The Spirit of Place

When I was in second grade, my family moved a block-and-a-half around the corner. My parents had no intention of moving. They heard “the mystery house” went on the market, and went to see it out of sheer nosiness. Then they fell in love.

The seller, Mary, was the daughter of the people who had built the house in 1928. She was living in a home directly across the street. Her parents had passed, and she had long ago been widowed. Her brother, a bachelor, had remained in the family house. Every day, precisely at noon, he would shuffle across the street to have lunch with her. This was one of only a few signs of life in the mystery house. Other signs included: a tidy yard; window shades drawn exactly half-way each morning; a small light that shone each evening in a particular window, shades drawn, of course.

As the story goes, Mary was extremely private, and quite choosy about the bids on the house. For some reason she accepted my parents’ offer. She even, reluctantly, consented to letting a set of dinner chimes stay with the house. Dinner chimes! They were a housewarming gift from John Deagan, the founder of Chicago-based Deagan Chimes Company.

I don’t know who gave them the tip, but my parents learned the contents of the house were to be auctioned off, anonymously. They took me to the warehouse auction, and bought a few pieces of furniture. What romance is that? I mean, if you’re going to have the dinner chimes, you should also have the funky bathroom scale, and the antique coffee table.

Somehow I got it in my young head that the owner had died in the house. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I told my mom this idea, and she corrected me. I was never freaked out by the thought. It just seemed…logical. He was certainly a presence. Take the pipe-smoke-stained walls that we scrubbed for hours. (Editor’s mother’s note: The adults scrubbed, not the Kid.) And he left his notes on things. My parents would remove an (original, still in the house) switch plate cover while painting a room, and they’d find a note of the date and time the plate had been put up. Face plates. Wall sconces. Wall paper. You name it, it was dated and timed.

Mary continued to live across the street, and my parents made sure she knew she was welcome to visit. But she didn’t. I could understand that. Change is hard. She always thought of the house as her house, and I get that. It was. But I’ve come to think my family was meant to be there. Beyond the evidence of true love, I submit:

Mary and I share a birthday.

She was married in the back yard; I was married in the living room. For the record, I wasn’t copying. I didn’t know she’d been married at the house until recently.

I’ll just let those things sit there.

Fate wouldn’t let her stay away entirely. One day, after twenty-some years of living across the street, Mary’s power (or phones or alarm or something) went out. Her go-to neighbors weren’t at home. She braved the trek her brother had taken every day at lunch time, and rang my parents’ (her own?) doorbell.  She explained her situation, but still needed some convincing to enter. I wish I’d been there. She didn’t stay long or express much. I hope she was comforted to see the care and respect my parents had for her family home.

That’s almost a bygone idea, isn’t it? A family home.

When Mary passed away a couple-few years ago, her step-children brought over some wonderful memorabilia. Like a water color of the house, along with a few Ye Olde Christmas card prints of that painting. My parents just flipped. I don’t have the feeling that these things came with the spirit of any the original owners. But maybe I can’t tell the difference between that family’s spirit and our own. Maybe it’s all the same difference.

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2 Responses to The Spirit of Place

  1. Mom says:

    Perfectly said.

  2. Fran/Gail says:

    Lovely and lovingly stated. How lucky you have all been.

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