(The Hamilton Spectator, Saturday, August 11, 2017)
So, the children’s mother and I bought a house.
“Let’s not tell the children,” she said.
“Okay,” I replied.
So we didn’t.
Now before I share why, let me say that we all have a relationship with our houses, and in my family I’m the one with a sort of longsuffering in this union.
This is the story.
Our friends were moving to British Columbia. “We want to sell our house,” they announced. “To you.” No realtor. No listing. “We want you to have it.”
It was a fine house in a desirable part of Dundas, one of the GTA’s most interesting and fortunate communities. It could have easily sold for more money to anyone. But it was offered to us like a gift, from nowhere, like gracious wind on a calm day to an unsuspecting sail.
We knew we couldn’t live in it. We worked and lived in Uganda most of the time, and would continue for some years. So we bought the house, rented it out, and left for Africa as usual.
When back in Canada, I’d visit. The house needed work. Sometimes the children were along, with, naturally, their questions. “Dad, why are we sleeping in this empty house?” (Garage sale.) “Dad, why are these bricks in our van?” (New driveway.) “Dad, why are you landscaping this house?” (I’m helping the people living here.) That’s what I’d always say.
Four years later, at a certain tree at the Dundas Driving Park, we told the children. “You mean you bought a house four years ago? Without telling us!”
That sharing came last summer. This week, five years into it all, we’re moving in.
It’s a different feeling. For the first time the children will know their own space in one place year-round. I feel newly arrived myself, like a foreigner, somehow, to this great city of communities.
I also find myself talking to this house. Feeling for this house. A large hole for a walkout is punched into its lower back. The entire basement is under construction. Sharp saws have cut open its concrete floor. Hammers have pounded nails into crossbeams. Heavy boots have left their marks.
It’s messy work. And the house, like any house, is resistant to change. But in the quiet moments I look around and reassure the place that it has great value. That it’s loved more than it realizes. That despite its doubts and this difficult work, it’s not wasted space. And while our relationship started with an ocean of distance, the world now knows about us.
Through their new front windows, the children will now see a gnarled and bent willow tree in summer, then fall. For the first time they’ll know winter (which I haven’t experienced fully in 15 years.) Then spring. Memories will now collect in ways as different and fresh as summer snow.
The house will also see things: family, friends, food, laughter, games, lovemaking and whatever more. It will see and hear everything. When I consider this, I hear the house whisper back to me.
“It’s good. Very good,” it says. “But I am a house. Only a house. A collection of wood and brick and mortar. I will hold your family memories for a season of time, yes. But I’m not the memories themselves. And one day I too will be piled on the ash heap of history.”
Then the sadness. But this too is good and necessary. And this, I suppose, is why we didn’t tell the children. We didn’t want them distracted by some time and place not yet in front of them.
Our friends, by the way, didn’t stay long in British Columbia. You know how things go. Plans change. Several years ago they returned to Ontario. This too is life. Do you know what makes God laugh? People making plans. That wonderful Yiddish joke.
And that tree at the Dundas Driving Park? It’s one of the more striking trees in Hamilton. You’ll know the one. You’ll see it’s perfect for climbing and sitting and listening to secrets, to hidden things, like a child might. When I walk past it, I think about these mysteries.
Maybe sometime I’ll see you there.