Home Is So Sad

I’ve been dreaming about my childhood home, the one I lived in until I was eight years old. Yellow brick, three stories, old wooden window frames that shuddered in the wind — it was one rented half of a duplex, my parents’ first married home in southwestern PA. My bedroom was painted yellow, with alphabet decals parading across one wood-paneled wall. Under the windows was a wall-length art table that my grandfather made to fit around the radiator. There were two small wooden chairs at that table. I had a little record player, a white vinyl hobby horse, a stack of sticker books.

For my eighth birthday, the last I spent in that house, I asked for and received a cassette player. I still have it.

My memories of this home are specific and visceral. In the kitchen: the taste of Kool-Aid in Dixie cups; frozen grapes stabbed with toothpicks; an experiment with sugar-crusted johnny-jump-ups. In the living room: playing library, squeezed between the couch arm and bookshelf; the large front window that clattered with teenagers’ corn kernels hurled on Halloween. In the middle room, a dining room-slash-office-slash-playroom: we drew with chalk on the linoleum floor.

The house where my parents now live is only one block away from this home of origin. Since leaving home at eighteen, I’ve made a point of walking past during every visit. It’s been a ritual, a pilgrimage. Over the years, the house grew steadily shabbier, until shabby became too generous a term. At the end of this past summer, I took a picture of a doll abandoned by a tree outside. Junk was piled on and around the porch. Windows were broken; railings were bent. It was no longer a young family’s first home but just another slum rental, in a town too full of them.

Last month, for the first time in thirty-two years, I went inside.

A friend gave me access. She bought the property recently, building up a rental property portfolio in the area, and the side of the house I once lived in had been vacated two weeks before my visit. The tenants had been evicted. Angry, vengeful, they stuffed pieces of raw meat in the walls before leaving.

I’d been given fair warning about going inside, but really I had no idea what I’d see. First, there was filth — a level of filth that seems incompatible with daily life. Carpet teeming with fleas and dirt and garbage. A pile of garbage in the attic stairwell. Dog feces on the floor. A single bathroom so toxic, so rusted and filthy and stained and horrible, that it seems impossible that anyone used it, let alone the children who lived there. In my sister’s old room — a mattress burned and gutted in the center. Windows broken, plastic blinds like skeleton fingers reaching. A dirt-cheap rental for troubled, careless people with nowhere else to go.

Already emotionally raw in the changed world following November 8, I was gutted by what I saw. The word that echoed in my head that day was desecrated. Because that house had been sacred. It had been ours, our family’s, and in the pictures from that time — golden, fading — we’re happy, the house is full of our treasures and projects, my sister and I are running barefoot down the hall.

Being back there, in those warped, ruined rooms, was like being inside a nightmare — where everything loved is gone, and everything good has disappeared. And, indeed, in the weeks since my visit, I keep dreaming of that house. The dreams are full of unease and fear, anxiety and confusion. In one, I discover that a door at night is open wide, and I know there are intruders in the house, but I can’t see them, can’t find them. In another, I’m in empty rooms — clean this time, the carpets swept — trying to explain something to people from my New Jersey life, but not finding the words, not making myself understood.

That feeling of incomprehension is at the root of what affected me so deeply that day. I’d driven to southwestern Pennsylvania the morning after Election Day, leaving my affluent, liberal town where people were weeping in groups in the street — and arriving in a place that until that day was the one place in the world I thought I’d always feel was home. But Trump signs and billboards covered the landscape like fallen leaves. Trump banners were tacked across broken-down tractors by the roadside. Even the most decrepit mobile homes ordered passersby to Make America Great Again. And I — who had been born and raised in this place — was, finally, an outsider.

The night of the election, people in my town shot their guns in the streets. A month ago, the walls of my childhood house were full of meat. When I walked into that house, and saw those rooms of my life overtaken by a kind of existence my children will never be able to imagine, I understood clearly for the first time that I’ll probably never go back; and even if I do, even if we decide one day to dial down our life, scale back, live simply in the mountains, the home we make will never be the same as what that home, to me, once was.

A Philip Larkin poem, long a favorite, has been murmuring in my mind:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was: 
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

I know this sadness will fade. Christmas is coming; we’ll gather, back home, with good food and traditions. My landlord friend will make my old house safe and clean for tenants with fewer bridges to burn. When I walk past next time, perhaps there will be mums in a pot, a wreath on the door. Happiness inside instead of hopelessness, abject, nightmarish despair.

Margo Orlando Littell is the author of the novel Each Vagabond by Name.