The Real Thing

I remember (possibly incorrectly) lying on the living room floor of our house when I was five, while my parents told me that we would be moving to a different house. While it was in the same town, it was still a different house.

And I wasn’t having it.

In fact, I refused to leave. I had done the same thing when my parents traded the family car, Mary, in for a different car. Mary was green and beautiful. The new car was black and – not green. Change was just not something I was interested in pursuing, and a blanket “opt out” would’ve been super.

However, I wasn’t allowed to stay in that old house (though my aunt actually moved in, and lived there for the next 30ish years, so I got to visit at least). Instead, we went across town, to the biggest and scariest house I’d ever seen in my admittedly young life.

It had a huge scary old basement, and a huge scary old attic with rafters and creakiness and sometimes pigeons who bumbled their way in and banged around up there. There was a giant attic fan, which I was certain would be where they’d find my mangled body one day.

All of the rooms had very high ceilings (they looked probably 20 feet when I was that age, but hell, they’re probably 15 anyway). Red carpet and velvet wallpaper dominated the main floor. Two separate two-flighted staircases took visitors to the bedrooms. One, so tiny and narrow and creaky, was in the kitchen. The other, wide and welcoming, had a floor-to-ceiling stained glass window on the landing between flights. It also had a great bannister for sliding down.

I opted for the front staircase for my transport. And, though I lobbied hard to NOT have the bedroom at the top of the stairs (a shy and naturally suspicious kid growing up in the milk-carton-kids days, I knew it was just a matter of time before I was stolen away in the night, and it would be so much more convenient for a kidnapper to just grab the kid at the top of the stairs), I got it anyway.

But what a bedroom it was. The first one I had was at the top of the creaky kitchen steps and actually used to be a bathroom, though I couldn’t figure out what business a bathroom had in being that large. It had its own sink and built-in drawers and shelves, and my parents let me have squirrels-in-nurseries-caring-for-babies wallpaper (just a really great wallpaper). That room also had one of the 5000sf houses’s window air units, so I had it made. (The other was in our living room, forever away.) What sucked about it was that there was an adjoining door connecting it to my brother’s room, and he was a slob. Just a genuinely messy person. (HA, Ryan. You’re OUTED.) My parents got the really great room, with the giant multi-windowed turret, but that wallpaper was flowered and lame so it was fine.

My other favorite room was the parlor, though once our piano moved in, it became forever known as the music room. The room was pink, with plastered wall trim that looked like frosting on a magnificent cake. It had forgone the red carpet in favor of a splashy rose print. It also had a fireplace with real gold threaded in the tiles, and a real scary little porcelain “guardian angel” hanging on the top with a tiny little well at its base to hold holy water. (I didn’t trust it. In fact, I believed for many years that the guardian angel was actually the keeper of the ghosts. More on that later.)

With the exception of the kitchen, each room had pocket doors that disappeared into the wall, crafted of birds-eye maple and walnut and who knows what else. One set, separating the parlor from what I called the front room, was made of two woods, so that each matched the wood of the room it faced.

About a year after we moved in, my dad decided that it would be great if we had our own pool, even though we didn’t swim. And he was right. I spent many summers practicing my routine to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Synchronized Swimming team. I had a cousin in Lincoln who had such a team AT HER HIGH SCHOOL, and she taught me some tricks. I practiced those moves like someone who had a real shot at greatness, with my boombox poolside blasting out my routine music (Janet Jackson’s Nasty Boys).

We were figuring it out, and life was good. And then my mom found that she was expecting again, and our family was going to grow more.

When my sister was born, we all moved rooms, and I went into my parents’ old turreted and lamely-wallpapered room which was, of course, also at the top of the stairs. My brother moved into the room next to me, so there was a 50/50 split as far as which of us would be taken first. My parents went to my brother’s old room so that my sister’s new room could be through the connecting door.

And we were a family. We were a family that lived and ran and played and got in trouble and played with the next-door neighbors (they also had three kids basically the same ages as us). We built forts in bushes and under the weeping willow tree. We picked fruit from the apple and pear trees. We had the best birthday parties. My mom decorated our porch like the scariest haunted house on Halloween, complete with spooky sounds and green lights, and we had trick-or-treaters by the hundreds every year. She also made me and my friends countless signature desserts there, from Texas sheet cake to Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats to virgin pina coladas.

My mom’s peanut butter cashew Rice Krispie treats

We filled the space. We had guests a lot. Family reunions centered around our home. When I got into sports, team parties were perpetual, from softball to basketball to tennis. I took for granted all the work my mom did to keep it as sparkling clean as she did. I became accustomed to having so much space to myself. We were all happy.

Unfortunately, nothing gold can stay. My parents seemed to be fighting a lot, and eventually that fighting turned to silence, which was even worse. Add to that fighting me, being a real asshole of a teenager, and our family dynamic was pretty broken. And when I was 16, they decided to divorce. My mom, brother and sister moved across town. My dad and I stayed.

My senior year, then, I spent throwing senior parties (even though I didn’t drink, falsely believing that heartburn was early signs of a heart attack, which must mean I was allergic to alcohol). My friends and I basically lived there, swimming and being loud, teenage jerks. It was the best part of high school, though, by far.

And then my dad met a really great girl, and I spent evenings home alone when they were out, listening to Kenny Loggins’ The Real Thing on repeat on our rad CD player, remembering the way the house used to sound. The way things used to be before we all disconnected with such finality.

And then that girl became my stepmom, and her son my stepbrother. And then my dad and stepmom announced that she was expecting, and everything felt different. The house didn’t feel like the same house anymore. I felt like I didn’t belong there, and moved out to go to college.

In the years since, I stayed in town. I married and had a son, who was just a couple years younger than my sister. They played together. Our family had grown, that’s all. The house was filled with laughter and celebrations again. And it was good.

But nothing gold can stay. We all grew up and moved out. The house was there, always, but mostly as the place we gathered on Christmas Eve. Once I moved to another town, I would only spend one night a year in my hometown, and it was always my mom’s because we had Christmas morning there.

The laughter was still there, but the house was empty a lot. It made sense for another family to be able to grow and fill it with their lives and laughs. It was a lot of upkeep for my dad and stepmom. And so they made the decision to let it go.

And just as I was at five, so I am at 45. I don’t want to let go. I loved it so much. It was my safe space. My escape. Where I learned to ride a bike, and do a handstand (in the pool). Where I fine-tuned my synchronized swimming routine and practiced for the annual Hoop Shoot free throw competition by shooting 250 free throws in my driveway every night. It’s where I had my clubhouse (with a membership of one) that was the shed separating our property from the rental houses my parents owned behind us. It’s where I had my Nerd Prom freshman year since only upperclassmen could go to the real prom.

It’s where I learned to play the piano and suffered through the clarinet. It’s where I came back from in shame when I took too many Mini Thins one night because they were SO TINY (everyone was doing it, after all) and consequently had my stomach pumped my senior year.

It’s where I listened to SO MUCH Pearl Jam the year after I graduated, when two of my friends died within a few months of one another.

It’s where I married my son’s father, six months pregnant and scared as hell.

It was everything to us for so long.

And now, it will be everything to someone else. Fortunately, they will have the benefit of central heat and air.

To those who come next: we loved her. And we hope very much that you do, too.

Song of the day: Kenny Loggins, The Real Thing. It got me through a lot of long nights, and I still have the original CD to this day. Thank you, Kenny. And thanks, mom and dad and Jayne and old house, for a great ride.

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