On House and Home

By Kelly McDonald

There are now 33 of us, in seven families—17 females and 16 males—of all ages. There are also four dogs residing among the families. When we all come together at our house, the family home, it is both exhausting and exhilarating. A dozen different conversations and interactions all play out at the same time. Little girls whisper and giggle to each other as they run about the house, asking grandma if they could peek into her workroom full of dolls and stuffed animals. Boys roughhouse and play, running about, kicking a ball that mysteriously appears, nearly knocking a hole in the back fence. I grit my teeth as I struggle to keep from uttering a harsh response. Our children and their spouses gather and gab with their siblings as the grandchildren’s dynamics play out around them. Beverly moves from family to family, catching up on the lives of each member. I stumble about the crowd, finally settling into loading the dishwasher after dinner.

We built this house twenty-seven years ago, having outgrown the old one after nineteen years of marriage. Nearby children weren’t happy to see the construction begin because the building-lot we purchased was a neighborhood playground.  All of our seven children lived with us, ranging from eighteen down to four years old. We built a separate bedroom for most of them, either in the basement or upstairs. The main floor was family space, a place to congregate for meals and other family activities. 
        As we moved into this new place, I thought that I would miss our old house. We had purchased it when there were only two children. That house was small. Later my father helped me remodel it and add bedrooms when interest rates were double-digits in the early 1980s. He was 68, but he arrived early every morning to build new walls, extend plumbing, and construct a new roof over the whole edifice. I’m now 68. Now I can appreciate the aches and pain he must have developed from that kind of labor. But he did it without a single complaint; neither he nor my mother spoke a negative word about his work. 

I thought we would never leave that old customized house. However, when the day came to transfer our home from the old house to the new one, I hardly gave that humble edifice a second thought. I occasionally drive by the old place to see what has happened to it. It’s now someone else’s house.  But not a pang of regret bubbles up as I study the roof we once remodeled in stormy weather so long ago.
        Our current house has seen a family struggle and grow over the last twenty-seven years. I can imagine that it observed our sons overcome their teenage tendencies. No doubt the house watched me teach our daughter to drive a stick-shift, while I cringed and hoped she pressed the correct foot pedal as she careened into the driveway. I’m sure the house contemplated the women, with dispositions much like Beverly, that our sons chose as their life companions. It must have noticed the future husband my daughter brought home for us to meet, in many ways similar in temperament to me. 
        Not every memory in this house is pleasant. One of our sons became addicted to drugs, and more than once we discovered his unconscious body in his basement bedroom. It was an extreme shock to watch the paramedics administer Narcan to him, witnessing the life-saving reaction, like a rude awakening from a deep sleep. Then, the sullenness would deepen as he pulled further away from us. He wasn’t at home when a drug overdose eventually ended his life. There was no one nearby to call 911. The next morning, when two police officers arrived at our house to inform us of his death, all in our home cried bitterly, as we tried to process how this tragedy had finally concluded, and why our many interventions hadn’t worked.
        Even though we had lived in this house for seven years, we still felt like visitors to the neighborhood. But the outpouring of love which came to our home from the neighboring families, in our time of crisis, cemented to our collective memory another kind of home, the home that comes from living in the right village, with good people surrounding us.
# # #
        A few years ago, I decided to use Google Earth to look at my childhood house in Kamas, Utah. My family had moved there in 1957 when I was four years old. I lived in Kamas for 15 years, and I felt like it was the right place for me. It felt like home. But while I was away on a Church mission, my parents moved to Arizona.

As I navigated the streets of Kamas that I once roamed on my bicycle—now virtually through my web browser—I was shocked to find that the house I remembered as a child had been demolished, bulldozed so someone else could build their house. But I could still clearly recall the old place’s interior, my bedroom, the strange wallpaper, the backyard I once mowed as a teenager, that place where I felt at home. I remember our family dinners. I can still recall standing on the front lawn with my family while watching Sputnik pass over the Earth. I recollect the many cousins from all my mother’s siblings, who also lived in Kamas Valley. But now, that house no longer exists in reality, as if it had never been there. But I can still remember my childhood home—even though the house is gone—making room for someone else’s house. My parents are also gone, but the memories they made in their home still live in my mind and my one remaining sibling.
# # #
        Beverly and I have been empty-nesters for almost ten years now. Our youngest son and his family live just two blocks south of us. We spend a lot of time with them, helping out however we can. We have thought about downsizing this house with seven bedrooms and moving elsewhere, but we’ve decided otherwise. It’s nice to live close to everyone, the furthest just twenty miles away. And we have plenty of extra rooms for our many home projects.
        Beverly starts working on Christmas presents for the families about June of every year. She keeps a locked basement bedroom full of all the gifts she has created in her upstairs workroom. I call it Mrs. Santa’s Workshop. Another basement bedroom holds my Library of Lost Books, hundreds of volumes that I have purchased at bookstores or yard sales. They never seem to make it onto my reading list. Still, another bedroom is now my Downstairs Data Center, where I tinker with technologies for supporting our automated house. I detected a little roll of Beverly’s eyes when I recently described my latest project to her, which lets me open the garage door by talking to my watch.
        I do need to describe one of our combined hobbies, though relatively new, since our retirements. Somehow, shared cooking has become an exciting twist to our now-partnered house activities. At first, Beverly indicated that she was tired of food preparation, having been the primary cook for the family during our 47 years together. But when I drop an interesting recipe onto the kitchen counter, then begin to gather ingredients or boil water, it isn’t long before she has jumped in, probably to make sure a disaster doesn’t happen. We’ve cooked some delectable successes together, as well as some culinary failures. Though I’m tempted to resort to tired cliches as I continue to reflect on houses becoming homes, I wouldn’t knowingly subject you, kind reader, to such sappy nostalgia. Even so, all of our cooking, both good and bad, has added a new dimension to the hackneyed phrase, “Home Sweet Home.”
        Someday, Beverly and I will have to leave this house. I hope there isn’t too much time between our departures. Accumulating memories of home without each other won’t be the same. I doubt that our children will adopt this house as their own family home since they have now been building home memories in their own houses for many years. Perhaps this house will be demolished by someone wishing to make a new home of their own, much like the final reality of my childhood house in Kamas. Or perhaps they might bulldoze the house and return its lot to being the neighborhood playground, the house becoming lost to reality but not to our family memory. If such destruction occurs, this physical house will disappear. Though the memories of this house will exist in our posterity’s minds, they will dim with time. New family members will come who have no recollection of this house.
        But they cannot bulldoze our home.


Chad Burnham said…
Great read! I love the idea of spaces in the home for the different hobbies. We do that in our home too, blessedness.
Steve S said…
Loved the meandering of time themed throughout the story. Makings of a home rather than the house...that also becomes the house through the memories.

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