A couple of weeks ago, we bought our first house.
It was a really strange experience. We looked at the place for about half an hour, and then decided we wanted it. I’ve spent more time deciding whether I wanted a pair of jeans. Three days later, we signed some papers, and became grown-ups.
Once we’d made it official, we brought Tony’s parents over to have a look. We raved about the house to them in the car on the way over: about the backyard, the garage, the basement (i.e. man-cave for Tony.) The house is actually a duplex, which means we’ll be renting out the top floor until we can afford to take over the whole place. It’s right around the corner from friends who have two pugs, and one block away from other friends who are about to have twins. It’s down the street from cheap Greek and Indian restaurants, and walking distance from Little Italy, a great market and even a dog park. It’s also in the exact same part of town Mama and Papa Greek lived in when they first got married, although things have changed somewhat since then.
“There’s a bar nearby I don’t like,” said Papa Greek.
“Are there any bars you do like?” Tony asked.
“You’ll never find tenants after July,” his dad went on. “And you’re paying too much for it.”
“It’s far from the metro,” Mama Greek added, “especially when it’s below.” (“Below,” as I learned, is Greek for “really cold.”)
“It’s the same distance as what we walk now,” Tony said.
“Okay,” she said. “Do you want to go eat?”
“No, Ma,” Tony said. “We have to get back to work.”
We showed them around, and they continued frowning and fretting.
Papa G (suspiciously): “Why is it empty?”
Tony: “Because they’re doing renovations.”
Papa G (peering out the window): “Are you sure you want to live in this neighbourhood?”
Tony: “You’re asking this after we’ve just signed the agreement to purchase?”
Mama G: “Maybe we go for pizza?”
Back in the car, and they asked when were planning to move in.
“End of July,” I said, encouragingly, from the back seat.
“What?” his mother exclaimed. “Why are you waiting so long?”
“Don’t forget, you need some money to pay taxes!” his father cut in. “Welcome taxes! Property taxes!”
“I would have liked it if we went out for lunch,” Mama Greek said, forlornly.
“We would have liked it too,” Tony said, “but we really don’t have time right now.”
“Well!” she cried, throwing her hands up in despair. “When are you going to EAT?”
Neither of us admitted it until later, but we spent that whole week utterly terrified. Buying a house is mad enough, never mind moving into it a month before the wedding. What were we getting ourselves into? What if our renovator turned out to be blind or crazy? What if the house did not, after the months of renovations we now had to sink into it, turn out like Readymade Magazine meets Country Living? Why had I never learned the basics of electric wiring? How did people do this?
Two weeks later, feeling slightly overwhelmed, I took off to my dad’s place in Kanata for a few days of self-imposed writer’s exile. One evening while I was there, I walked over to the house where I lived until the age of 9. I do this every time I stay at my dad’s, always fantasizing that one day I will find someone outside gardening or trimming shrubbery, and we’ll strike up a conversation, and they’ll gasp in delight when I tell them that I spent my formative years in their home. I imagine being invited in, seeing my old bedroom, and being instantly brought back to the wonders of childhood. It would be like traveling in time: a return to innocence, when I was pretty sure I could fly, and was 100% positive that, no matter what my mother said, E.T. lived in the basement. But whenever I go past the house, the windows are always dark. I stare at it longingly for a few minutes, remembering a time when I performed one-woman shows in the backyard, then walk nostalgically home.
This time, to my surprise, the lights were on. I stood at the curb, gazing through the screen door into the hallway where I used to play dress-up and make my face up with Crayola markers. Suddenly, a small, short-haired woman appeared in the doorway and looked at me strangely.
“I’m very sorry for staring,” I called out. “But I grew up in this house.”
She came outside, laughing, and we met on the driveway, next to the lamppost which I used to stick my tongue on when it was “below”. Her name was Alida, and she told me she’d bought the house from the people who’d lived in it after us.
“Did you used to have a brass disc over your front door?” she asked. I wracked my brain. We had a lot of brass things, but then again it was the early 80s. I didn't remember anything above the door, but then again I wasn't tall enough to see that high back then. Could there have been a disc? What if it was the one thing we had left behind in the house, and now I was about to have it? How symbolic was that? And then Alida said the magic words. She said, “Why don’t you come in?”
As I stood in the entranceway and Alida dug around a drawer, she told me she was 84 years old and had 5 children. “I lived through the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam,” she said. “Can you imagine?” She found the disc and showed it to me, but it didn’t ring any bells. Alida and I talked about Montreal, and how her kids were spread out all over the world – one is even in Afghanistan. She asked if I was married, and congratulated me on my new home. Then, I left.
It took a few minutes before I realized that the moment I’d imagined hundreds of times in my life had just happened. There I’d been there, on the threshold of the living room where I’d watched The Muppets, the dining room where I used to build forts under the table, and the kitchen from which I used to call my grandmother, like clockwork, at 6:30am every morning to catch her up on what I’d been up to lately. And it hadn’t felt magical at all. It had felt, simply, like someone else’s house, which faintly resembled the one in my memories. The only thing that had really touched me was meeting Alida.
I wondered if maybe, when we leave a house, it’s like when a soul leaves a body. Houses contain our victories, our griefs, some of our most wonderous moments, and the people who are most important to us – but only while we live in them. But then we move out, and someone else with a whole different library of memories moves in. Right now, to me and Tony, those memories are only frantic e-mails, excel spreadsheets, and a lot of paperwork for the bank, which was especially fun for me as I am of the When-Will-I-Ever-Need-This-Again and I’ll-Definitely-Remember-Where-I-Put-That school of financial management. But that night, I realized what is really about to happen. We’re about to move into a house that has been home to other peoples’ memories for 60 years… which is not even as long as Alida’s been alive. Soon, it’s going to contain a whole new story. And while we will never go through what she’s been through, mortgage documents and renovations ain’t nothin’.
Suddenly all the little details didn’t matter. All I knew is that we had to make our place a house we’d want to come back to years from now, reminiscing about the kinds of moments usually reserved for life insurance commercials, but that I know, from experience, really do happen. There will be pugs and twins, and even my soon-to-be-mother-in-law, who still says she wishes the windows were a little bigger, but also that she’s glad it’s near their place so she can come over often and “give us trouble”. And if someone comes by and tells us they grew up in our house, we will definitely invite them in.