House and Home

We never expected to stay in this house so long. My wife and I moved here almost by accident, before we were married, even before we were engaged.

I had accepted a fellowship to begin doctoral work at the University of Michigan; Amy's job was here in Cleveland. We'd see each other on weekends, we said, but we didn't know how we'd manage two rents. And our Cleveland Heights landlord wanted us out.

The solution lay before us, inviting but imperfect, a vacant 1962 ranch in Lyndhurst. It was ours if we wanted it, rent-free. No catch, other than the barbed hook of nostalgia.

My grandparents' house, where I spent so many childhood weekends, had stood empty for two years. From the outside — same buff brick, same metal awning shading the picture window — everything seemed just as it was. My mother said we'd be doing her a favor, overwhelmed as she was with the demands of caring for the house, for my ailing grandmother, my dying father. But what would we be doing for ourselves?

We feared we were not moving into a house, but into a hoard of furniture and books, gadgets, ratchets and knickknacks, the vast accumulation of so many years of the daily whatnots of suburban life. We feared we were taking on too great a familial weight for our relationship to bear. I worried that the house, thick as it was with my own memories, would never be ours.

We did what we could. We uprooted what seemed acres of shag carpet to reveal clean hardwood. We junked the sandblasted mahogany dresser but kept the KENNEDY pins we found inside. The more we tried to make the house our own, the more we felt we belonged to its history.

When the hip 20- and 30-somethings I meet in Ohio City, Gordon Square and Collinwood ask me where I live, I usually have to say "Lyndhurst" twice. They squint at me. Lyndhurst? There is no there there. No one with glasses as thick and tastes as pretentious as mine lives in Lyndhurst, unless as a grand ironic gesture, an elaborate performance piece.

But history trumps irony every time. They ask, and I tell them we kept my grandparents' couch, a piece in the midcentury modern style just now enjoying a renaissance. I tell them I unearthed a sealed bottle of Jim Beam, a relic of the '60s. I invite them over for a sample.

It's easier than trying to explain how it felt to walk into that house on a Friday afternoon, to immerse myself in the smell of garlic and butter, that soft, simmering aroma. Through the basement vents I hear my grandfather, a retired musician, playing scales on the oboes and piccolos he is repairing. I walk downstairs and kiss him on his cheek, in the Italian manner. We talk and shoot pool until my grandmother calls us for supper. We twist spaghetti on our spoons and discuss the specifics of my future: engineer, quarterback, president.

Instead, I became a writer, a sort of professional rememberer. Writers like to say we keep the memories of the tribe, but there are too many memories, too few words, too much untouchable time. Still I keep the beats of sentences with my fingertips the way my grandfather counted time as a big band played into the night.

We've stayed now for six years, out of convenience, duty and — for me — out of an unexpected love for the past. I sniff it in the fust of the basement or hear it in creaks of doors swelled out of plumb. We still dream of other houses, of homes yet to come in which we live the lives we imagine for ourselves, for the children we imagine too.

The house will never be ours. In some vague way it was never theirs either. We build what we build to outlast us. To call ourselves the owners of anything, especially a place, only makes the clocks laugh as they tick.

I will never know the whispers my grandparents shared, late at night, wondering about their own future. Or the college girl in the portrait of my mother hanging in our guest room, looking up from her book as if someone just spoke her name. I will never know what my grandmother thought, fallen and confused one winter morning, her arm grotesquely broken, waiting for help.

That day I followed the ambulance to the hospital. None of us could know she would never enter her own house again. None of us — not even me — knew that one day soon I'd kneel in their old family room and ask Amy to marry me.

Of course you can't go home again — not because home or you have changed too much — but because home never existed in the first place. Home was only an imagined existence, an idea that dissipates like a faint scent as soon as you step into the open, stinging air of the world. We inherit our English word nostalgia from two Greek words meaning return home and suffering; and even nostalgia, as a cheeky comedian will remind us, ain't what it used to be.

But here we are. Every year at Christmastime we host a dinner party. I like to start early, get some things in the Crock-Pot, then run a few of my errands before returning for the final rush. I like to come back inside and smell something cooking, and forget — just for a moment — before I remember.

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