Over a Skype call one day, my parents talked to me about a conundrum. Feeling a bit empty nest and wanting a change, they needed to decide whether to renovate the family home or pick up and move. I tried to be civil, to be cool and unbiased and give them my opinion in terms of finances, convenience, and property values. I think I tried to make mention of the housing market. I stroked my chin thoughtfully, as grown-ups often do, as though I was deep in consideration. As though I was weighing benefits and costs. I attempted to take part in the conversation as an adult among adults.
I tried, because in my head, I was sniffling like a little boy.
My response, which I tried to tamp, was intensely emotional. But… I hiccupped. That’s where my room is! My room! My collection of stuff. There are video games and books, a television, a bed. Whatever clothes I left behind when I went to Korea. It’s not really my room these days in that I don’t actively inhabit it, yet I can’t help but feel protective of it. It is in archive. It is a living diorama. It is my entire childhood, distilled and bottled and held in amber for me to relive and remember when I want to. Selfishly, I cannot help but want my parents to maintain its structure, to curate it for as long as I need.
I first slept in that room when I was three, and spent the majority of my nights until my early twenties doing the same. In that room I took meals, I read books, I talked with friends. I listened to albums as a teenager and felt as though they were recorded just for me. I wrote essays for university where I felt like I was condensing the very essence of the universe into prose. I became the person that I am in that space – my room is, in so many ways, an inanimate extension of myself. Losing it seems positively galling, as though suddenly one of my Horcruxes will fall into the wrong hands.
A few years ago, my grandmother passed away. She was, in her elder years, the matriarch at the centre of an enormous extended family. In her house she had raised nine children with her husband, and then had some hand in raising about 20 grandchildren and several more great-grandchildren. The house, it seemed, should have been a protected historical landmark. With her gone, suddenly we were left with the idea that we might have to sell it.
The prospect of selling off our grandmother’s home—the family’s home—was treated as something of a holy crime, offensive to most of us on a kind of hysterical, unthinking level. We held the idea as though it were the auctioning of a precious and beloved reliquary, like the pope had strung together a collection of saints’ bones into a necklace and was about to hawk it on the streets. Our grief was deep and unrelenting, and we couldn’t think of relinquishing the house.
Because that house had too much for us to lose. My sister bought it, and has spent the past few years remaking it—it is very much now her home. But when I walk the halls – when I run my hands on the banisters, when I sit in the backroom and look out the window over the pool, when I read under the trees in the backyard – it is still my family’s house. It is both things at once: the place my sister is making her own, but still the living record, the grainy home video of decades of life. It is dozens of family holidays, and homemade cookies, and meals I shared with my grandmother when my parents went on vacation. It is long, hot days floating in water in the backyard. It is the toast we raised to my grandmother the night of her funeral. It is my family.
In a short time, I will move out of my first apartment. When I arrived in Korea, this tiny plaster box seemed very nearly prison-like, a dilapidated shell I certainly could not ever love or miss in any way. It would not ever really be mine, so I had no need to care about it.
Now when I look around the apartment, the prism of wood and concrete and cheap drywall that has kept me warm and safe, I wonder if it has changed. I have already lived here so long, and it seems absurd something so distinctly mine could become not mine. I worry that I will be wiped clean: that, like my room, under the hands of some new tenant I will be washed away. Can it really be scoured of me entirely?
I remember moving in, dropping my bags and setting up my pictures, attempting to etch myself into the walls and the floors. I started to find markers of the previous tenant all over the place: blankets and butterfly decals, pens and a sewing kit, an enormous collection of shampoos, leftover single-serve packs of cinnamon oatmeal. I cleaned, but these marks of another person didn’t upset me, or awaken some raging germophobe within me. They comforted me: the life that she had lived was kept, in some way, by the space. Her time here – the people she met, the meals she cooked, the books she read – were still alive. Fragments of her remained.
When we live somewhere, we imbue it with ourselves. We pour little pieces of who we are into the wood, into the metal, into the fabric. Inside of the space, we hold holidays and reunions and arguments and visitors. We install every family gathering, every party, every nervous new boyfriend or girlfriend, every wife and husband. We take our springs and summers and winters and keep them in our homes. We remember all of the different tiles that have lain in the foyer, all of the different coats that have hung in the closet. We remember all of the pictures that have been on the walls, and the faces in those pictures – how they aged and changed or might never age or change again. Our homes are so much the people that live in them. Of the people who have grown up there, or grown old there. Our homes are the number of shoes waiting at the door for feet to fill them.
Even after we are totally wiped away, when fresh paint has dried and new shelves are installed, when the tiles have been grouted and the drapes have been hung, the space is still changed by us. We still linger. Our houses are filled with memories and stories, things we hold in ourselves and in the walls. Every home was once home for someone else, as equally cherished and loved and mourned. Here someone else had Christmas dinner, or raised a family, or grew to love someone. Here someone laughed, and smiled, and grieved, and recovered from a hangover, and made a sandwich, and stayed in the whole night watching movies. Every house holds ages of history, from a dozen different books. Every house is haunted.