The Old House
MY SISTER AND I VISITED the old house on a cold December evening. We were both in Calgary for Christmas—me from grad school in Vancouver, and my sister from Whitehorse, where she’d moved on a whim a couple of weeks earlier. When I’d been describing my sister to people lately, I’d begun using this move as an example of the differences between us. Becca can look at a map and turn intriguing coordinates into a new existence in a matter of days. It takes my brain months just to accept the idea of an idea.
Thomas Wolfe famously stated, “you can’t go home again,” but that’s figurative. Your childhood house, you can return to, assuming it’s still standing, and that you’re able to travel back to the place you were raised. I’d been thinking about memory lately—the sly way it hides while awaiting a sensory trigger. And I thought that if I went back to the house my family left when I was eleven, I’d find pieces of myself still lodged there, performing slim hauntings between the bathroom tiles.
Becca was coming with me so the new residents wouldn’t murder me and hide my bones in the rhubarb bush out back. She was also coming out of interest. When I’d mentioned the tour, she’d lit up. “Ask them if I can come!”
“Okay,” I’d told her, though I’d quietly worried about her request. Just as Becca and I have different takes on risk and spontaneity, we have different approaches to meeting new people. In new situations, I tend to be mild, to the point of seeming wispy at times. My interaction strategy is built on reducing impact, laughing too much, pissing off no one. Becca, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She went away to university young and learned how to stop apologizing for herself. When we briefly shared an apartment after I graduated from high school, she used to eat lychees and leave their husks in every room, crusty little peels on
the coffee table and bathtub rim. Though she can be sensitive at times— wearing a thin layer of our family’s trademark meekness beneath her Gor-Tex coat—she can also be assertive in a no-bullshit way. I was worried she might ask the new owners too many questions, or peek inside their cupboards. I was worried she’d eat a banana in their bathroom or something.
We’d arrived in our old neighbourhood early, so Becca pulled the car back onto the icy streets, and we started a slow tour of our old haunts. She was staying nearby—in the windowless room in my parents’ basement that our mom jokingly calls “the bat cave.” I was staying with my boyfriend, twenty minutes away from our parents’ house. There was—as always during the holidays—the vague tension that crops up between Becca and me when she wants to vent about our family’s dysfunctions and I want to pretend they don’t exist. As we drove past ex-neighbours’ homes and old bus stops, we made small talk. We drove past my old best friend’s house, and then past the house of the other best friend I’d later replaced her with. We continued down the hill, passing a large park. Becca pointed.
“I always hated that park. See that hill? I was convinced it was a volcano. Convinced. And I was sure that if I stood on top of it, it would blow up and I’d die. Mom wondered why I never wanted to go there.”
“You didn’t tell her? Weren’t you worried that our house would blow up with it?”
“I don’t think so, no. I think this was a very concentrated type of volcano. I don’t know why I kept it to myself.”
I looked at the hill. It didn’t look volcanic to me. But I’m not an expert in what my sister perceives as explosive.
At exactly two minutes to six, we pulled back onto our old cul-de-sac and parked in front of the house, a four-level split with a lilac bush out front and a narrow driveway on one side. I collected my notebook, my pen, my nerves. Becca shoved a Kleenex into her jeans pocket.
The couple who opened the door—Susan and George—smiled widely and invited us in. I nervously introduced myself. Immediately, I was struck by the size of the room behind them. I’d known to expect this, had been told by friends who’d revisited their elementary schools: “You wouldn’t believe how small everything is.”
And the old house was—small. It was also warmly lit, well-heated, a compact version of the place I remembered. My mental map of the first floor was, at a glance, accurate, but tweaked to cozier proportions. This was the toy pony of childhood homes.
“I’m Becca,” my sister said, shaking Susan and George’s hands. We all stood stiffly in the front hall and made brief chitchat about wind chill. After we took off our boots, Susan guided us into the living room, past the spot where we used to put our Christmas tree, and the corner where I once coaxed our cat into a Glinda the Good Witch costume.
“This looks different,” Becca said. She was inspecting a wall off the living room. A space had been hollowed so you could now see from the dining room into the kitchen.
“It’s one of the few changes we’ve made,” Susan said. “Most of the house is the same.”
Becca ran her hand along the wall. “Looks like the same hardwood too. Our dad put that in before we sold it. And that window.”
She gestured to the living room’s bay window, which I remembered finding so fancy when my parents first unveiled it, thinking that even the words felt exotic: bay window. I felt myself blush as Susan smiled at me; I was sure that my weird window excitement was still palpable in the room.
Becca continued to make small talk about cupboard renovations and gardening while I inspected the kitchen, which looked the same except for updated paint and appliances. We walked into other rooms, now decorated with new furniture, and one by one, scenes of my life reoccurred to me. These were not new memories unearthed by our visit, but instead, a slideshow of the usual suspects, those smooth marbles of the past that I’ve hoarded and polished. In the bathroom, what sprang to mind was not thousands of mornings getting ready, but the one day my friend and I decided to “dust” the lightbulbs with a wet paper towel. In Becca’s old bedroom, I recalled not a single interaction with her, but hearing the Meredith Brooks song “Bitch” on the radio shortly before we moved. “Great song,” I remember thinking. “But it should be called ‘Angel Under Cover.’”
The last stop on our tour was the basement. “This is the only place where we’ve done some real work,” Susan said. The staircase was shorter than I remembered, the ceilings low. What used to be a cement-walled, shagcarpeted nest of jump rope and dance practice was now a white-walled guest room where Susan’s family stays when they visit.
“I broke my arm over there, remember?” Becca said, pointing to one wall. And I do remember, the story if not the incident. Further along the same wall, there was a new doorway, leading into the laundry room. And as I stood in that doorway, listening to Susan talk about the housing market, I noticed a shelving unit by the washing machine that appeared unchanged. It hooked onto the wall: just a bunch of wooden boards. Unexceptional storage.
Except, there’s a memory for that room too. It’s me, nine years old, and it starts upstairs, with my dad saying goodbye to me one morning on his way out. I smelled something strange on his breath and I knew, somehow, that this smell was not Scope or cigarettes, not even liquor, that this was nothing I’d ever smelled directly, only dozens of times secondhand. Then suddenly, as if my nose had now learned the word for it, the concept came into focus: drugs. I followed the idea of that word downstairs, seeming to know the source point by instinct. Walking into
the laundry room, I approached the shelves, peering between baseball gloves and toolboxes and finally locating a small cardboard box. Inside was a pipe, a pack of matches, and a bag of dry green leaves. I picked up the pipe and touched it, held the matches like a live grenade. Then I dropped them both and ran back up three flights of stairs, slamming my bedroom door shut and sitting down hard, my back against the wall.
Always, after that, matches had a cryptic resonance for me, an undertone of fear and taboo that makes me feel strange whenever I see a restaurant matchbook. Always, after that, there was the awareness of something else in our household, these spectres my parents were when they weren’t braiding our hair or packing our lunches. There was a new otherness to them: not just the dividing fact of their authority, but their sudden potential for secrecy. They’d been telling us only half the story, throwing shadows on the other parts of themselves.
As Susan spoke about square footage and building codes, I looked away from the shelving unit and over at Becca, who was investigating the new guest bathroom. Did she ever put her hands on those same laundry room shelves? Did she—five years older—make the same discovery that I had, in her own way? Or was she too busy worrying about volcanoes, about the crappy titles of pop songs?
After just a couple of minutes in the basement, Becca and I were back upstairs, thanking Susan and George and heading out into the cold, our bodies remembering the specific bite of the Calgary climate. We were walking towards the car, and I was still thinking about the basement.
I went to a talk once about origin stories: the myths we use to navigate our lives. We walk these stories like dotted lines, linking future scenarios and relationships back to them.
The scene in the basement was a monologue. That is the essential part of the story: it was private. I wore it as a burden, this special knowledge of what I’d found. For years, I was convinced that I had to keep my father’s secret, that my sister and mother were somehow walking around oblivious, like they shared some twisted version of the cilantro gene that made weed smell like chocolate chip cookies. This was my private knowledge. A magnet that made my insides twist. And that burden, that secret, made me feel distinct—as if bestowed with special insight. This is a feeling I still get sometimes, when I’ve had too much coffee and I’m walking home at a manic pace and the weather is a certain kind of cloudy that makes every shadow look meaningful. “I know everything,” I think, feeling like I’ve uncovered the golden bones of the universe. “I am wise and sad and unique.”
Frank Davis has written about nostalgia’s “penchant for prizing ‘strange’ and private facets of a past self,” saying this is a way of telling ourselves that “‘beneath it all’ we are something more intriguing, more sensitive, more complex, more daring. In short, that we are not like ‘all the others.’” There is something intoxicating about the isolating
sting of yearning, about insisting on our unknowability, at any cost. We look back on our lives with blinders on. When I think about Becca, it’s so easy to focus on our differences, but I know that these differences are— to some extent—a false construction. We have nearly the same face and mannerisms, a body type within one degree of each other. We both love Buffy and eat Babybel cheese in bed. I find it weird to talk to Becca on the phone because it makes me too aware of my own verbal peculiarities— the way I fill silences with “Oh dear,” and put giggly padding on all my paragraphs.
Now, as adults, we exercise our similarities in different cities. We have different careers, different opinions, different circles of friends. And I wonder if maybe my experience of memory as so private, so separate from my sister, is a form of reconciling the loss of an era, a skewed means of mourning that time when our shared experience was so much larger, our daily lives so intertwined.
On the drive back from the old house, Becca and I talked about the time someone tried to break in through the back window. We talked about the new owners’ cats, and about the trees our dad had planted in the backyard. But we didn’t talk about the basement. And we didn’t talk about whatever private memories Becca had hung in the other rooms, whatever discoveries she’d made in the kitchen or the hallway, any sense of tragic individuality she’d unearthed in the storage shed. That’s the thing, I guess, about ghosts: you can stand right in them, and you still don’t have to speak to them directly.