That we should know the place as ours
by Jamison Koehler on August 8, 2020
Now we live in a quiet suburb of D.C.
It is a half-acre lot, with woods out back and a lake we did not know about until after we put an offer on the house. I pulled up the satellite image on Google Maps when my wife and I got home.
“What is that large blue thing behind the house?” I asked her.
My wife and I walk the lake every morning with our dog. Our dog – a Westie — is little and refuses to go around twice. So she and I return home after the first lap while my wife heads around again.
My father-in-law helps me take down some old trees that endanger our fence. He used to maintain a small segment of the Appalachian Trail, so he knows what he is doing.
My father-in-law is 85 years old, and my wife complains I may be causing him to over-exert himself. Thank goodness she did not see him standing on top of the credenza in my study when we first moved in. He was helping me hang a large piece of art.
My wife and I have lived in 10 different places since we shared our first home together, an English basement apartment on Capitol Hill. We have owned six of the houses. We move on average once every three years.
There are things I miss about each house.
I put in a small slate patio in the backyard of our house on Vacation Lane in Arlington, our first free-standing house. Sitting up on a hill at the back of the yard, I remember looking down at the lighted house below as my young children settled in for the night.
Years ago, when the house was vacant, my daughter and I snuck into the back yard to see if the little stones my kids placed into the cement with the date – July 1997– were still there. The cement was cracked and gray and some of the pebbles had come loose, the stones lost into the ivy on the hill.
But the patio remained.
I had a small study tucked away at the back of our house in Philadelphia, the walls lined with book shelves, and then a gloriously large study in Baltimore with an arched anteroom, a closet I used for supplies, three large picture windows and a fireplace.
My study at our new house is functional and sweet, looking out from the second floor over a wall of green in the backyard. We put in recessed lighting, and I have my own bathroom and closet.
Below me, my wife returns from her walk around the lake.
My brother’s former wife described arriving at our family house in Amherst to meet my parents only to conclude, as she put it, that she was arriving at some grand estate with a gardener.
She says she didn’t realize the gardener was my father until he joined us at the table for dinner.
My sister has described my father arriving back at the house “wearing an old pair of khaki pants, loose at the knees, and a flannel shirt, bringing in the smell of dirt and fresh air with him as he came through the door.” “His hands are bare,” she remembers, “the nails caked with dirt.”
My father loved the snowdrops that popped up in our front yard every spring, and he took delight in even the smallest improvement – the “daffodils we planted and forgot, as if for good” — even if, as he put it, no one noticed: “What does it signify if we neglect the possible we held so briefly to?”
It pains me to see my father’s yard now. A tree guy who preyed on my aging mother after my father died took down many of the trees, including the tree that had inspired one of our favorite poems. My father’s vegetable garden in the back – with an extra row “just for the bunnies” – is overgrown. So too is the natural fort – tucked away in the bramble – that my brother built for his daughters.
This, for now, is our piece of earth. I clear away the brush and stack the wood in a pile near the shed and think: This is the possible we hold so briefly to.
Unlike my parents, who lived in the same house for over 60 years, my wife and I will be in this house – if experience is any indication – for six to seven years. My wife was a military brat and moved around all the time as a child. It has taken me a while to get used to the transitions. I have learned better than to say forever.
My wife and I will move again, I am sure, the next time probably to be closer to our kids. It does not matter if it is someone else who enjoys the hydrangea my wife plans to put in around the sun porch.
For now anyway we will enjoy the place as ours.