A couple of years ago, shortly after we moved back to Arlington, I decided to stroll by our old house, just a mile or so from where we live now. I was standing in front of the house, admiring the improvements the new owners had made to the front yard, when the woman drove up in her mini-van.
I was embarrassed to be caught standing outside the house just looking at it, and, afraid she might think I was up to no good, I explained that I was a former owner of the house. We quickly realized that she and her husband were the couple who had bought the house from us, and she insisted I come inside to see everything they had done to it.
Although she thanked me for the wood windows and built-in bookshelves we had put in, they had made substantial improvements to the house themselves. There were brand new French doors overlooking the deck along the entire backside of the house. The kitchen had been extended into the pantry. They had also upgraded the bathrooms.
When we got upstairs to our former master bedroom, the woman began to apologize as she showed me the inside of what used to be my closet. There, behind her husband’s ties, were the heights of our three children still written out in black magic marker. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to paint over them,” she told me. “I hope you don’t mind but we have added our own children’s heights right next to yours.”
Stepping out into the back yard, I could see that the plants we had put in so many years ago had finally taken hold, the yard now blooming with the brilliance of blue hydrangea. And there, on the stone patio I had built on the slope rising behind the house, were the pebbles my children had set into the fresh cement to mark the date: J-U-L-Y, 1-9-9-7.
We spent a fortune on the yard of our next house – this one in Philadelphia — before we moved back to this area. With house prices plummeting at the time, we never got much of this money back. The yard at that house still brings my wife pleasure, even if we no longer own it, even if we would be trespassing were we ever to set foot on it again. She likes to think of us as having been custodians of the house, upgrading it bit by bit so that we could pass it onto the next occupants. It is up to new occupants to make their own contributions.
I myself take a more selfish view: Was it worth the money we put into it? And did we recover that money when we left? But my reaction is not based on financial reasons alone. What bothers me more, I think, is the impermanence of it all, what my father once described as “the possible we held so briefly to.”
I never marked my children’s heights at our new house in Philadelphia, although they were still growing when we moved there. I had already experienced the pangs of regret I would feel when, inevitably, we decided to move once again. And when my wife and I move again, this time – for the first time in over 20 years — it will just be the two of us.
What the woman at the house on Vacation Lane did not know – and what I did not tell her — is that there are other remnants of our life in that house. In addition to measurements of the children’s heights in the closet and the windows and the bookshelves we put in, I had replaced the baseboards in the house to get rid of all lead-based paint before we moved in. With my father-in-law helping me with the work, I had written my initials in magic marker on the back of every piece of new wood I installed. The baseboards were stapled to the wall with a nail gun and further secured with caulk. Hidden there against the wall, the initials will be protected from re-painting by later occupants, at least until the next time someone does a major renovation.
Eventually, a new owner is going to paint over our children’s measurements in the bedroom closet. The cement on the back patio I built with my children is cracked and gray, and already some of the pebbles have come loose, the stones lost into the ivy on the hill. But, striving for a certain sense of permanence, or at least my best approximation of that permanence, I take satisfaction today in knowing that some day someone is going to discover those initials on the backside of the baseboards and wonder where I have been.
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