I don't know where I got the idea of the lifelong family home. It certainly wasn't from my family. My father and three out of four of my grandparents were in the military, so although we didn't move that often, I always understood a house is a base of operations where you live for a while before moving to the next place. When I was a kid, I always wanted to move.
Maybe it was It's a Wonderful Life. You know how Mary wishes on a broken window that she could someday live in that drafty old house, and then she does? She makes a home of it, somehow, painting while the kids are in their playpen and putting up with the banister end coming off all the time. Which gives the impression that it is affordable and possible to buy a big house and fill it with children if you're just not picky about banister ends. We got awfully close to buying one of those for our first home, till the inspector said "no, the back of the house is literally sliding off, you cannot possibly." What a buzzkill, that guy.
Anyway, here's the dream. You buy a house when your first child is a baby, or before. (Already the millennials in the room are shaking their heads at me.) It's in a good neighborhood, with a nice yard. Or maybe it's out in the country, but still close to work.
It's not a perfect house. It's probably inconveniently laid out and the paint is a little chipped. And that's when you start. Over the years you build onto it or knock out that inconvenient wall, probably by yourself. The gardens develop thick soil from years of planting. You put in an apple seedling, and by the time your kids are teenagers they're harvesting apples.
You know how the Velveteen Rabbit becomes real when all his fur gets loved off? That's what happens to houses. There's a doorway somewhere with marks showing all your kids' heights at different ages. There's a door that doesn't close right because a kid swung on it too much. Your kids have names for the different faces you can see in the paint chips. There's been a heap o' living there.
Most importantly, you stay there the entire time your kids are growing up. They never have to leave. You look at old photo albums and everyone knows the house, because they're sitting in it while they look at the album. The neighbor's baby grows up alongside your baby, and 18 years later they have their first kiss in that apple tree you planted when they were toddlers. Of course you couldn't leave that house. That house is family.
You stay in that house when all the kids are gone, and fix it up a bit the way you never could when they were underfoot. But you keep a couple boxes of their toys under the stairs, and when your grandkids come over, they sleep in their dad's old bed. With luck, you die in that house, peacefully in your bed.
I don't know how often that ever happened. People have always had to move, for one reason or another. But it feels even less possible now. Nobody stays at one job their whole career anymore; they carefully hop diagonally through the job market, accepting big changes to go slightly upward because they're never getting a raise where they are. Nobody has money enough, early on in their career, to buy a house big enough for the family they'll have later. We could never have bought this house when Marko was a toddler, but we also could never have fit four kids into the house we did buy. And nobody can be certain their kids will stay in the area; people of my generation and class very commonly live across the country from their families. When we were young, flying to visit seemed easy. Now that we're older, moving closer seems impossible.
Houses these days seem like commodities more than homes. You have to be doing improvements all the time. Mark your children's heights on the wall? Heck no. You need to be updating the kitchen for when you sell it. Don't make it too individual, too yours.
Selling a house feels like ripping the soul from its body. You tone down your presence in the home, you clean it to make it look like you don't even live there. And soon you won't. The house you filled with your laughter is a set of bare floors by the time you say goodbye to it. You'll miss it all your life, but your last memory of it is just echoing rooms.
Sometimes I think I like houses more than I like people, because I cry when they're sold and I don't always cry when I say goodbye to people. Then again, often a person's house is a symbol, in my mind, of the person. I miss my great-grandpa's house because it was his, because a big part of what I ever knew of him was his house. He talked to the grownups, but we kids were downstairs investigating his knickknacks, discovering what kind of a person he was from the things he left lying around.
The house I loved the most was my grandparent's lake cabin. My grandpa built so much of it himself, and I remember the process from bare beach to the polished, hand-carved towel hooks. It was in such a special place, where we made so many important memories. But most of all, it was his house. It meant Grampy to me, in a lot of ways, while their town house held more of Grandma's soul.
I did take my kids to that town house, showing them the couch with lemon upholstery and the elephant statue and the trees. It felt like a link I had to forge, connecting my children with at least one place I had been as a child. The house I grew up in was sold when I was fourteen. Now my parents don't even live in the same state. It feels disconcerting, wrong. That a place I felt was my home no longer has a place I can stay.
I feel like I am taking something away from my kids by moving, even though they are mostly on board with the move now. I wanted them to have roots. I wanted a place that connected them to their memories, so the past doesn't seem like it happened to somebody else. I wanted them to feel more grounded in a place than I have been able to be.
I didn't want them to feel homesick their entire lives, like me.
I've stopped being agrarian because I no longer feel like it explains anything or has any of the answers. But, even though I don't have an alternative, I still object to modern society. Maybe the things that were traded away were for good reasons. But sometimes I feel it was because nobody felt they were worth anything at all. I don't think people get what I mean when I say a house has a soul, when I say it has to be more than an asset and a way to save on rent.
But, if I linger in this house when the movers are gone and hide in the closet to whisper goodbye to its bare bones, I hope you understand why.