I’ve been thinking about how when someone doesn’t have a house, society often uses the word “homeless” to describe them. Thankfully, we have started to move away from saying “homeless,” instead using the word “houseless.” The latter is a much better description, because it’s entirely possible for someone to not have a house, but still have a home (in more than one sense, in fact).
Then you have people like me, who have perfectly good houses, but have never felt at home in their lives.
Something my therapist and I have discussed at some length is the love/hate relationship I had with my childhood house. When I try to remember things about the house, most of what comes back is sensory: the feel of rough plaster and unfinished drywall, the smoky smell of that wall in my room that nearly caught fire when my dad and his buddies tried to clean out our fireplace with dynamite, the sound of a mosquito buzzing around my room on a stiflingly hot summer night. When I think about it now, even to write this, I get choked up. I want to have memories of a place where I felt safe and loved, but instead I just remember a place where I was often scared.
My first memory of being in the house was when I was three years old. I was in the living room, playing alone. My parents were talking with friends, just off of my mental screen, to my left, near the front door area. I was looking at the bottom of a wingback chair, scrutinizing the amount of space under the chair, trying to come up with a plan for how I’d squeeze myself under it to hide when the “bad men” broke into the house to kill us all.
My first plan was to slide under the chair and grip it, spread-eagled, like a ninja, using my arms and legs to keep me springloaded in place so that they couldn’t see me. My backup plan was to run as fast as I could to the bathroom/utility room, and hide in the space behind the deep freezer. I was worried that my arms and legs weren’t strong enough to keep me hidden under the chair for long enough, but I also thought that the plan to hide behind the freezer was certain death, and they’d shoot me in the end. I have no idea where the idea of home invasion came from, but it has remained a constant worry for my entire life.
The house was never finished, and it doesn’t exist anymore. My parents built it from scratch, but when my grandfather got sick and my dad had to quit his job as a schoolteacher and go back to work for the family business, construction slowed to a halt. It was always a work in progress, and then it got knocked down and returned to the land. The eaves were never filled in, so all sorts of animals got into the house. There were always wasps to step on, snakes in the rafters or curled up in the window, and squirrels gnawing on things.
Oh yeah, the house was also haunted.
The earliest spirit on record was my dead aunt, who haunted my mom for a bit during pregnancy, and then was frequently heard in my vicinity once I came along. She apparently traveled with us (my dad was convinced she was tied to me) from our old house to the new one once we moved. I have no memory of her, but my mom said she often heard her in my room, laughing and playing, sometimes with me, and other times when I was sleeping.
Next came the nighttime man. When I was maybe three or four, one night my mom heard a man in my room, talking with me. He would talk, then I would respond, and so on. She woke my dad up, and they rushed into my room, only to find me asleep, with no man in sight. My mom has told me that the man and I had conversations so often that my parents eventually stopped getting up to check on me. Our conversations gradually faded, and I have no memory of him.
My bedroom had no door for most of my time there, and the hallway never had a light source. Once the sun went down, beyond the door was shrouded in darkness. To get downstairs, I had to go out into the hall, turn a blind corner to my right, walk past my parents’ room (which offered its own horrors if they’d left the bedroom door open), then turn a left down the tall staircase. There was no toilet upstairs, so to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I taught myself to make this entire journey–plus the trek through the entire downstairs to the end of the house, where the bathroom was–with my eyes shut tightly, relying only on touch. Even today I map new places by touch, so that I don’t have to open my eyes if I don’t want to.
I also perfected the art of not looking directly at things. I remember every inch of my bedroom’s door frame, because I taught myself to never let my eyes stray to the darkness beyond it. Writing this, I can barely breathe, thinking about what I thought was standing there. Who was it? What was it? Was it my dead aunt, a perpetual 5-year-old, killed in a freak accident? She did scare me tremendously, considering my father also talked about her all the time. She felt alive and present, and I desperately didn’t want to ever run into her in the upstairs hallway, with that platinum blonde hair and those perfect blue eyes, wearing a crisp little 1950’s dress and shiny black mary janes.
Eventually there was also Major Marsh, a long-deceased ancestor whose Civil War-era uniform hat resided in a hat box in the room we used as a family library. There was also a bullet, if I remember correctly, something that had been dug out of Major Marsh’s body after a battle, and that remained in his pocket for the rest of his long life. After the hat came to live with us, the activity in the house picked up considerably. Things were often flung across the library. Boots marched up and down the first floor. Once, my mom had just settled down for a nap when she heard the front door slam, boots walk into the house, and up the stairs, felt someone sit on the bed beside her, and felt a hand caress her back. She’d assumed it was my dad, but when she turned to look at him, there was no one. My parents took all of this with a grain of salt. My dad insisted we should set an extra dinner plate at the table, to let the spirits know they were welcome guests.
There were real frights, too. Live men who broke into our house and stole things. There were three separate break-ins, but luckily never when we were home. By the time I was in high school and my parents felt comfortable with leaving me home on my own, the thought of being alone in that house made me want to crawl out of my skin. The only room in the house that had a lock on the door was their bedroom, so when they’d leave, I’d gather up all of the snacks and drinks I’d need, and barricade myself in their room for the night. I never outgrew being afraid of the trek to the bathroom, so I just held it, no matter what. I’d be so relieved once they finally made it home. Most teenagers can’t wait for their parents to leave so they can have free reign to be a little naughty; I prayed they’d hurry the hell up and get home so I didn’t have to be alone.
The house was eventually condemned and destroyed when I was in college. In the mid to late 1990s, it flooded three separate times from hurricanes that hit the coast of North Carolina, and each time my dad replaced sheetrock and subflooring. It couldn’t be raised, and would continue to flood on that land, so eventually FEMA bought the house from us and my parents moved.
I remember that when I’d play outside as a kid, I always felt like the house was watching me. I felt that way inside, too. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t get to see the house before it was razed; maybe whatever was there needed me to be able to jump ship, and now it’s stuck there. My parents’ next house was haunted, too, but somewhat less creepily.
There’s no simple wrap-up here. Except maybe to say that when I got to college and saw I had a door, walls, a ceiling, and even honest-to-goodness carpet, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. It was the first time I’d ever felt safe in a place that was also supposed to be my home. In retrospect, that juxtaposition is horrifying. Adult me wants to scoop little me up into a hug, and set her free from that mental torture. No wonder I’m a ball of anxiety. But it is what it is. Let’s keep going and get to the bottom of this whole home situation, shall we?