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Friday Takeaway: House Hunter

  • Naomi Shulman is shown May 31, 2017 in her Northampton home.



Friday, June 08, 2018

I admit it: I’m a stalker. Not the super-creepy sort, but the kind we all are these days, sifting through the photos of our Facebook friends. For a while, there was one particular page that I visited again and again. I found it on the Facebook profile of an acquaintance — Janet, a girl in the class ahead of me in high school. I barely knew her back then, and really, I barely know her now. She and I ran in entirely different social circles: She was a star athlete, a homecoming queen; I was a band nerd, a drama geek. But Janet was always friendly, and thanks to Facebook, I know she is married, and I know she has lovely children who do clever, exceptional things. I wasn’t looking at her family in these photos, however. No, I was peeking around them at the backsplash over the sink. I was looking past them at the shelves in the den.

I wasn’t stalking Janet; I was stalking the house. She was living in the house I grew up in.

I have always had a fascination with seeing the insides of other people’s houses. As a kid, I loved the glimpses one could get inside neighbors’ picture windows as the night fell. As an adult, I find myself sifting through shelter magazines and home-decor websites, examining images of homes that may or may not look anything like they do in real life. There’s an intimacy to being invited into someone’s real-life living space, and a false echo of that intimacy lingers on sites like DesignSponge and Apartment Therapy, where rooms are “interiors,” and images are carefully curated, even airbrushed. There’s a reason people call it house porn.

Everyone drives by their childhood home when they’re in the neighborhood, right? I always have, ever since the house was sold twentysomething years ago. It was my home from infancy until the day I left for college, so it’s the stage of the majority of my childhood memories and still the setting of many of my most intense dreams. It’s not
because the house was all that great; let’s just say my parents weren’t exactly model homeowners. Already old and in need of TLC, the house rapidly fell into disrepair — an apt metaphor for my parent’s marriage. Little quirks deepened into major, expensive issues. By the time my parents divorced, it felt like entire sections of the house were beyond hope — holes in walls, sagging ceiling tiles, piles of dusty clutter that had an air of permanence. 

You couldn’t call the house in Janet’s photos curated or airbrushed, but the place looked a lot better than I remembered it. The people who bought the house from my mother didn’t gut the place, but enough work has been done that it takes me a minute, sometimes, to identify the rooms in Janet’s photos. Is that the dining room? It must be — the picture window gives it away — but the smooth, dry-walled surface surrounding it is utterly foreign. I know that’s the den — I recognize the distinctive woodwork — but the clutter that once rose from the desk and the chair and even the floor, “Hoarders”-style, is gone. The room looks not smaller, in the way childhood homes typically do, but far more spacious and open. 

***

In my late teens and early twenties, I moved dozens of times — into different apartments, different cities, different states. But not long after I married, my husband and I bought the house I live in today, and I’ve sunk into it; now I’ve lived in my current house exactly as long as I lived in my childhood home. Just as I grew up in my house since infancy, my children have lived in this house since they were brought home from the hospital in their car-seat carriers. Someday this house will be the backdrop of their intense dreams. What will they remember?

Janet and I rarely socialize, in person or online, but we have had a little Facebook chat about the house. She generously offered an open-door invitation to visit the house again, but I restricted myself to drive-bys, noting the new flowerbed, the updated front-door color. I didn’t actually want to go inside. And now she’s moved on to a new house, so there are no new Facebook photos of it to click on. But that’s OK. Even in my dreams, I had already been starting to cede the house over to her. More and more, now, my dreams are set here, at home. 

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times,  The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.