You hear a lot about what it takes to turn a house into a home; I’m trying to turn my home back into a house. Turns out everyone buying a house these days expects to live in a Pottery Barn catalog. So says my fashionable, market-savvy, trend-conscious, relentlessly positive real-estate advisory panel (you have to have one or you might as well give up before you start). The idea is to help the potential buyers envision the American-dream-meets-global-glamour lifestyle they will only enjoy if they choose your house. So no personal photos, no installations by your artist uncle who makes sculptures out of garbage. No baby-tooth-jewelry collection.
When the young couple tours your house, their expectations warped by evenings watching House Hunters and Property Brothers, you’re supposed to help them dream up a lovely, stylish existence for themselves. You do this by artfully positioning the furniture and accessories they will remember as part of the property but which will not, of course, be sold with the house. Think of the toys advertised during Scooby Doo and Superfriends on Saturday mornings. Only after you opened the box on your birthday or Christmas did you realize how few accessories came with the main thing, how much more you needed to fill in to enjoy the full effect.
Luckily, the Millennials have never watched commercials –they’ve all grown up with DVRs– so paradoxically, marketing tricks work particularly well on them. You want her to think this is where she’ll have quiet Winter moments sipping designer coffee by the fire, the children playing quietly nearby with educational wooden toys made by socially responsible companies in Scandinavia or Vermont. The fact that I have had not one quiet moment in the last five years of living here will not be a marketing focus. You want him to think this is the basement office where he’ll make his winning Fantasy football draft picks and/or develop his idea for vitamin-infused beer (go ahead and laugh –it’s gonna be huge).
You want her to think this is where she’ll have quiet Winter moments sipping designer coffee by the fire, the children playing quietly nearby with educational wooden toys made by socially responsible companies in Scandinavia or Vermont.
Whether or not either of them knows how to cook or bake (probably not –that’s what Trader Joe’s is for), a gourmet kitchen is crucial. Granite on the counter tops, stainless steel appliances, a pantry just large enough for a week’s worth of organic macaroni and cheese and a fridge that can hold plenty of kombucha. Good, good, they say to each other with their eyes behind the realtor’s back. They don’t want to live like that poor, broken couple they saw on HGTV who spent all their renovation money on mini-golf for the basement. Awful — they had had to live with a tacky kitchen for an extra six months while they talked their Boomer parents into another advance on their inheritance. Shudder…moving on.
This family room is just right for Superbowl parties and book club meetings. Superfun! What should she wear? Would he, theoretically, be allowed to smoke cigars with his buddies just ONCE in here if the Vikings ever won a Superbowl? No. That’s cool –still a good room.
We won’t tell her this, but the living room is where she’ll go to nurse her babies at 4:00 in the morning, snow spinning outside the windows, that feeling of being both essential and invisible, connected and alone filling up her rib cage. We can’t tell him that he needs to come down with her once in a while, lie on the couch with her, say nothing, just be with her so she doesn’t forget herself. There’s no room for that in the marketing brochure.
No matter how carefully we stage everything, they may sense somehow that our life here was less Pottery Barn catalog, more medical journal. They won’t know about our little daughter’s seizure disorder and subsequent brain surgery. They won’t know that the small boy who lived in this house blew bubbles for his little sister every night for ten weeks to distract her when she was getting mean steroid shots in her marshmallowy little thighs. They won’t know which room my cousin Kyle stayed in a month before he died and they won’t know my favorite spot for crying about how lonely a kid with special needs can make me feel sometimes. But I’m guessing they’ll sense that we lived a real life here. Good.
I will bring with me the hours I have spent snoozing like a cat in front of the gas fireplace, one or more of my children curled against me.
There’s no turning this home, where so much life has happened, both good and bad, back into just a house. I’m sure whoever buys this place will sense at least some of the loss, the fear and confusion and all that we did to try and love each other through it. Why hide what we tried to make here? We’re all –both the sellers and the buyers of this world– trying to make something beautiful with garbage, so why hide it? Do we really think they’ll be fooled? Even if they can be tricked into thinking we’re selling them nothing but a pretty, semi-stylish, HGTV lifestyle, don’t we want to teach them however we can that there’s nothing especially beautiful about that?
I do. I want to sell this house, so I’ll stage it, make it as fashionable and impressive as I can for their Superbowl parties and book club meetings. But if an echo of what our family survived here bounces gently off the freshly painted walls, I’m going to let it. If I’m going to tell the next young family a story about life in this house, then I insist on allowing both light and shadow into it. I insist on artistic integrity.
I have done almost everything the realtor and stager have told me to do –painted this and retiled that and moved this piece of furniture to that room and taken down all of the family photos. But we’ve left our mark on this house and it’s left its mark on us. I can’t really de-personalize it; it’s more up to the next owners to re-personalize it. And I can’t change it from a home to a house until I move out of it. Even then, it may take a while to really leave it.
That’s fine…it’s all fine. Most of the life I have lived here will come with me. I will bring with me my favorite Christmas Eve with Brian in the year Caroline was diagnosed when we listened to mix tapes we made for each other, drank Bailey’s and vanilla Haagen Dazs milkshakes, and assembled the girls’ play kitchen. I will bring with me all of the rounds of “I love you more than…” that I’ve played with my Henry before bed at night and I will bring with me the hours I have spent snoozing like a cat in front of the gas fireplace, one or more of my children curled against me. None of that is for sale with the house –they’ll have to fill in what they need to get the full effect.