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December 10, 2019 Nonfiction

This Must Be The Place 

Emily O'Neill

This Must Be The Place  photo

Theres no room thats mine. This thought occurred to me plenty as a child, but it was a fact without any emotion attached. I think about it especially when I watch house hunting shows: what a wish list looks like for people who get to choose where they live on purpose. Based on nothing but want, life looks unfamiliar to me. I turn on the TV and there they are—strangers with only a budget and a desired neighborhood to reconcile. Because they’re on television, they tend to get what they want: a separate bedroom for each child, a craft room, a man cave, a rec room, a master retreat, ensuite bathrooms, enough house to disappear into and only be found when you intend to be found.

I grew up in the same house my mom grew up in, raised by my parents and her parents too. This was the convenient option, not about want but necessity. My dad got sick, and my family had nowhere else to go. The decision was made before I was born, was meant as a temporary fix. They’d ride out the hardship and get back on their feet, back to saving for their own home.

My parents were married in 1985 at Our Lady of Victories, a tiny Catholic church a five minute walk from the house my mother grew up in. Their wedding song was “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. We play the album its from on our turntable at work all the time, usually when the shift is only starting. It has the warm honey sound I associate with the time before I was born. Sepia filter over everything: my dad’s strawberry blonde mustache, wood paneling on the walls, a few fingers of whiskey shrinking out of a heavy glass as I sip and sip, looking at old photo albums.

On one of the shows, the family in question has to choose whether to keep the home that only works for them in some ways or give it up for one with plenty of functionality but no personal history. This show is often my favorite from the home buying genre because of how stark the producers make this fabricated dilemma. Do you stay where you have memories, or do you trade it in for something where all potential problems are still invisible? The central tension of every episode is also the central tension of each marriage shown, partners competing to have their will win out instead of finding a way to both get their needs met without intervention. One spouse is always emotionally attached to the current home, where the other is exasperated by unfulfilled potential and insists they should decamp and start from scratch. For the stay-put spouse, there is a designer who finds ways to transform their current home into a better version of itself, knocking down walls and reconfiguring the layout to give the family an impossible-seeming wish list of features it would take for them to remain. A fireplace and flowers in a new vase, love songs all night long, two cats in the yard, etc. On the other hand, there’s a realtor trying to find a house where they can imagine themselves happier, with all the features they dream they’re missing out on. Each option a very, very, very fine house. Now everything is easy, yes?

I rarely predict the outcome of an episode correctly. I blame this on spending my entire childhood in the same house where the house itself was hardly ideal, but always beloved. There never was a room where I could close the door and be by myself, but that only seems like a problem when I compare it to what other people had instead. My friends from school all had their own bedrooms, but my house was too small for that. I was born second and shared a set of bunk beds with my older sister Kaitlin, and when Chrissie was born her crib lived opposite those bunk beds in the same narrow bedroom. The three of us were eventually shifted to the finished attic to give my dad room for an office. When our brother, Owen, was born, he shared the room with my dad’s computer. Kaitlin got to high school, and she and Owen traded rooms; Owen got a big boy bed in the attic with me and Chrissie and Kaitlin got a loft bed in the office with a tiny TV in the space underneath. When she went away to college, I frequently slept in her bed while she was at school. When she kicked me out around the holidays, I started sleeping in the basement, in my gram’s sewing room, where we kept the ironing board and an endless stream of shirts to be pressed.

My mom’s six brothers and sisters grew up in the house before we did, sharing rooms in similar varying configurations during their time there. They all still live within an hour’s drive of the house, some much closer than that. We’ve had holidays with that side of the family every year with little variation, but beyond that, someone is always stoping buy to do some laundry or sit in for dinner, to weed the garden or take down a dying tree, to repaint the living room again, to hang icicle lights from the gutters or mow the lawn or try in vain to organize the garage.

For the longest time, I confused my parents’ wedding song with another song by the same name, “Our House” by Madness. In this new wave radio version of a home story, the house is hardly romantic. The lyrics don’t describe its physical characteristics at all, only a litany of who is present and how they act and feel. There’s chaos: people are late for work and over-tired and rushing elsewhere, it’s louder than expected, but the speaker of the song seems happy, if anxious, as everyone comes and goes as they please around him. Our house in the middle of our street sung repeatedly between descriptive verses, no judgement attached to any perceived flaws and certainly no plan for fixing them. Why plan to leave when things are the way they are because the way they are is what works best for everyone involved, favoring no one person’s needs over another’s?

I watch the houses on TV fly past between commercial breaks and the families pick them apart because they can, but I can’t tell the difference between their options. Shiplap, open concept, chef’s kitchen. Gut jobs that’ll be turned into the same French country or mid-century modern catalog pages I’ve seen already on so many episodes. They all have breakfast bars and clever storage solutions and walk-in closets bigger than the rooms I’ve slept in my entire life. The budgets and locations vary, but the houses are always smoothed into more acceptable versions of themselves by the end, homogenized in their capacity to please thousands of versions of the same happy family. There is so much space. So much quiet. So many stories told about where the kids will do their homework or practice their chosen sport in the yard, each room assigned a single purpose. No jostling for time in the bathroom when you have one full bath for each person. No worry about where to put anything or anyone with the whole house staged to look Pottery Barn perfect, every closet and cabinet still blissfully empty.

No matter which version of the home purchase and renovation genre I’m watching, the houses so frequently end up looking sterile and unloved by the end of the episode, despite the hosts insisting on a narrative of the family’s identity dictating design choices throughout. I see the same tile backsplash repeating, the same paint chips held to an exterior wall to help choose a trim color, the same sod unrolling no matter the climate or location. The unrelenting sameness reminds me of the Talking Heads song, “This Must Be The Place,” where David Byrne sings I guess this must be the place / I cant tell one from the other / I find you or you find me? In an interview on the concert DVD, Stop Making Sense, Byrne said of writing it, “That's a love song made up almost completely of non sequiturs, phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don't have any narrative qualities. It's a real honest kind of love song.” Love is not strictly narrative, nor is comfort. Home seems to me less a set of ideal circumstances identified and reproduced at an agreed upon cost than an accident we find through lived experience.

Living somewhere I was expected to work with instead of against makes me uniquely suited for the apartments I’ve shared since leaving home. I feel grateful for the way I feel every time I’ve looked for somewhere new to live, how calm I feel in the face of common flaws. Often, the person I’m searching with can only focus on the problems: too little space for the money, old or nonexistent amenities, all options a far cry from the homes we watch on TV, almost identically perfect when revealed to the people preparing to live in them. I can live with imperfect. I can put it to work, knowing that each room will be kind to me if I ask it to compromise.

My parents never did move out of my gram’s house into their own. They were married for twenty-five years when my dad succumbed to his chronic illnesses. He never recovered long enough for them to save a down payment for their dream home, wherever that would’ve been. We were lucky to have family to take us in during a crisis, a place to be, a place that did its best for us. I’m glad for the way the house expanded to support our family, no matter how much my parents wished for a life that looked a lot different than the one they ended up living together. Ideal may be impossible, but home can still be built from imperfect circumstances.

Our house is very nearly in the middle of our street. It has beige aluminum siding and more garden than lawn. It’s not big, but there’s plenty in it: two and a half stories, with two full bathrooms, a finished attic and half-finished basement, a front sun porch and back deck, a two car garage with a loft ruled by raccoons, a driveway that car fit nearly six cars if you Tetris them properly. There’s a laundry room of sorts in the unfinished part of the basement and a makeshift pantry so stocked with canned food that our family could eat well for weeks without bothering to grocery shop. My gram’s kitchen is stuffed to the gills with copper-bottomed pots and Tupperware for storing leftovers from making meatballs and stews and butter cookie dough. My grandpa grew tomatoes and pears and rhubarb in the backyard until he died in 1997. His sons have re-landscaped his compact gardens dozens of times. I helped rebuild and repaint the picket fences when I was little. I learned to weed the vegetable plots and pull any interloping plants from between the pieces of slate that lead to a front door only the mailman uses. It is not Crosby, Still, Nash, & Young levels of romantic but it has grown and changed whenever asked. Everyone has a place to sleep when they need one. It’s the place we return to regardless of imperfection. We take family pictures on the front steps every Christmas, a dozen plus Walsh cousins squeezed together against the cold, then our parents, seven siblings who maintain the house as the non sequitur love song it is.

 

image: Emily O'Neill


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