My daughter went online a few weeks ago to look up the house I grew up in, a house she remembers with affection. It had been sold, and there were about 20 recent photographs of the house on one of the realty sites.
I scrolled slowly through the photos online, remembering, and I suddenly realized that I loved that house—still, after many decades of living in other houses—as though it were a human being. I hadn’t realized you could love a house with such warmth and tenderness, but this was no ordinary house. I’m going to call it 16 Campbell from now on because she deserves a name, and because that is how we all refer to her. Yes, I realize I am anthropomorphizing wildly here, and I am probably also being sappily sentimental. So be it.
I remember moving into 16 Campbell at the age of four and a half. It had been built by an architect renowned in my small Southern California hometown during its Victorian heyday as a resort for East Coast families seeking relief from icy winters. My parents bought it on the G.I. Bill from an elderly widow who was running it as a boarding house for other elderly widows. It was a white, Dutch Colonial-style house, shingle-sided, two-storied, crumbling gently atop a hill like a dowager duchess who has fallen on hard times.
Few, if any improvements had been made to the house since her debutante days. Because she had been intended as a vacation home, the floors were made of pine planks instead of hardwood, and us kids, running around barefoot all day, got many a splinter in our feet. My parents eventually got hardwood installed downstairs, but upstairs it was still wear shoes or expect tears. Plaster was crumbling, there were wasps in the attic, the curtains were tattered, and the kitchen was resolutely inconvenient.
Not that we kids cared. We soon came to know every inch of that house. It sat over a rarity in California: a basement. The basement was just a hole dug into the hard red dirt with no foundation, and it was both scary and fascinating. It could be reached either by an old-fashioned storm door from the outside, or via stairs that led down from the mudroom. The basement was full of arcane things. There was an electric reducing device that consisted of a huge steel box lined inside with light bulbs. A person was supposed to sit inside this box, and I suppose the heat of all those light bulbs made him or her sweat and thus “lose weight.” We were given strict orders not to touch this device, but it was a constant temptation until my parents had it removed.
There were also many trunks full of old clothes, letters, diaries and junk. One trunk held costumes from earlier eras, including fake moustaches and dried-up vials of “spirit gum” to apply them, a beaded silk cloche with the beads dropping off, a hoop skirt, a genuine Apache woman’s dress and beaded leather moccasins. Later, much later, we discovered a Civil War folding map table down there.
But that was not what made me love 16 Campbell. It was the house itself. Not everything that happened in that house was safe or pleasant, but the house felt protective and comforting. I played in the mud against its flank like a puppy rolling against the warm furry sides of its mother. I lay in bed, watching the patterns of leaves cast against the wall by the vines over my window, feeling safe. Whether I was building grass forts in the empty back lot or creating fairy feasts and leaving them in the roots of the gnarled pepper trees, or reading in the golden light that came through the living room’s bay window in the late afternoon, I felt the house’s protective presence around me. There was no part of the house that didn’t welcome me, and there were so many places to hide and be by myself when I didn’t want to be found.
None of us siblings really wanted to sell 16 Campbell when my parents died because we all had the same attachment to the house. But we had either built lives elsewhere and/or didn’t want the expense of restoring the property, which had declined as our parents had aged. Poring over the new photos, I saw the old lady had been completely rejuvenated. Her trim had been stripped to the gleaming grain of the wood. The awkwardly modernish light fixtures installed by my parents had been replaced with period reproductions. The pool area had been gracefully incorporated into the exterior spaces. There was a pergola, looking like an original fixture of the grounds, where once there had been an ancient rose garden. There was a greenhouse and paths along the hill once completely covered with myrtle and brush. A neat white metal fence surrounded the yard, replacing the drunkenly leaning wire fence covered with Lady Banksia roses.
The old girl was looking grand indeed. She sparkled with fresh paint and wallpaper, and her hardwood floors shone. Every room was bright, clean and spacious. Even the kitchen, cramped and badly designed despite my parents’ best efforts to update it, now looked like an Architectural Digest layout.
16 Campbell was no longer the ramshackle old house where I had grown up, but that didn’t matter. I was glad she had been loved and cared for—as glad as I would be for any human being whose health and youth had been restored. She was the home of my heart, and I will always love her.