Ghost Hunter

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Home seamless background with house and hearts. Vector illustration.

I grew up in a Long Island tract house— a “high ranch” in real estate parlance— built in 1960. The house has a particularly one-dimensional, mid-century suburban aesthetic: What you see is what you get. There are no gables or transoms, no secret nooks or crannies. It looks and feels
almost identical to every other house for blocks around.

My parents were the first owners of that house on Neil Drive, for which they paid the princely sum of $19,999. They moved in as soon as construction was finished and the sawdust had been swept up. Fifty-five years later, my mother still lives there, making ours the only family to have ever called the house a home.

The neighborhood itself literally didn’t exist before my parents got there. When they drove out to see the lot, there was nothing there but a mound of earth—the streets had been carved out of fallow potato fields. Growing up, I was always aware of a palpable lack of history in our house. The space was ours, and ours alone. No secrets. No ghosts.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I am mesmerized by old houses, the more eccentrically nook-and-cranny filled, the better. When we bought our house in Mount Washington, a 1930 Tudor cottage, I was transfixed by the inspector’s walk-through. There had once been a summer kitchen behind the exterior wall, he told us. There were dormant coal ovens in the boiler room. (A neighbor’s house still had a charmingly old-fashioned “telephone closet.”) I relished the idea that the house bore physical reminders of the unknown people who’d lived there before us. I longed to find some cool treasure—a stash of love letters, or names carved into a beam somewhere—but I had to settle for some rusted old razor blades we found behind a medicine cabinet and a plastic baby bathtub left behind in the attic.

There was something romantic to me about the idea that this structure had stood for 80-odd years, and had been tweaked and transformed as families moved in and out of it, the times changing around them. Our house was there when Seabiscuit raced at nearby Pimlico racetrack. Our house had stood through the Depression and World War II, through the civil rights movement, the moon landing and 9/11. I wondered about the people for whom this space had provided haven during uncertain times, the same space to which I’d brought home both my newborns, the same space in which I was standing when I got the call that my father had died. This space was not ours alone.

You can imagine my delight, then, when in February of this year, a letter arrived in my mailbox bearing an unfamiliar name and return address. The writer—I’ll call her “Nancy”—had seen my column in these pages and felt the need to reach out.

“I want you to know that I can perfectly visualize every corner of your home,” she wrote. “You see, we used to live [there.]”

Nancy had lived in our house from 1966 to 1977. I immediately called her and we talked at length. I invited her to come over, and she enthusiastically accepted. Even though we’d only just met, I felt an immediate connection to Nancy, an intimacy that seemed odd to share with a stranger. She walked nostalgically through the rooms that had once belonged to her family and shared old photos with me. There were her children standing proudly in front of a newly planted tree, one that now stands many feet tall. The living room was a vision in navy blue carpeting, the kitchen adorned with bright floral wallpaper and an old school refrigerator with a latch handle. Her children’s artwork was tacked proudly to the wall.

Nancy’s letter arrived just as we were preparing to sell this house and move to what we hope will be our forever home a few blocks away—this time a house built in 1910 with an especially storied, rich history. I’d been feeling rather sentimental about the move. This is the only home I’ve ever owned, and the only place my children have ever lived. My younger son is now roughly the same age as my husband was when he moved out of his first childhood home, a house he has no recollection of. I feel a catch in my throat thinking Alec won’t remember this place, the very place I learned that I was pregnant with him. I think about all the nights I spent nursing and rocking my sons in the corner of the pale green nursery, the house dark and silent. I think of the countless baths I gave them in the old-fashioned black and white tile bathroom, the wintry days I watched them sled with glee down the tiny hill in our backyard.

But I need to realize that while happy memories are inexorably linked to a house, they’re not embedded in the bricks and mortar. I’d like to think whatever good karma we’ve generated here somehow both moves with us and lingers on. I want the new family that moves in to tell their own story within these walls, just as we hope to do in our new house, and just as someday, another family will do in my childhood house. Because in the end, home is really a feeling, not a place.

Jennifer Mendelsohn lives with her husband and their two boys in Mount Washington. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend.

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