They say you can never go home again, but sometimes I do. My brother raised his family in the house where we grew up, and while he and his family put their own mark on it, I still walk in the door, plunk myself down at the kitchen table and immerse myself in personal history. I retain muscle memory of how many giant steps it takes to vault the flight of stairs to the middle landing. The slate floor in the front hallway is still a nightmare for bare toes in the winter, but a bonus in the summer. Footsteps climbing the uncarpeted flight to the top floor ricochet off paneled walls the way they always have, and a scent, a ghost of my mother and her cigarettes mixed with forced-hot-air heat, conjures up emotions I only encounter there.
The home is within walking distance to schools, a bustling downtown, the library, grocery stores, and a cross-town park intersected by a flowing brook. Close to major highways and a reasonable commute to the city, nowadays, houses in the area often sell for above owners’ asking prices. When I lived there though, it was just an ordinary subdivision. Our neighbors made their marks on the modest colonials by adding a room over the garage to accommodate expanding families, bumping out a den or enclosing a porch. Within the past few years though, this practice has changed dramatically.
A few years back, around the corner from where my brother lives a developer leveled a house where long ago, my oldest brother used to play with a friend, replacing it with a dwelling three times the original size. Not long after that, the wrecking ball demolished a pretty grey colonial on a neighboring street. A hulking monster rose in its place. Number three occurred when one of my childhood friends had to put her ailing mother into a nursing home. A “For Sale” sign appeared in front of her mom’s house. My friend received assurances from the prospective buyers that they'd renovate only and money changed hands. A short time later the home she grew up in was a hole in the ground. Now, when I visit and look out to the address where her mother used to serve us bagels and cream cheese, the only thing I recognize is a lie.
A few weeks before my last visit, one of my brother’s neighbors put his place on the market for a minor fortune. Two days later he got his asking price. A developer contacted him twenty four hours later and said, “I would have bought it for more.” When I pulled into the subdivision, one more house had been leveled and rebuilt, another two doors down from it was in the process and up the street the largest replacement of all is under construction. It takes up most of the half-acre lot, complete with a princess balcony overlooking the road. When the neighborhood was developed, six and eight-kid families were the norm. Now, the streets where I used to ride my bike, “Look Ma, no hands!” have become a mismatched jigsaw of 1950’s colonials juxtaposed between towering manses built for families less than half the size.
How lucky that I can still drive up to my old home and unpack my childhood, musty but whole, as if pulling it out of mothballs. But my brother’s two children are grown now. I imagine it won’t be long until he and his wife look for a smaller place. When they do, the 1954 split cape my parents extended themselves to build for their growing family will become a target. The faint aroma conjuring up Mom and her cigarettes will disappear for good. In our throw-away world, it’s not just bricks and mortar that turn to dust when a house becomes a teardown.