Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Home Without a House

I grew up in the suburbs in a big white house. My parents were city kids. Most of their lives were spent on grassless streets, in laundromats and staying inside on Halloween. They moved for us. And as a first-generation suburbanite, it was my birthright to ignore the sacrifices they made to afford our comfortable home. I climbed trees, collected fireflies and worked at the mall. I was safe and lucky and oblivious.

I neglected to understand what our house represented for our family, but I still deeply appreciated living there. I am a stalwart homebody. A continuous theme in my young life was that when I went away—either for the weekend or to college—I would miss the house. Not always the people in it, but the house itself; the sun that hit the floor behind the living room couch, the velvety moss covered stones lining the driveway, the cold attic treasures. All of it.

My friends laughed at me for this. No one admires a homebody, it’s the opposite of cool. But it’s something I have always been sure of, even when I wasn’t sure I was sure of anything. I knew I loved being in that house.

Until I didn’t. After a brief period of moving back in with my parents after college, I had to get out. The feeling was fiery red. It was time.

My brother helped me drive my belongings to my first apartment in the city.

The hot and cold water were on backwards in the kitchen sink. I can’t say I never saw a roach. The toilet leaked. The super never arrived when he said he would. It was unbearably hot in the summer.

I had regressed. I was back where they came from. Was I supposed to repeat this pattern? This is not what I pictured for myself. Its also not what they pictured for me. My very old-fashioned father refused to visit me. He didn’t want to see me like that. Stripped of everything he wanted for me; my privilege dismembered.

This March will mark ten years that I have lived in the same apartment. The apartment which I initially hated then painted, IKEAed, tolerated and now appreciate with a new kind of wise and understanding love. Its pre-war, rent-stabilized and well outside of the flood zone. Some days my suburban upbringing wells up and I snap at the constant horn-honking, the injustices in the laudromat or the oppressive summer heat that lingers on the 4th floor. I know that these are scarcely hardships compared to what others in the world face and mostly, I am thankful for the peaceful sliver of ground I can come home to.

And after ten years, we have a veritable encyclopedia of memories in this place: parties, Thanksgivings, building things, hanging Christmas lights, drinking wine in the evening and coffee in the morning, and relaxing together in our little railroaded place in the wild city. My husband has built almost every piece of furniture that we own. Each drawer, countertop, bookshelf and cabinet fit perfectly in these imperfect swervy old walls. This is where we grew together, our lives intertwining more and more as we sat at the kitchen table looking out at the most beautiful Manhattan Mini Storage sign we had ever laid eyes on. We have done all anyone can do. We manage. We are houseless, grassless and mortgageless.

My husband and I will never be able to afford a house like my parents have until we are in our 50’s, if at all. So much has changed since my parents were young, especially mortgage rates and age at first reproduction. By my age my mother was already living in our house and planting pink impatients in the garden. She also had 4 kids. I don’t have any of those things.

My parents still live in the house, the mossy stones are still in place and we go back on holidays and birthday weekends. But at some painful point I know we will have to pack boxes, sell the oversized furniture and say goodbye. Then, I will be absorbed back into the gritty city—the same city my parents left—with no trace of the big white house or the grass that they worked so hard to let grow under my feet. I will miss it.