We’ve lived in our house in West Austin for almost 14 years—the longest we’ve ever lived anywhere. Our kids finished school here, brooding and backtalking through the sullen years of adolescence. We hosted annual holiday parties here, and almost always something memorable happened—like the year a poet tried to attack my husband with a butter knife, or the time one woman loudly confronted another about writing a semi-romantic newspaper column about her twenty-something son. And there was the unforgettable night when four teenage girls slept off their first drunks in the house after projectile vomiting in my husband’s car.
We’ve renovated the kitchen, refinished the hardwood floors, painted, roofed, re-roofed. More than anything, we’ve sunk deep roots here, in our house and neighborhood. “It’s a happy house,” a friend once said. “You can tell that.” She was right. I’d always felt that there was some kind of warmth and comfort and harmony in our house that was rare. I’d only leave the house feet-first, I’d often announced.
But, no. We’re leaving our house in a couple of weeks and I’m still on my own two feet. It’s been sold and my husband and I are moving to a downtown condominium.
I can tell you it’s a smart decision. My husband and I are both in our early sixties and our children have grown up and left. With only two of us, we don’t need as much space as we have. We need to be on one level, not two. We don’t want to worry about a yard or pay someone else to worry about it for us. We want to be closer to restaurants, to be able to walk more.
I’ll repeat: It’s a smart decision.
But we’re talking about a house where we’ve lived and been happy. Since when is that about rational decisions? To me, few things are as emotional—ridiculously emotional—as real estate.
Maybe it’s because my parents grew up in the Great Depression and it was the realization of their greatest dream to pay off their house. Maybe it’s because life is so damned uncertain and precarious—and real estate fools me into thinking there’s some kind of permanence and stability in this world. Maybe it’s because I’m mostly agnostic about religious matters, but I do believe houses have souls, that stories and secrets and echoes and emotions are stored in their walls.
Settle in a house and you’re presenting an image of who you are or who you want to be. Solid and traditional! Edgy and modern! Obsessively neat and organized, with your squared-off shrubs; defended and hidden by the wall in front of your doors and windows; so relaxed and laissez-faire, you don’t care if your grass gets brown or needs to be cut.
But more than anything, a house often tells where you are in your life. Ours is a family home, built solidly to weather lots of footsteps and slamming doors and loud noises. It needs kids on the front lawn kicking soccer balls. It needs a younger family, full of energy for maintenance and improvement.
And therein lies the pain in our smart decision: We used to be those people and now—suddenly—we’re not. We were the hilarious souls who used to joke about measuring our kids at the pantry door as they grew and ourselves as we shrank, till the humor grew a little too raw. We used to be in the thick of life and now we’re somehow closer to its edges.
The day our house was being inspected for sale, I packed up my newspapers and iPad and went to a nearby coffee shop. Three hours passed, then four. I drove back to our neighborhood and saw there was still a number of cars in front of our house. So, I sat in the car in front of a neighbor’s house and read a novel till it got dark and the ice cream in my grocery sack was melting.
I walked across the street to put the ice cream in the freezer and met the young couple who’s buying our house. “We love the house,” the young woman said. She motioned toward two of her three children playing in the front yard. “And our kids love it, too. It feels like people have been happy here.”
“We’ve been very happy here,” I said. I felt sad and relieved and good. We had our time here. Now it was their turn.