above my head as I made my way to the front steps. It seemed to me that the squirrels waited in the branches above, ready to release the fusillade of hickory bombs that they clutched in hooked claws.
I had thought my mother loathed the hickory tree. But it seems that I was wrong. And after her description of its uprooting, I, too, drove over to the old neighborhood to witness the scene for myself. The lawn that had once seemed alive to me, moving constantly in a pattern of sunlight and shadow, now looked scorched and brown beneath unimpeded glare. The yard was unadorned. Ugly.
I soon learned that if I drove by at night, sometimes the blinds would be raised and I could see into the brightly lit rooms. Gone, of course, was the painting of a stone bridge arched across a stream that had hung over the sofa. The glass shelves of the curio-display windows by the fireplace were empty. The chandelier still gleamed from the ceiling, but what it shone down upon was hidden from view.
Only once in what became years of occasional stalking was I ever seen. Or, at least, perceived as a presence. A traveler from some other time. My car idled at the curb, and I had scooted into the passenger seat to get a better view, when a woman came to the window and peered out at me. It was twilight, and I could plainly see the white shape of her face, though I had to imagine the squinting of her eyes, the furrowing of her brow as she puzzled over the intentions of this menacing voyeur. Panicked, I scrambled to put the car in drive and took off. As I wheeled around the cul-de-sac, I looked again as I gunned toward the cross street. The woman was still there. And she was watching me.
That evening happened some twenty-eight years ago. But it was not the end of my forays into house-stalking. For many years, as I raised my daughters, my former home was no more than a ten-minute drive away. I found reasons to travel through that neighborhood on my way somewhere else. And sometimes I drove there deliberately, just to look, to remember.
One afternoon my younger daughter, Taryn, then a teenager, was with me and as I drove past, we noted a young man on the front steps, smoking a cigarette.
“Oh, my God. There’s someone outside,” I said, speeding up, making the requisite turn-around, feeling embarrassed and ready to flee.
Suddenly Taryn put her hand on my right arm and yelled, “Stop the car!”
Startled, I braked, and before I understood what was happening, she had stepped out, and was approaching the young man.
“Hi,” she called out to him—loudly, cheerily.
Taryn’s pretty face and long, blowing hair seemed to have struck him speechless.
“My mom grew up in this house,” she continued. “Do you think we could go in and take a look around?”
He said something I could not hear, and then Taryn turned, motioning wildly for me to join her.
He was friendly. Told us his name. He was one of several renting the house.
I could see a sliver of the living room through the screen door.
Taryn chatted with him, laughed her flirty laugh that had succeeded in mesmerizing other men before this one.
He shrugged. Said, “Sure. I guess. Why not?”
The first thing that struck me was how compressed everything looked. When I was a child, the house had seemed spacious, ample enough to contain the five lives that resided there. I had last stood in this living room when I was thirty years old, hardly a child. Had I not noticed its size because I saw it only as home, as a place that defied physical dimensions?
Awkwardly, I moved around the first floor, peering into my grandmother’s bedroom rather than actually entering it. It was someone else’s space now. The bed was unmade. There was a pair of crumpled jeans on the floor. An overflowing ashtray on the nightstand.
The kitchen was tiny. A narrow strip of appliances and counter space. And yet, somehow, my sister and I had eaten our Frosted Flakes every morning at a table near the window, while my mother darted back and forth, while my grandmother made tea, while my father read the newspaper at the breakfast bar. Into that kitchen sink I had tipped my long hair, my small body lying on the green counter, while my mother scrubbed at my head with Prell shampoo.
Our host tagged behind us. I longed to venture upstairs and into my old bedroom. I wanted also to descend into the basement to see if it remained as I remembered it: the long bar with its red leather stools, the wall of glass blocks, the red and black floor tiles. But it seemed presumptuous to further invade this private space. I thanked the young man and Taryn and I left and drove home.
As soon as we were outside, I regretted not being pushier. I might never get another
chance. But I wanted much more than to merely walk through it. I wanted to spend hours in it, alone. I wanted to explore every cranny. I wanted to wait in its silent air to discover if I was truly alone there, or if some vestige remained of those who had shared that house with me.
I considered that such a thought made me a crackpot. A wacko.
So be it, I finally decided. I can live with that.
I have wondered if my fixation with the house marks me as unusual. After I posted online about my obsession, dozens of friends shared their experiences, and I quickly saw that my feelings were not uncommon at all.
“Going back to my old town and street is like taking an intoxicant. A strong one,” Pam wrote. “And I’m never satisfied, even though I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
Jeff said that he often drives by his former home. “Sometimes I park the car and try to peek around the premises… It makes me sad to think of someone else living in my house. My sister once called me a stalker.”
Francesca and Rebecca have both been back into their childhood homes. Rebecca still travels by once a week, but her walkthrough when it was on the market left her philosophical: “It was different inside and out, but my grandmother will always be there.” Francesca is even more upbeat. She tells me she is always invited inside when she returns to her hometown. “It makes me happy,” she says, “to see a happy family in the house.”
Sometimes the feelings are new and raw. Mary Beth recently lost her father. Her mother had died years before. She and her brother were about to clear their house out and prepare it for sale. “I can’t tell you how much I dread it,” she confided. “The thought of it paralyzes me. The thought of someone else living there is even worse.”
All of these friends have something in common; they recall their childhoods fondly. But not everyone’s childhood is idyllic. “I avoid my childhood house like the plague,” Danielle said. “When I find myself in my old neighborhood, I drive past the street the way one might drive by a bloody train wreck, wondering if I have the steel to look at it.”
What is it that feeds my obsession with my former home? Is it really that Cape Cod with its dormer windows, its hidden closets in the eaves, its Art Deco touches, that I miss, or is it the people who lived there with me? Is it the sense of safety and happiness I felt there that I long to reclaim?
I am the last survivor of those beloved days. My father died when I was sixteen and my grandmother shortly after that. Decades later, my mother passed away. Within two years, my sister followed her. No one who lived in that house with me remains. If I want to remember it, if I don’t want those days to slip away, to blur, to disintegrate, there is no one to rely on but myself. I must fan the flames. I must resurrect all that I can.
A friend sent me a link to the house’s property records. I could see the names of all the previous owners. It was unclear, however, who the current owner might be.
That afternoon, I took a walk through my old neighborhood, and stopped to talk to a man gardening in the house next-door to mine.
“Excuse me,” I ventured, uncharacteristically bold. “Do you live here?”
He did. And he was quite friendly. He shared with me the name of the couple who currently owned my house. As soon as I got home, I found the wife’s name on Facebook, and sent off what I hoped was an engaging, disarming message. I included photographs of myself in the house, at various ages, so that she would know that my claim was legitimate.
Her reply was amiable, receptive. It was also startling. She revealed that her husband, who had lived in the house before they married, had found photographs of me that had been left behind. I was stunned and intrigued. Were these pictures that I had ever seen? How old was I at the time they were taken? Who else was in the photos?
I eagerly sent follow-up questions but received no further replies. Though I could see that she had read my messages, for some reason she didn’t respond. Had I offended her in some way? I reread my messages and found nothing objectionable. I knew that she had small children. Perhaps her silence meant nothing more than that she was busy and distracted.
The thought of those unseen photographs gnaws at me. Sometimes when I lie in bed at night, unable to sleep, I take a methodical “walk” through that house, room by room, remembering each piece of furniture and hidden corner. It helps to relax me – a kind of hypnosis. Now I have modified that tour with a quest. Where had those photos been found? I knew that my mother had gone over that house meticulously as she packed. What shelf or hidey-hole had she missed?
The more I think about the photos, the more mythic their proportions become. Perhaps they were hidden deliberately because they contained some secret? Maybe seeing them now would open a wellspring of memory in me that had been long buried.
If my imaginings are far-fetched, so be it. I have made peace with their implausibility. I know I am not alone in my flights of fancy and nostalgia.
A friend recently sent me a link to a music video on youtube. She told me my posts had made her think of it. I don’t follow country music, so I was unfamiliar with both singer and song. But Miranda Lambert’s video for “The House That Built Me” should have come with a warning label. I began crying in the opening seconds and continued through the entire song. A young woman in cowboy boots steps off a bus in front of an old house. When the owner answers her knock, she holds up a photo of herself as a child in that home. The remaining minutes feature her wandering room to room, opening doors, catching visions of herself as a young girl, images of her brother and parents.
Two lines stick with me: “If I could just come in, I swear I’ll leave/Won’t take nothing but a memory.” Would a one-time visit satisfy me? No one tags behind Miranda as she explores. If I could commune like that, uninterrupted, would it put my longing to rest? Perhaps. Especially if my family materialized before me as hers does. Is that what I seek? A visitation by ghosts? If I said yes, would that mean I was crazy? Or would it only mean I was bereft, lonely, and sad deep down to my bones?
Once my uncle visited us when I was a child. Mom set up a rollaway bed for him in the basement—our dark, windowless basement that never ceased to thrill my sister Terri and me with its creakings, rustlings and terrors. When he emerged the next morning, Mom asked if he had slept well. His eyes widened.
“No, I did not,” he said. “I had the distinct impression I was not alone.”
My mother laughed, but Terri and I exchanged knowing and meaningful glances.
After my grandmother died, my mother began sleeping in the now vacant bedroom. One morning she told me that as she was settling under the covers, she had seen my grandmother’s ghost. “She moved around the room, doing all the things she used to do before turning in for the night. And then she tried to get into the bed with me!”
The apparition had vanished when Mom turned on the light.
Before my sister died, before she had even been sick, she made a pact with me.
“Whichever one of us goes first,” she said, “if there is any way to come back and communicate, that person must haunt the other one.”
I laughed but promised I would. After Terri’s death, I waited for her to make good on her word. I listened into the darkness at night for her voice. I am still waiting.
I have dreamed about buying that home. My parents paid a mere $20,000 for it in 1955. According to estimates, the house is currently worth $800,000. I could probably find a way to afford it, but it would be financially unwise. Still, I have been curious whether there are people who have pulled it off—who have purchased their past – and what the experience has been like for them.
I posted my question on a local Facebook page and received dozens of responses. Most were just people saying that they, too, had dreamed of doing this. But a few shared experiences that gave me a lot to think about.
Karen’s story made me consider that my dream was possible. She had bought her childhood home and lived in it with her family for a year. “It brought me so much happiness when we all sat down to dinner together…It made me feel so close to my parents…I thought if it were possible for them to reach out to me, it was definitely going to happen there.”
I asked why they had only stayed a year. She explained that the house was tiny and that her large family was cramped there. Her husband felt “claustrophobic.” She still owns the house, however. “I dream about living out my retirement years in that little home. I will move back there someday ... And then I will be happy.”
Kenneth offered a different perspective. He told me that his family still owned his grandparents’ house, a home he had spent much of his childhood in. Other family members had lived in it, but now “the house stood empty.” When he was transferred back to that city, he decided to stay in it. But as he settled down to sleep that first night, he realized something was different.
“Although I knew quite well every fiber, brick, and board of the house, something had changed…I came to the sad realization that home wasn’t home anymore. The warmth that made that house a home was strangely absent now and I knew it… the heart of that home was those dear people who are no longer there.”
I imagine what it would be like to move back into the house on Vernon Street. To pull the covers up to my chin as I lie in my old bedroom, to wake to the remembered spill of sunlight through the windows. Perhaps the experience would draw me closer to those I have lost. And yet I consider also that their absence might feel even more profound to me within those walls that had once held us all. That what I might be buying was actually a life of regret.
But if someday, on one of my drive-bys, I see a “For Sale” sign in the yard, I am not sure that this realization will have the power to temper me. For now, impossibility keeps me from the quandary of having to decide. And perhaps impossibility is as good a place as any to live out the remainder of my days.
About the Author: Melanie McCabe is the author of His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, which won the University of New Orleans Press Lab Prize. She is also the author of two poetry collections: What The Neighbors Know and History of the Body. Her essays and poems have appeared in The Washington Post, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and many other journals.