The evening my husband and I came home after dropping our daughter off at college, our sons were both away and we returned to a very quiet house. I went to sleep but woke in the middle of the night to an emptiness I had never felt before. It lurked in the darkened hallway outside my doorway and in the bedrooms beyond. Our home, I realized, would never be the same.
When we bought the house we live in, my children were young – four, two and nine months old. I remember the first night we slept here distinctly – lying in bed and looking through the blinds at the moon, feeling as if I were on a big wooden ship, optimistic about our voyage, but also a bit daunted.
We had taken on a lot of square feet, jumped up several sizes from our first home. My daughter came running down the hallway to stand by the side of the bed, tiny, daunted herself by all the space around us. Could she sleep with us? Of course!
It was the first of many nights that one, two, or all three of the kids ended up in our bed. But as they grew older and bigger, eventually, they occupied the empty space in the house, filling their own rooms with clothes and games, sporting gear and friends. Over time, they switched spaces, tinkered with decor, settled in. We went from one dog to two, one cat to three. We spread out, entertained, hosted family, exchange students, teams, colleagues and neighbors. Our gracious old home accommodated us every step of the way.
Nothing about this is unique. We maybe have the little quirk that our house happens to be on the same street as my mother-in-law’s – but in our town, even this isn’t so strange. Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods, and this one happens to be my husband’s family’s neck of Charm City.
For years – as we’ve walked the dogs, gone to the store, strolled to neighbors’ homes – we’ve exchanged stories about each and every house and its residents, past and present. Friendships are multigenerational, and deep. I’ve been happy for the sense of history that this has given my kids. Our old ship, anchored here in a friendly port.
But now they’re taking off in their own vessels. And we’re still anchored. I guess I’m wondering – How long do we stay? In the months of house shopping all those years ago, in the years of housekeeping since, in a middle lifetime of gardening and nesting, I’ve never thought too much about this – What the house would feel like on the other side of parenting?
This is a beautiful place, but not a perfect one, despite my efforts. And the upkeep is constant.
We bought our house from a couple of professors who had rescued it from decrepitude, a hundred-year-old shingle style classic crumbling away. They did an incredible job restoring it and we were lucky we didn’t have major structural issues to deal with when we moved in.
I remember how happy they seemed to be leaving, however, and it struck me as odd then. It was such a unique place, so lovingly renovated. But their son was off to college, their dog had died, and they were headed to an ultra modern apartment in the city. They left us toys, furniture, gardening tools, books. They left us a lot of good karma. And they didn’t look back.
To me then, a young stay-at-home mom with three kids, a gardener, an animal lover – a sleek apartment held no appeal. It was the cigarette boat to our ship. How could you leave behind vintage blocks, Bill Peet and Maurice Sendak paperbacks, Stickley chairs and a big iron pot-rack?
But now I think back and I understand. The big house with space for everyone and everything might be becoming too big. There’s so much stuff! As I get older, I realize I want to leave smaller tracks in the world, take better care about the energy and resources I expend.
But how do you leave a place like this? I don’t know. If we leave, will our kids understand? Will they visit us in a new home, one that isn’t “theirs?” It will soon be a new chapter for me and my husband. We will be two most of the time. Do we start over, just as we did when each of our children arrived, just as they themselves are beginning new adventures? Or are we bound to the history on these streets, in these hallways?
This is our place as five, the only one our kids can remember. Memories reside in each corner like friendly ghosts. The gardens we have diligently planted have filled in, the apple trees are close to bearing fruit. Will the kids want to be married here, bring their own children back for celebrations? In the vacuum between now and then, between holidays and vacations, do I just keep vacuuming the empty rooms?
I have promised my youngest son two years. In two years he will head to college, and our oldest will graduate from college. In that time, my husband will paint the house. I will get our back deck fixed; replace the old sink on the third floor; take down and clean the venetian blinds; sort through the books and toys, the tools in the potting shed and garage. Two years should be enough time to do all of those projects, to take stock.
Then the house will be perfect – at long last. Perfect to sell to a family just casting off, or ready for us to continue our journey here in this place we call home.
Christine Kouwenhoven lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and three children (mostly grown, two flown). She works as the Director of Communications at Baltimore School for the Arts. Christine has an MA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She shares poems and reflections regularly on her blog poempost.