I grew up in a rural community and live now in a community that is only slightly less so. A major if often unremarked staple of the landscape are the lovely buildings — barns, workshops and diners but mostly houses — that have been surrendered to nature. Birds now dart in and our of the broken upstairs windows, trees have started lazing up along the back walls and the roof itself has given way to unintended skylights.
It’s like the very life of the house has been uncorked and left to pour sadly out the front door. They’re haunted but not in the ghost-and-ghouls sense. Rather, there’s a dispiriting feeling of regret even to a passerby that something dear, a real treasure, has been lost.
Like the misgiving I feel about personal regrets (which is more frequent than I care to admit), I shudder when I see a gutted, weather-worn house and try to piece together what might have happened that would have left a place in such a state of failed potential.
Tom Waits wonder this himself in “House Where Nobody Lives” (from the Grammy Award-winning 1999 album Mule Variations), asking, Did somebody’s heart break, or did someone do somebody wrong?
Waits paints a scene of laughter echoing out of the house and down the street as the chimney hums with cozy warmth. Then the gulf preoccupies him, as it does me. Trash and weeds have choked the front porch and a perfectly nice house has had its lights all put out.
There are some stunning homes tucked between the hills around here, with slate shingles and ornate cupolas and colors of paint that probably made more staid neighbors blush. A quarry foreman or prosperous farmer looked around and declared, “This bounty will last a lifetime, and here’s a house to crown it nicely!” He beamed with pride as he looked around at the piece of land he’d staked out for himself. And then something happened.
Something happened and out went the family, compelled by economy or illness or some other misfortune left unrecorded, but still stood the house, all alone. An architect’s vision and the fruit of his labor — the very root of some family’s tree — was emptied of its life and its warmth. At some point the four walls and roof where somebody lived and slept sheltered from the elements outside was handed back and left to wait till nature dissolved it and erased from memory all it ever meant.
Waits does offer a little common sense, though. The family of the house, whatever house, moved away and surely endured as a family. And I suppose that matters. A house without a family is not a home, afterall. Lives are not fixtures to decorate the house.
And I know that’s true, but I can’t help but feel that a house is suffsed with the affection and the shared memory of chapters of life that are diminished or decommissioned from remembrance altogether when the photographs are taken off the shelves, packed away and moved off somewhere else. But then, I’ve packed up and moved off often enough to have memories scattered near and far, and I know I just won’t get them back. Maybe that’s why seeing an abandoned house pains me.
My dear friend George, himself no stranger to abandoning homes and in turn being abandoned, really loves “House Where Nobody Lives.” And I’m proud to have been the one to share that song with him. It’s been a while, but I always enjoyed listening to it with him because he would invariably stare off at some indefinite point and repeat that line: Did someone’s heart break, or did someone do somebody wrong? I have no idea what he was really hearing or what he was thinking, but I really saw him.
George learned the hard way, and I’m learning myself, that the family may have gone and the surroundings may have shifted and become colder, and the world may not see it, but houses, like people, haven’t lost their warmth and memories. They’ve only lost someone to share them with. They’re family members left behind to go astray, and that makes me so sad.