Once upon a time, I lived in the house of my dreams. Built in 1905, it was a beautiful Victorian in San Francisco on a shady street just a block away from a gym, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a hardware store, three cafes and several restaurants. My ex-husband and I moved in when our middle child was just a few weeks old. The kitchen had no refrigerator and the stove was an ancient Wedgewood with a tiny oven, but we were in love with that house. I remember sitting on the front stairs with him before the sale had even closed, holding hands. It was everything we had ever wanted.
Fourteen years and two more children later, we divorced.
By then, we had remodeled the house, adding bedrooms and bathrooms and a family room, tearing down walls and revamping the kitchen twice. After the earthquake of 1989, we even redid the entire foundation. That house had been a labor of love, and I was determined to keep it.
In the divorce settlement, I did get the house, but nothing had prepared me for the task of maintaining it by myself. When the family room flooded or the roof needed replacing or the garage door got stuck, I would panic. I had no problem, however, doing the little things: unplugging toilets and drains, mowing the tiny lawn, planting bulbs and flowers, cleaning the pond and the hot tub, replacing clogged tubing in the watering system. As for that supposedly burdensome job so many guys neglect or gripe about, putting out the garbage once a week, what a joke! Compared to cooking and cleaning and driving, compared to shopping, making lunches and washing clothes, it was nothing at all.
I had lost a husband and a united family, but I was determined that my children would not lose the comfort and warmth of the home they loved. Like a stranger in my own house, I would roam from room to room trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Wherever I went, I would see my ex: meditating in our bedroom; lying on the floor reading The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to our children; practicing his Aikido and sword sets in the back yard; watching football with the boys in the family room; laughing and telling silly jokes at dinner, which we shared as a family every night, often joined by our children’s friends who just happened to drop by right at dinner time. I always thought he was happy. Perhaps I had been wrong. I will never know. But now my ex-husband was a ghost who filled every space with waves of sadness.
So I decided to repaint. Instead of a soft white, I picked bold warm colors I would never have thought of using before: a russet wall surrounding the fireplace, a bright yellow family room, a lilac blue bedroom. I even bought a red sofa bed for my little office. Since he had taken the oil paintings with him, I hung colorful framed posters and Mexican art everywhere, with a huge Indonesian wood mirror above the couch and a candle-lit wrought-iron chandelier above the dining room table.
Late one manic night, I had turned the dining room into the living room by dragging each heavy piece of furniture by myself from one room to the other. Bringing platters of food through the living room to the very front of the house was awkward and impractical, but it was different. And different, I thought, would help me forget.
But no matter what I did to erase the past and make the house mine, I couldn’t get rid of the memories of us. I couldn’t banish his invisible presence. Not that it stopped me from trying. I loved my house, and I thought nothing could make me divorce it.
I refinanced four times in six years, taking out more and more money just to keep going, watching both my mortgage payments and my expenses increase as my finances dwindled.
After the divorce, a friend had made a drawing showing me staring out through the bars of a second-floor window. I had become a prisoner in my own home.
Of course, reality finally sank in: I could not afford to stay in my beloved home. I remember my children’s sad expressions when I told them we would have to move. They were losing the last connection to the family we once were.
The market was dropping precipitously, and I readied myself for a quick sale. People trounced through on weekends, or disturbed our dinners, or made rude comments that made me want to punch them. No offers came.
I refinanced again, waited a month, and got a different agent. Still nothing.
“You’re holding on too tightly,” said the same friend who had drawn the picture. “Everyone who comes through the door can tell you don’t want to let go.”
Let go? I thought I already had. The house was for sale, wasn’t it? No, it was the bad divorce vibes that were poisoning the air and turning off buyers. To clear the negative energy, I paid a shaman to walk from room to room muttering prayers and waving a smoking bundle of sage. My East Coast friends thought I had lost my mind. It was sooooooo California.
Two months went by. One day my agent took me aside and, as gently as she could, suggested I move out so they could stage my home. I could tell she wanted to say much more but didn’t want to hurt my fragile feelings. Reluctantly, I rented a small house on a lagoon in Marin County and moved. A month later, the house sold.
A part of my soul still lives in that house. Even after it was gutted and turned into something unrecognizable, I pine for it. Even though I hate the cold and foggy San Francisco summers, I would give anything to live there again. In the many dreams I have of my old home, I am searching everywhere for something: a child, usually, or a secret, or a forbidden gift. I never find whatever it is I have lost.
Every time I go to San Francisco, I feel compelled to drive by my house. Sometimes I park in my old neighborhood and buy Brie and aged Gouda from my favorite cheese store or a baguette and a French apple tart from the bakery-cafe across the street. Sometimes I sit there at a little outside table nursing an espresso and staring at my lost home’s taupe facade, the only part of it left intact. The tall red maples I planted on either side of the driveway thinking they were miniature Japanese maples now reach the second story. That makes me smile. And when I have the courage, I walk to the sidewalk in front of my house and read the names etched into the concrete, the names of seven people who used to be a family.