by Tina Kane
Have you ever wondered about the history of a house you are about to live in? Perhaps houses should come with archives, a simple record of what had happened there, its own story. And perhaps people have a right to know if something unusual or terrible has happened there, in case they are superstitious or super sensitive. Walls and windows that have seen all say nothing. They remain silent, or moan in the wind.
Once I needed a place to live. I had found something that seemed okay. It needed a little work, some freshening up, so I arranged with the owner to paint the walls of each room. I had just finished, late in the evening, the night before the day I had planned to move in when a neighbor came over to borrow something and began to talk. He told me that there had been a murder in the house very recently. He said that a daughter had killed her father there—a terrible story. I called the landlord and cancelled the contract.
Some old texts tell us not to look back, like Orpheus and Eurydice, or Lot’s wife. Still it is sometimes important to return, years later, to a house where you have lived, or where something important has happened. It can teach you about life.
For me, returning to the house I had grown up in was strange. I had spent my childhood in Australia, in Melbourne. I left when I was sixteen to go back to America to live with my father, whom I had not seen since I was a young child. It was seven years before I returned again to Australia.
Everything had changed since I had gone. A broken marriage, violence, psychosis, and terrible suffering had crystallized an atmosphere of sorrow, immobile and heavy. And the house seemed physically to have registered the blows that had shattered the lives of the people there. Once it had been a bright, pleasant place, with large windows and terraces opening to the Australian bush across valleys of eucalyptus trees and scotch gorse to Mt. Macedon and Hanging Rock. It was new when we moved in, chosen for its openness and light, unusual in those years in Melbourne, with its dark long stately Victorian houses. That had been only fourteen years ago.
I hardly recognized the house when I first saw it upon returning. The terraces had fallen off and the roof had caved in. Inside, everything was dark with mildew. Windows were cracked and some shattered. Mother and I made passageways through the safe parts to move from room to room. Possums had moved in. They came in at night, down the chimney, and through holes in the roof. They hung out in my old piano and made strange music in the dark. Before I left to return to University in California, I hung brightly colored pictures of medieval stained glass windows on the walls after I had scrubbed them clean of mold. Mother later said that had helped her to go on.
Such events leave their marks, on people and houses. But over the years the house slowly recovered, as we were able to get some help and fix things. Now, years later, the roofs are more or less intact, the broken windows replaced and the rooms again fill with the Australian sunlight. The possums have retreated to the attic, and the personal trauma into the past. Still, it is best not to look back too long, or too hard.
I had the opportunity to return to one other house that had been important for me, although I had never lived there. It was the most enchanting house I had ever seen. It was in upstate New York and had been built over many years by a couple that I knew only late in their lives. Both of them had touched me deeply, each in a different way.
It was not only the physical beauty of the house and the setting that struck people, but also the atmosphere. Everything in the house had been built and chosen with taste and care, elegance and simplicity. It was huge, forty rooms, with a place for many different activities, including an artist’s studio and a music room. There were winter and summer kitchens and well-kept summer flower and vegetable gardens, including a grape arbor and a berry garden.
There are many beautiful and well-appointed homes, but there was something unique, in my experience, in the atmosphere of this house. It seemed that when you were there you experienced life differently, more vividly. It was as if the house was tuned to strike notes in you, so you became more fully alive, and also began to experience each moment more fully, more deeply, as if the place and the people in it existed only in the present. The simplest activity became a joy, and something in the air insisted that each detail be savored, that each moment entailed a conscious decision to care for what you did. Practically every one who went there at that time experienced the same thing. We would talk about it amongst ourselves.
Years later, after everything had changed, a famous writer who had spent time there—a friend of the family—said that he had thought that the magic of the house would last forever. It didn’t. The people who lived there died and, with them, the house.
Some years later several of us were involved in selling the property, as it was too big for the remaining family to maintain. Again I walked through halls and rooms with mildew-stained walls and roofs threatening to collapse. The gardens had become a wilderness. And as surely as darkness follows light, the spirit of the house had left: gone without leaving a trace.
Prospective buyers who came looked at us in disbelief when we tried to tell them what the house had been.
It did sell finally. I wonder if the people who bought it ever tasted what had once been there? Perhaps there is some mechanism which protects people from whatever the past has been, allowing them their own lives, their own atmospheres. And perhaps the same walls that protected people from the outside world also protect the historic privacy of lives lived and finished with, making yesterday’s homes also today’s.