Labor Day musings. Once, on a trip to Chicago, I was driving west on the Kennedy to I-90, and passing by the outskirts of the suburban towns where I grew up. We had lived in Oak Park and moved west successively, so much that the towns created a line of dots on the tollway, like footprints away from the city. My parents’ last home was in East Dundee. They were both gone and the house I had grown up in had traded owners back in the 1980’s, when my mother downsized and moved to Dallas.
I was on Interstate 90, and I realized I was nearing Route 25, I wasn’t far. On a whim, I steered the car towards that old address — you know how you never, ever forget the way home.
I drove by the house, circled a few times to see the neighborhood — yep, the deeded bird sanctuary was still next door. The neighbors’ houses were still there, too, and fairly well-maintained. Homes I once thought of as huge and sprawling looked small and almost ordinary to my Texas-sized house eyes. I came around back and pulled into the circular driveway of 648 Council Hill, right in front of the two car garage I had opened with a clunky remote thousands of times.
I took a deep breath, walked to the front door, and rang the doorbell.
I just wanted to see the house, my parents’ house. My family had built this home in 1972. They enjoyed it happily for about ten years. Then my parents divorced after 42 years of marriage, and this home became their personalized War of the Roses. Like most sparring couples, my father knew where to hit my mother hard: he knew the divorce would force my mother to sell the home she had designed, built and tenderly maintained. My mother, the fighter she was, worked her hardest to keep her home, proving to my father and the world she could do it without a lick of help. Which she did, for years. Of course, eventually she couldn’t maintain it physically or financially. Had she not moved out of state, I think leaving that house would have killed her.
The buyers were a sweet Polish family, and they loved the house. I figured they had probably redecorated, but I held my breath in case the same walls, views, the stairs, the orange kitchen sink (maybe!) and the layout I used to pad through in the darkest of the night would all be there. The decor was pure 70’s bold, potent enough to jolt you awake like a stun gun whether you were ready or not: black and white geometric houndstooth (washable!) wallpaper, grass cloth, long orange shag carpet you raked, indoor-outdoor carpet that coordinated with the orange shag, a Jenn-Aire stove, folding doors on the bar in the family room with walls of clean white brick, fruitwood panelling, a black commode and matching sink in the powder room that was my mother’s pride and joy: she would clean them by hand with vinegar to get rid of water spots.
I think she also had a curtain of glass beads in her master bath that she later, thankfully, removed. Someone please shoot me should bold 70’s decor return and I adopt it.
A few weeks ago, at 5350 South Dentwood, Preservation Dallas did something in Dallas I think we should probably do more often with homes we are marketing for sale: bring together the families of the house. A giant family reunion.
The family who had built 5053 South Dentwood, the Vaughns, came by to see the home they had grown up in. They were greeted by and met the grown up children of the family who had purchased the home from their father, the family of Allan Zidell: his son Michael, Michael’s sisters and brothers.
I watched from afar as they shook hands and spoke, some meeting for the first time,then walked around the sprawling 9500 square foot home together and re-lived old memories shared in the space: we played here under the stairs, remember? Michale drove his scooter around that bend. The dog is buried over there, under that tree.
It was just what I wanted to do in my parents’ more modest suburban Chicago home.
I guess you can only do it when a home has had few owners. Watching the Vaughns and the Zidells, it was like a family reunion for the house. These are my people, it seemed to say, these are the ones who loved me.
Sadly, you cannot do that with a home that has been torn down. I see a lot of tear-downs in Dallas, too many, in fact. Almost always there is a sort of ritual, a “saying goodbye” to the house during the demolition sale as the new owners sell off pieces of the house like body parts: faucets, sinks, commodes, shelving, even the wood off the floor. One recent tear down sold off the appliances and the custom made cabinets that had sliding ladders to facilitate climbing high. I hear now that descendants of the owners are now re-creating rooms in their homes, salvaging walls and materials from their parents’ homes, vignettes, as it were, of a life in the past.
I can go back to our old lot at 5511 Park Lane now, which we sold in 1999, but the home there is no longer the home we enjoyed. The tennis court, pool, and garden room are gone, along with the house. Our home on this property was quite old: there was no construction sale. But I did walk the lot with tears in my eyes even though I knew the smart real estate move was to demo the house and build new — the value, as always, was in the dirt. Still, I snapped photos of the tiny kitchen pantry (it was really small) where I measured my children’s growth with a pencil. I pulled off an exterior brick, the one we had painted white twice. I have a piece of the beautiful blue-green tile from the classic white-wood garden room which was used for many a photo shoot. I even found the address tile which had been discarded.
The house is gone, a sprawling new stone structure in its place. There are still the trees we leaned against in family photographs, and I think the giant oak holding the tree house we made from a sonogram machine crate is flourishing in the back.
Perhaps having a House Reunion cannot be done with a home that has had multiple owners — that family reunion might have to be at Cowboy Stadium.
But we should do it more often. We drove by one of our old Dallas homes on Melissa Lane the other day and she looked grand, very well cared for. The Hockaday neighborhood clear to Midway is changing, 60’s era homes being scraped for newer models. These are some of the best lots in town. But those homes, built in the 60’s, have some of the greatest bones in town. They can be updated for one story living beautifully.
I haven’t been back to Ainsworth yet, but I will. That was our very first home in Dallas, and I hand-painted the baseboards by myself in every single room!
Back to my mother’s house: the same couple who bought it from her still lived there. And to my surprise, they had not redecorated. In fact, they had not touched a thing! Same flooring, same kitchen cabinets and counters, even the orange kitchen sink were all still there. I mean, my mother took great care of her house, but it was like walking into a total time warp. I could not believe they were still using the refrigerator they bought from her, an original Frigidaire that was 40, maybe 50 years old! They said it was still working. I have to keep my freezer contents in plastic bags because my 16 year old fancy Northland breaks down every five years. I wanted my mother’s old refrigerator!
Even the shag carpet was there!
The pool had been changed, because pools get pummeled by winter in northern Illinois and you have to re-plaster them more often than in warmer climates. And the yard had really changed: the trees were huge, bushes overgrown, the evergreen tree marking our dog’s grave was worthy of a Marshall Fields display. I remembered how my dad had gently wrapped her little lifeless body in a beach towel depicting a million dollar bill.
That was a few years ago. An online search tells me the same family still owns it, so hopefully they will let me in once again. I’d better quit complaining about that 70’s decor. Who knows, perhaps it will grow on me?
Sometimes I have trouble understanding the current love affair with everything mid century modern, particularly the furniture. Our living room sofa looked just like the rigid ones I see today at West Elm, only our’s was olive green. I dusted our oblong coffee table and console style end tables (low slung, a raised ledge for lamps under which you could tuck books) and the giant drum shade lamps until I was blue in the face. Is this design craze a way to make us subliminally recall our childhood?
Or are we all just trying to find our way back home?