This house I will leave in 2014. This house on this street. This house which was built, as far as I can tell, in 1863 or 1865. This house which is twelve feet wide and three stories high. This house which is crooked and creaking and which I have inhabited since 2010. This house which I love. This house, the first house which was actually mine. This house in this Brooklyn, this Greenpoint. This house which is mine but not for much longer, sold almost now to new people. I see them here, almost. Add their names to the list.
And I do have a list. I know the names of every owner of this house back to the first one. There are six, including us. A short list, considering the age. I know what they do, and before that, what they did, because many of them are dead. I couldn’t live in a house without looking in the closets and prying up loose boards, without checking out the previous occupants. I am looking for layers beneath layers. I am more interested in the earlier occupants than in the recent ones. I try to give the living their privacy. That doesn’t stop me from contacting them. Occasional emails, questions. “When did this change? When was that done? Do you think that window was always there?” I wonder what they make of all that. All my questions.
I am interested in the house as a Being on Earth. I seek out old photos of this house. I have tax photos of this house from 1940 and 1980. I have photos of this street and this block from 1910 and 1921. “That tree wasn’t there in 1910,” I say to my husband. He’s somewhat uninterested. He doesn’t look backward, only forward: to the next house.
This house, unlike many others in Greenpoint, isn’t a stately brownstone built for the rich shipmakers of the late nineteenth century. It is not made of brownstone, or of brick, but timber. Its exterior is ugly white siding; its interior is so lovely. I have seen the rafters above the ceiling of the third floor. They are magnificent: huge, and terrifying. So old, but still holding the whole thing together. Just twelve inches from the ceiling where I sleep. They keep our secrets, and the secrets of our five owners before. Dear rafters, I love you.
This house, unlike many others in Greenpoint, isn’t a multi-family affair. It was built, against the odds, for a single middle-class family, in the eighteen sixties. Just twelve-feet wide. Just thirteen hundred square feet — an apartment in many other cities, but a palace in this city. A yard. A tree. A basement. A life. A family can grow here, in this house. It did; it does.
This house saw the Civil War. This house witnessed World War I and it stood here, with all the other houses, through World War II. This house has had its shares of ups and downs. This house knows.
Greenpoint used to be an orchard, just here.
The next house, the house for 2015, is much newer: It was built in 1949. The New House is arguably much more interesting than the old house. It is nestled among rocks and trees, and there is a ravine and a forest behind it. I know the name of the man who built it. Who planned it. Who loved it and who first inhabited it, too. Some of them still live. I email them, too. They are special people to me: the builder, the architect, the first family. We are going to be friends.
I haven’t fully moved on yet, though. I’m still living in This House. It’s still 2014. I still love this house. I love Annie, the Irish immigrant, the widow, the mother of eight who built this house for her family. I love her and I love this house’s power. I look under the floorboards for traces of them but I should have known where the most likely places are to find what I am looking for.
In the basement. The terrifying, low-ceilinged basement.
The man who comes to fix the boiler says to me, “Here’s the hearth.” “What?” I ask, intent on a solution to my heating problems, not just then peering about for history. I look to the ground, a slightly raised pile of dirt and debris is all I see. “The flooring above, it’s really uneven,” I say.
“You can’t fix that. It’s just this house,” he says. “it will always be this way, because the hearth was here. They used to put the coal in here to feed the fires above. Do you see?”
The bumps in the floor, because the hearth is just beneath. The indentations in the plaster for fireplaces where fireplaces haven’t been in sixty-five years. The bathroom which never should have been. I see it. I see the landscape, and it’s a city not the country. I see the layers of siding upon siding, but also thick timber when the man who cuts a hole deep, all the way through the house for a vent and shows me what he has found. A circle of wood, three inches deep, with layers upon layers of life. A tree’s rings, but for a house. We’ve added some of our own rings, too.
When we rip out the kitchen counters in late fall of 2013, not knowing that we’ll be leaving so soon, we find underneath the sink, a treasure, for me: in thick black marker, a heart. “Julie and Kerry.” I take a photo of it. I send it to Julie. “Look what I found,” I say.
Yes, our house. Our house which I will leave.
When we came here, when we bought this house, we were left things: keys, manuals to appliances, a broom and a shed. But also, a photo in an envelope. Inside, that first day we walked into the house, empty, quiet and dark, I pulled the photo from the envelope.
It was the house in 1940. A tax photo. The siding was different but only marginally more ugly. The tree was smaller, just slightly in the photo, but also out of view. My future then, but soon to be my past.
When I leave this house, I will leave behind my traces. I will leave you, new owners, the photos, but also my paint colors and my dreams. My hopes.
I am in the New House. I look in the cupboards. There is a linoleum tile here. It is “original.” “What is this?” I ask, only to Zelda, my daughter, who is strapped to my chest. Anyone else would say, “Get rid of this, it is ugly and chipped old linoleum tile.” It is, I agree. It must go. But for a moment I think about keeping it. Suffering through its ugliness in favor of preserving the past. 2015 will not have chipped asbestos tiling. I find an old key. I put it my pocket before we go home to this house.
2015 will be new for owner number seven of this house, and for us, too. To the future.