Friday, February 8, 2013
Shells: The Old and Empty Houses
The Old Man is sitting on the white couch in the Little House we built off the back of the Old House. He has a fleece-and-down throw wrapped around him and on top of that there’s an electric blanket. The heat is set about six degrees higher than we have set it before. He is watching the Fox Business Channel and drinking Diet Cranberry juice. He is 88 years old and he has come to live with us.
This isn’t news these days in America. A string of trends has been woven together. The children born after World War II, the so-called Baby Boomers, are in their top earning years, and there are many of them. Many of them, perhaps most, are in the middle class, owning houses that are larger than they need, now that their children have left for college or careers. Those houses aren’t worth what they were six years ago, and in many cases, they’re valued at less than the combined debt on them. For many of this group, that’s not so important—they have stable jobs for the moment, and their houses have a patina of memories and associations they aren’t eager to give up. But they also know there will come a time soon enough when they will want to move to warmer climates or into more hospitable surroundings. They are an in-between generation, adjusting to a bustling family life that left the house echoing and empty when it left.
At the same time, their parents’ generation is entering the final years of life. They are in their 80s, or 90s. Their own houses are impossible for them—they have stairs that can’t be maneuvered, bathrooms too small for wheelchair or walker, yards that have to be maintained, and the terrible surprises of older suburban houses—furnaces that give out, roofs that start to leak, air conditioners that fail or are inadequate. Their houses are mostly paid off, if the housing statistics are accurate, but the equity in them, meant to support them in graduated or assisted living facilities during those last years, has evaporated. They need a place to live, contact and stimulation. They are afraid, even if they won’t admit it: afraid of falling in the shower; afraid of running out of money or food; afraid of dying in pain, alone. They are also afraid of being burdensome, of giving up their independence, of ending up like furniture, shuffling between an antiseptic room with its too-glossy paint and its too-cheerful wall decorations hiding the grimy corners, and a chair in a “day-room” with others too immersed in their sorrow to speak.
Houses, too, grow forlorn when they are not tended to, when they are left behind.
There is a particular type of empty house that you might not notice if you weren’t hipped to the subtle signs. In the sweeps of postwar suburbia you might see them dotting most blocks—one or two. But they tend to blend in with the others. Out in the countryside, though, they stand out boldly, particularly if you pass them regularly. They are of a certain age—built, that is, in the decade after 1948. They are relatively modest. They are often made of brick; if they are traditional wood-frame, they’ve been sided with vinyl or aluminum, and there are often awnings over the windows and odd little porchettes added to the front door area. There may be concrete patios in the front or rear, and in some cases tidy, smaller swimming pools in the back.
That’s the place where you’d most clearly recognize the house has been abandoned. Swimming pools need to be drained and then covered if they’re out of season or out of use. The covers aren’t usually particularly hardy. After a season, they fill with leaves and water. When the warm weather comes, they disintegrate, or the loam on top hardens and the cover cracks and breaks.
There are other signs, subtler, but more easily seen from the street if you’re attentive. Gutters fill. Window shades have a bleached-out look, and if you go by the house regularly, you notice that they’ve not moved. Weeds grow in the cracks in the driveway.
Usually the lawn gets mowed, though not as regularly or immaculately as it once was. And the car, if it’s outside, doesn’t ever move. Or there isn’t a car there. The paper delivery box overflows with old newspapers or it’s stuffed with circulars and solicitations.
Those are the houses of the abandoned generation. When the laissez-faire push to replace traditional retirement plans with self-managed 401-K plans came in, that generation was already in its 60s, 70s or even 80s. The daytime tv stations overflowed with reassuring promises from financial advisors and stock brokers. When the next burst of laissez-faire enthusiasm came through, this was the generation faced with a blizzard of Medicare option plans. Another blizzard of ads and plan prospectuses overflowed the mailboxes. When the George W. Bush administration gave full free rein to financial institutions in the name of the “virtuous efficiency of the free market” these were people whose retirement funds evaporated by half or more, just as their health declined and their needs increased. Their houses dropped in value and the class of Americans who might have been on the market, ready to take a modest, older, slightly out-of-style home at the right price—those people seem to have been swept away.
So the old ones were trapped in their houses, houses that couldn’t adapt to their diminishing powers, houses they couldn’t afford to adapt. An electric stair-climber costs thousands. Retrofitting a bathroom so the old tub-shower combination is replaced by a zero-clearance wheelchair accessible or walker accessible sit-down shower costs many more thousands. Kitchens need to be reorganized with the material for cooking right at hand, not up in a high pantry or down on lower shelves. And regular maintenance work that they’d prided themselves on doing was now impossible, and it wasn’t a matter of hiring a neighbor boy or girl to mow the lawn or clean out the gutters.
Perhaps they fell. Perhaps someone came to the door and saw they were dressed in clothes that needed washing. Perhaps even their pride wasn’t enough to hide the struggles from their children and grandchildren.
And so someone came and took them home. The empty bedroom on the second floor became the new family room, and the family room on the first floor became the old one’s place. There was a certain awkwardness all around. It’s hard to express gratitude to those who’ve moved you out of a place you built, and one that built you, to find yourself in a small, awkward room with a strange bathroom down the hall, and kitchen privileges if you’re lucky and your hosts decide you can be trusted.
We were luckier. We had seen things coming, and when contractors were desperate for work and interest rates low, we worked with a dear friend to design a place that looked like some farmer’s add-on, but inside was subtly adapted to the rhythms and requirements of the old. We would need it someday ourselves. It wasn’t a decision difficult to make.
And now the Old Man sits in the chair that was my father’s once, the one he sat in, too, as he watched his 80s pass and his 90s approach, and waited for me, or Su, or Mart, to come.
And now the dusky light outlines the houses that can’t be sold and can’t be lived in by those whose love affair with America and its promises seems about to end in betrayal and loss: they sit, still furnished, the heat still on, though turned as low as you dare—52, or 48—a few lights on timers, lighting rooms unoccupied. Walking past them with the dog, or riding past on a summer bike or driving by on the way to the market or the bank, you might chance upon the moment when the kitchen light turns on, and then the bedroom light, as if ghosts still lived there, ghosts whose lives were so caught up in these places that they left the living bodies of the old ones, and stayed behind, where the epithelia of their lives still clung to the walls and the furniture.
Sometimes, on bad days, it seems that way to me. It seems the Old Man eating his cereal or watching the business channel with the sound too low for him to hear it, out of deference to me and my habits, left the strongest part of himself back at the old house, the one I go to now and again, to change the lights, to mow the lawn, to empty the mailbox of circulars. On the good days, the brilliant light that comes across the hayfield has a strange and novel beauty that startles him; last week he awoke in the night to see the full moon huge beside the barn, lighting up the clothes-tree where his robe hung, and putting a silvery glimmer to the oxygen tank in its black-wheeled cart. He is grateful to be cared for though it is something he would never have considered dignified or honorable before.
I am glad he’s here. He is going to teach me the secrets of penny-stock fraud, and the scams of gold investing, and he knows the names of all the actors and actresses who ever played in the movies, and every detail of their careers. He has read every Larry McMurtry novel twice or three times. He looks forward to the night when his daughter comes back from the city to live, however briefly, with us, her weeknight bachelors.
When I was small, my grandmother came from Mille Lac Minnesota to live with us. She taught me how to make a pie crust and how to cheat at rummy. My children are grown, living far away, but they look forward to their times with the Old Man. They see in his long life not the past but history itself. And in their interest, their sense of his momentousness, he swells a bit, surprised that what was to him the inevitable rhythm of life is to them a key to understanding what was never theirs.