"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Monday, November 9, 2009

Haunting Houses

When I was five, we moved to a green house in Richmond, Virginia. The house was far away from any major roads or shopping centers, sitting on a large lot far back from a lone dirt and gravel road. It seemed as if we lived in the middle of nowhere, and only emerged for visits to the grocery store or the bank.

Deep, thick woods surrounded us practically on every side. I can remember walking in the road in front of our house, picking up rocks from the gray and brown selection, with not a worry of a car coming by or following the usual rules of looking both ways or staying out of the street.
We had moved in a hurry, and the process was tense. Even at five years old, I had sensed it. What I didn’t know then was that we were moving to get away from my father’s last mistress. We had lived in another area of Richmond, in a little white brick house with a black door, and neighbors all around us with kids my age. My memories of that first house include what seemed to be one big back yard laced together between four or five houses, and all of the kids intermingling between swing sets and sandboxes, drinking kool-aid in different kitchens all the time.

My sister, nine years older than me, made extra money babysitting for the lady at the end of the street on the corner, who had a little boy my age. Her house was the farthest away from ours on the street, so she and her children were not as familiar to me. But, my sister could walk there to babysit. And she did. And while she did, my father and that woman had an affair; their trysts planned while my sister cared for her children.

I only learned this in college, when my sister told me, amazed that I didn’t remember everything, forgetting I was only five. The things I do remember were an explosion of emotion, my father rushing home, telling my mother something, all of us crying, lots of screaming and slamming of doors and everyone in and out of the house. I remember us all in the car, my mother driving at a frightening rate of speed and finally stopping to look at us, my sister and me, in the backseat.

To be honest, that event had stayed in memory, but I didn’t know the context. And frankly, my mother and father had a number of other fights before and after that, so this one had just seemed more intense. But, as my sister explained to me over the phone fifteen years later, the woman had threatened to tell my mother about the affair, and basically my father raced home to beat her to the punch. We had to move, and it all happened fast.

The green house in Richmond holds a lot of odd memories for me. Lost in the aftermath of their battle, my parents were merely coexisting, fighting constantly, and whether intentional or not, leaving my sister and me to fare on our own. Even though she was only thirteen at the time, I don’t remember her being home much. My guess (and hope) is that she was spending time with friends. I remember being able to wander all around the yard, across the road, and to a neighbor’s house—connected to us by a path through the woods. Maybe my memory is patchy, maybe my mother was always watching, but I felt very much on my own most of the time.

There was a hatred that hung between my parents, and after particularly loud and angry arguments, I would be reassured if I was heard crying, or if I walked into a room where they were arguing. Everything was fine, nothing was wrong. The drastic difference to what I saw and heard and what they were telling me was hard to reconcile.

At some point during the first months we lived there, and I am sure much to my mother’s annoyance, my father bought a motorcycle. I remember its loud roaring motor, the brown color of the gas tank in contrast to the rest of the black bike—and the seemingly terrifying speed with which my father raced down the dirt road, invisible within seconds inside a cloud of dust.

He would take my mother riding on it, and she tolerated it more than anything, always fearful of my father’s moments of daredevil antics. I wanted to ride with him, begged constantly to ride. He would let me sit on the bike while it was idle and leaning on a kickstand in the front yard-him standing next to me, holding me centered on the seat. He would then get on the bike and sit behind me and show me what all the buttons and gauges were for, seeming to speak a foreign language as he talked about gas levels, the ignition, and the odometer.

But I didn’t want to ride the bike because I was a budding speed demon. I was actually terrified. I had watched my father ride the bike seemingly a hundred times, and as he sped around, pulling the front wheel off the ground, I didn’t get excited, I was scared. Scared that he would do those things with me on the bike, and we would crash. Scared that he would go too fast, and I would fly off the bike. Scared that he wouldn’t be careful with me. But, I longed for the solitary attention from him that wasn’t negative. I longed to have moments with him where he seemed as happy as he was riding his motorcycle, but with me included.

I don’t remember all of the details, but I believe my mother had protested my riding with him. At some point, she relinquished, and he took me on a ride down the road and through our yard. I pretended to love him taking off too fast, and speeding up too quickly, and taking sharp turns that left us teetering sideways. I hid my fear in squeals of what I hoped he interpreted as delight.

Over the next weeks that summer, we started riding more, and venturing farther and farther from the house. We would be riding down the long dirt road, and he would suddenly, without warning, veer off the road, through a ditch and into a field of tall grass, trees and weeds. The ride would get bumpy and fierce, limbs smacking at us, and tall grass catching in the laces of my tennis shoes as we rumbled through. There was no way to tell what the land before us had in store, holes, rocks, debris that could have stopped us in our tracks or overturned the bike. But, I acted as if I was thrilled to be along for the ride.

And then one afternoon, in the distance, in the middle of a field, miles and miles from anything, we saw a house.

It was a huge farmhouse with a wraparound porch, faded white paint and a tar black roof. Pale blue shutters, faded in years of unfiltered sun, hung loosely by the windows, some dangling by only one corner. As we got closer, it was easy to see that most of the glass from the windows was gone. There was no front door, and remnants of trash, old tires, and large pieces of metal littered the yard.

He pulled closer, parked the bike, turned off the motor, and lifted me off the seat before getting off himself. He excitedly told me to follow him as he headed toward the house.

My heart was thumping in my chest. What if someone was there? Why were we going inside?

He stepped on the porch, not trusting the steps leading up to it, which were in serious disrepair. He tested the strength of the boards before pulling me up on the porch beside him. He cautiously stepped in through the open front door frame as I followed behind.

His footsteps stopped and I stood motionless, looking around the room, just as he was. It was as if we had stepped back in time. The furniture was old and dated, but was all there. A complete living room, still arranged with sofa, chairs, and tables all in place. A fireplace on the far wall stood open, the stone hearth stained black with years of use. Pictures hung on the wall, and faded crumpling wallpaper hung on to the remnants of the walls. The only indication that the house was abandoned was a layer of dust so thick that I didn’t recognize it as dust until my father placed his hand in the center of a sofa cushion, mesmerized by the density of it.

There was absolutely no sound other than our footsteps as we wandered through the rooms, even venturing upstairs to find a large unmade bed, a closet full of clothes, a nightstand and rugs, all in place, looking as if someone had just crawled out of bed, dressed hurriedly, leaving the closet doors open. The only indication that this wasn’t the case was the inches thick blanket of powdery filth covering the pillows, bed linens, and clothing hanging in the closets.

We made our way back downstairs to find the kitchen, a round table in the center, with an old school workbook my father said he recognized from his childhood. He stared at it in amazement, absentmindedly sharing moments of his past as a young schoolboy in Kentucky. I was afraid to move, afraid he would remember I was there and stop talking. I soaked up every word as he began explaining things to me—what this was—or how amazing this was—telling me to look at this or that.

I was still beyond terrified. I felt as if we had stumbled into some other world where we didn’t belong, into someone’s home, and I knew any moment, the owners would come storming in and harm us for intruding. Even though it was obvious no one had been there in years, that feeling never left me, and I was so eager to get on the bike and return home.

We did return home and told my mother and sister about the house, but weren’t able to deliver in detail what we had seen accurately just through descriptions.

However, that summer, my father and I made several other trips just like that one, and astonishingly, found house after house like the one we had first discovered. Some ended up being within walking distance of our home, and we would trek as a family to look through these houses and their still life histories. But most of the time, it was just me and my father, heading out in search of another adventure.

What amazes me now is that I was so frightened the whole time we went on these rides and explorations. I honestly didn’t want to go, and the whole time we were gone, I wanted desperately to be safe back at my house. But, I never hesitated to go with him. I wanted that time and individual attention with him more than anything, and those rides, however harrowing, were the only time I got them.

And even though I resent many things my father has done, and even the reckless way he risked my safety at times, those motorcycle trips are still one of the most vivid and pressing memories I have of my childhood, and some of the only ones where I remember interacting with him outside of our home and the pain and tumultuous relationship he had with me.

So I am thankful for those summer days in 1975, the two of us haunting houses, chasing ghosts, and visiting private, mysterious places. There have been times over the years that I doubted my memory. There couldn’t have been so many abandoned houses; we couldn’t have just discovered them. I have no photos of any of the houses, or from any of those rides. But my mother has confirmed my recollection, adding details of her own.

I have so often wondered about those houses and how they were abandoned so swiftly, and what happened to the families that lived there.

We didn’t live very long in the green house before my father was transferred with his job to North Carolina. I am sure he asked for the transfer to get us as far away from his deceit as possible.

And even though I remember us packing boxes, and I remember the move from the green house to our new home, I have often imagined the green house sitting empty, the front door missing, and everything as we left it. I imagine someone discovering our house as we discovered the others, wandering in to touch the layers of dust on our blue floral couch or my ruffled bedspread. I can almost see them looking at the rocking chair in the den and the photos on the walls, wondering why we left so suddenly.

And then, just like my father and I did each time, they leave our mysteries and our ghosts behind to go back home, never knowing the answer.


Carla November 9, 2009 at 7:25 AM  

This would be a fabulous chapter for your book. Will you be adding it to your NaNoWriMo word count. I hope you do!

Anonymous,  November 9, 2009 at 7:59 AM  

Wonderful post...keep writing :-)

In Real Life November 9, 2009 at 10:00 AM  

Beautiful...thank you for taking me on that journey with you.

Apryl November 9, 2009 at 11:14 AM  

Breathtakingly descriptive.

Eva Gallant November 9, 2009 at 11:25 AM  

I felt like I was there with you! Wonderful!

Daphne November 9, 2009 at 12:36 PM  

This is such a poetic and moving story! If you ever want to track down more information about those houses or the one you lived in, it's possible. Let me know if you want to try and keep writing!

Anonymous,  November 9, 2009 at 1:59 PM  

we moved from a big blue house in the city to a farm house, not to hide an affair(that I know of) but to many people were asking questions about the bruises on my body, my father rushed us out of the city as if we had wings......God how parents dont know what they do to us as children......again I find your bravery so uplifting, thank you friend;)

Dimple November 9, 2009 at 5:11 PM  

This is an excellent story. It stands on its own, but is also part of a larger story. Well done.

Kristie Lynne November 9, 2009 at 6:57 PM  

Thank you. I love your writing. I hope someday to be able to express myself as you do.

Pat November 9, 2009 at 10:05 PM  

This was intriguing, interesting, and so full of detail. I felt that I was beside you all the way. You are such a gifted writer.

Kim November 9, 2009 at 11:00 PM  

Thank you all so much for these beautiful comments. I can't tell you how much your words touch and inspire me!

Thomasina November 10, 2009 at 9:34 AM  

Terrific writing! It left me wanting to read more.

Newly and Forever, Tamantha November 10, 2009 at 12:47 PM  

I used to love finding old houses, empty, with things left behind...it was almost like a treasure hunt...I remember, too hearing my parents arguing ALL the time..it's sad, but when they told us they were divorcing, I was almost relieved because the fighting would stop. Of course, the silence wasn't any better, because we had to leave and my dad was out of my life for many years.

Cheri Pryor November 11, 2009 at 3:50 AM  

Another wonderful piece of writing. It reminded me a lot of my own childhood and getting to ride on the motorcycle with my dad. My relationship with him was MUCH different than yours with your father, but the memories are vivid just like your own.

Squish November 13, 2009 at 12:14 AM  

Those houses sound amazing. I never would have thought about that. But I always wonder about the old abandoned houses I see in the country or even the abandoned mansions in the city. This seems like it would be perfect for a book.

¥倶楽部 December 8, 2009 at 4:50 PM  


野外露出 December 9, 2009 at 6:02 PM  


高級 December 10, 2009 at 7:21 PM  


prashant December 25, 2009 at 12:08 PM  

Beautiful...thank you for taking me on that journey with you.

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Michelle January 9, 2010 at 2:30 PM  

:) i loved reading it!

Reggie November 10, 2010 at 7:35 PM  

Excellent post!!!

Isn't it amazing the things we remember from our childhood? The intricate details........as if it were only yesterday?!?


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