When a house was a home and not real estate
Even empty, even in the disrepair left by its last tenants, the soul of the house on Pine Street in Portland, Maine remains intact, palpable, and still welcoming.
In August, I walked through it for the last few times, showing it to friends and fellow artists who might be interested in buying it, talking to people from consignment shops about the five remaining pieces of furniture, and one last time to smudge it and bless it and thank it for being home to me for more than 15 years.
It’s a house I had passed several times a day on my way to and from downtown, and it always caught my eye, not because it was showy, but because it was singular, somehow. Unlike any other house on the street. Simple, square, stout, and plain—wood frame with asbestos siding the colour of, well, let’s say “tan”—with the oldest tree on the block out front. And in the spring, clustered around one of John V’s sculptures, an abundance of blue flag iris.
I was not looking to buy a house in 1994, but when I passed it one day, and John was outside, he said he was selling. I asked if I could see the inside in case I knew of anyone who was looking to buy.
He walked me through his part, the middle room, which he used as a studio, the front room, where one of his sons was living, the kitchen, the large bathroom and the open space behind the kitchen. Upstairs were two bedrooms he rented to art students and a bathroom; then there was David’s section in back—two rooms, a bath and kitchen area.
It was a lot bigger than it looked from outside, and I had the uncanny feeling that I already lived there.
“Uh oh,” I said. “I might have to buy this house, and I don’t even know how to buy a house—even if I had the money.”
Indeed, I wasn’t sure I entirely approved of home ownership. Some old Marxist impulse in me.
“Go to the bank,” he said, “and see if you can get a mortgage.”
A mortgage, I thought. Much too grown-up for someone like me. And yet with one thing and another, I qualified for a low-income first-time home-buyer mortgage, and somehow it all worked.
The night of the closing, after everything was moved, I went to a Christmas party and admitted to people how frightened I was to go back to the big empty house. It was odd. Here it was mine and I was scared of it. I kept having dreams of people who lived there I hadn’t known about. I dreamt of rooms I hadn’t seen. Whatever spirits there were in the house were friendly enough, even welcoming. Even so, it took time to live into the place—boxes everywhere, only two chairs.
Friends from a meditation group came to bless the house. Then I held a potluck supper. In addition to food, I asked people to bring a plate to eat off of and/or a chair. House warming gifts.
I fashioned a large table out of a hollow door on milk crates, threw a cloth over it, placed a vase of flowers in the middle, and waited. And people arrived, bringing just enough chairs, just enough plates. From thrift shops, potters’ studios. Each one different, unmatched, singular. Together a collection of unmatched objects, each its own shape and colour, conforming to nothing but the spirit of the house itself: improvisation and Yankee ingenuity.
Which pretty much characterized my life in those years. The next summer, I had my first writer’s fellowship at the Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico, which began eight years of migration back and forth. I began studying massage and Polarity Therapy. I returned to painting.
The house provided room for writing workshops, Liberal Arts faculty meetings, potluck suppers, community organizing, and healing sessions in the treatment room upstairs. Summers, I would rent the house to a writer who wrote three of her children’s books there. A friend of mine’s father came to stay with me for a week or 10 days, so I could work with him on a book he was writing about sailing solo across the Atlantic to celebrate his 70th birthday. I hosted my men’s group once or twice a month, switching off with another member who had a photography studio. I could meet with my students from the documentary centre down the street when we needed more space and quiet.
That first winter, while I was shoveling snow between storms, an elder man stopped and told me that’s he’d been born in the house, pointed to the front bedroom upstairs.
“In July,” he said. “It was so hot, my dad and his friends kept pouring water on the roof to try to cool the birth room down.”
During my first nor’easter, the house began to rock and creak like an old ship. I called a friend who live down east who assured me that its movement was good news.
“It’s made of wood, right?
“Yes,” I said.
“Then it’s supposed to do that. If it were a brick house and it was swaying, you’d be in trouble.”
“Besides,” she continued. “That house has seen more nor’easters than you’ll see in your life.”
She had a point. The house had survived the Civil War, the Great Fire of 1865, and any number of hurricanes. What was one more snowstorm?
After posting notices at the art school and the hospitals nearby, after telling every artist I knew that the house was available with a shed out back that would make a perfect studio, after upwards of 50 showings, a developer has bought the house to reconfigure and resell.
For the first time in its 188-year history, the house has been bought by someone who will not live in it. This dwelling housed students, artists and writers for the last 30 years or so, was once a boarding house, and may have for a time been a whorehouse (small and intimate to be sure. This house with a soul that called me to it, in the end, has become someone’s investment property, just another piece of real estate.
Not my first choice. Not my choice at all, but the way things turned out.