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May 17, 2016

If these Walls Could Speak: The Legacy of an Old House.

Jim DiGritz/Unsplash

The first time they stepped over the threshold into the small, white, two-story house, it was 1938.

World War I had been over for 20 years, and the Depression was releasing its grip on the nation. It was a brief lull in history that made for a happy time to be newlyweds in a small Midwestern town.

Sepia-tinted photographs with faces often stoic, other times grinning, reveal moments in their lives as time wove the thread that held them together.

The realtor brought these photographs, as well as a box of yellowed letters with cursive writing so beautiful that words seemed to flow from the page, down from the attic. She gently laid them on the dining room floor before the couple’s daughter.

Bearing the marks of age herself now, the daughter had come to see the house one last time. The realtor, normally chatty, stood in reverent silence as the daughter walked across the weathered wood floor.

She walked past the place where the well-worn dining room furniture had stood, its lace tablecloth and crocheted placemats the handiwork of her mother.

She ran her hand along the wall where the plastic-covered sofa had sat. For as long as she could remember, it had clung to her legs, sweat forming pools beneath her in the summertime heat.

The realtor let out a small, “Oh!” as the daughter plopped herself down on the bare floor where the dark outline still remained.

She grinned. “You know, in all of my life, I never sat down on the couch without feeling plastic below me!” she said with the face of a Cheshire cat.

“Please bring those here,” she said, surprised by her own demanding tone. The realtor brought the box to her, bright pink nails scraping the sides and her rising skirt revealing knee-high pantyhose as she leaned over to set it down. She gave the daughter a knowing look, then disappeared into the kitchen.

The daughter leaned on her side like a schoolgirl and spread mementos out for display on the floor before her, carefully picking up each one, pausing to consider it, then laying it down gently in a timeline only she understood.

Through the photos, she watched her parents weather World War II, the birth and the raising of three children, the loss of a fourth, joyous days with grandchildren, and so many challenges and joys that she had forgotten. In her mind, she heard cheerful laughter and smelled the savory smells of Sunday dinners.

A smile touched her lips and tears pooled in her eyes.

Her parents spent seven decades of their lives together in this house until they passed away within a year of each other. These things were left behind, but the grace and unconditional love behind them were their legacy.

“Please,” she said loudly across the empty room to the realtor. “Do you have paper and a pencil I may use?” The realtor appeared moments later with a yellow legal pad and a blue pen. The daughter smiled with genuine gratefulness, rested the pad across her knees, and began to write.

Dear New Homeowner,

As you begin your new life in this home, I wish you all of the joy and love that I have felt here throughout my life. However, there are some things you should know. This house is old, and it is not perfect.

You should know (as you undoubtedly already do) that there is a crack in the plaster in the dining room. The back door swells and is difficult to shut. There is a place in the kitchen where the floor has a significant dip, and the fourth step in the stairway to the second floor has a creak that cannot be avoided.

These things may seem like burdens, but my family loved them, and I will tell you why.

The crack in the wall has been there since 1945. It showed up a year after Dad came home from the war. He often talked about repairing it, but Mother wouldn’t let him touch it. I found out why one day as I watched her touch the large scar across his shoulder that he’d received from a sniper’s bullet.

“That crack is like this scar,” she told him. “It is part of this house like this wound is part of you. I know it’s there, but I love you just the same, and I will also always love this house just as it is, even though there are scars.”

The back door has swollen every spring as rains bring humidity, making it difficult to shut. It drove Dad crazy, but Mother told him to let it be.

“Every time the rains have come in our lives, we have weathered them together, even when we have to work a little harder,” she told my Dad. “Every time I have to stop to push the door shut, it reminds me that all good things are worth working for, even though they may seem difficult at the time.”

As for the floor in the kitchen, it holds a lesson, too. Dad built that kitchen for my mother for their 30th anniversary. He worked very hard to do it, and it took months of saving and weeks to complete.

As you can see, he did a beautiful job, but he did mess up when it came to leveling the floor. It has dipped like that since the day he revealed it to Mother, but to my knowledge, she never once said a word to him about it. I asked her why once, and I can still see her face as she told me the answer.

“No one and nothing is perfect,” she told me. “We can choose to see the beauty around us, or we can focus on the problems. When I see this kitchen, I still see the smile on your father’s face when he finally let me see it. He wanted it to be perfect for me, and just like our love, flaws and all, I choose to see it as exactly what I want and need.” 

And the stairs! Oh, how I hated that noise of the fourth stair every time I wanted to sneak in a little late from a date or escape my chores! It was after I became a parent myself that I mentioned that stair and how much I’d resented the creak in it to my father. He laughed, as he often did, and leaned back in his chair.

“Do you know what that creak is saying?” he said in his slow cadence, baiting me for an answer. I had no idea, and I told him so.

“Life has a way of becoming busy,” he began. “Children come along, jobs take up time. There is always something to do, something to think about, or something to take up space in our minds.

“Sometimes when we move too fast for our own good, or when we’re angry, we forget to think about the people in our lives who mean the most to us.” He looked me in the eyes, and I knew that I, too, was guilty of this.

“For as long as I can remember, your mother and I have stepped on that creaky step every morning and every night, and it squeaks its squeak. ‘I love you,’ is what it is saying, and it reminds us every day that, no matter what is going on in our lives, no matter how much we like or don’t like each other that day, we always love each other.

“It has been talking to you all these years, too,” he said. “No matter how ornery you were, or how much you didn’t want us telling you what to do, it has always said, ‘I love you,’ even when you didn’t want to hear it. Always has, always will.”

And now here we are. I will soon be walking out the door for the last time. There are enough memories in these walls to fill a library of books, but it will be up to you fill them with stories of your own. And you will.

You are beginning with a foundation of love. It isn’t perfect, but neither will you be. Love it and love each other anyway, and you will find happiness in ways you can only begin to imagine.

I know I have.

Sincerely,
Emily C. Johnson

And with that, she laid the letter down on the fireplace mantel and passed through the house one last time. Past the crack in the dining room wall. Past the sticky back door. Through the kitchen her father lovingly built, and up and back down the stairs.

“I love you,” said the fourth stair.

“I love you, too,” she answered back. “Always have, always will.”

She passed through the front door and closed it on the last chapter of a book that, really, has no ending.

Because as long as we remain connected to each other, through walls or through the stories we learn from within them, we will never truly be alone. And that is what home is all about.

 

Author: Amanda Christmann

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Image: Jim DiGritz/Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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