(Yet another writing group story. One of the other writers came up with the idea of writing about houses, and since we were meeting at my house that month I thought it would be appropriate to write about the house I’m living in. It isn’t really a story but you might like it nonetheless.)
This is an old house, a small house with creaking floorboards and a shingled roof. From afar it looks like a house a child might draw, pale yellow, the door in the middle, windows in rows of two above. The door is rounded at the top and made from oak. It has a round window set in the middle. The garden is huge by modern standards, and all around there’s a tall green hedge.
We moved into this house shortly after my father-in-law had died. First we had thought that my mother-in-law wanted to sell the house, get rid of that tiny old thing but then we found out that she only didn’t want to stay here alone. We were in love and wanted to move in together, and that’s what we did, move together into the suburbs.
When my husband’s paternal grandmother bought this house, back in 1938, this wasn’t a suburb. This was a very small town, and in this very street were three houses like this one, a nursery, and not much else. My husband tells tales of climbing the big pines in the garden, the ones that are no longer there, the ones that fell on a neighbor’s roof during a storm one day. He sat there, high in the tree and looked over the greenhouses, the rows of plants, and the few gardens that made the neighborhood.
When his grandmother bought the house – and that’s the right way to tell this story, it’s never ‘his grandparents bought the house’, it’s always his grandmother – back in 1938 it was brand-new. It was built by the man living next door in a house very similar but with only one apartment instead of two. There seems to be something weird about his house, he hanged himself in the cellar there, then there lived an old woman with a dog who was quite peculiar, and next the neighbor I met, somebody really strange who never ceased to change things at his house. He built, and tore down, and altered, and deepened the cellar, and changed the roof, and built an annex, and changed the garden, and changed the garage, and sawed part of our garage off because it was on his property. We didn’t know. They just built the new garage where the old one had been, in the seventies. Now we know that part of our garage is on our neighbor’s property, and part of our other neighbor’s garden is on ours.
You can still feel the war here in the house. Every time you want to hang up a picture you are reminded that this house was built at a time when building materials where scarce because of the war. You drill a tiny little hole, and your drill will either go in like butter without any resistance at all, or it will hit a pebble, and then you’re stuck. When you pull your drill out you will find that the hole has became large enough to swallow half your fist. So in this house pictures stay where they already are, and if you buy a new one you take care to use a hook that’s already there.
The cellar isn’t insulated at all. It’s damp and dark and moldy. When you put something organic on the floor there, like your winter shoes or potatoes, it will get moldy during the summer.
There are two apartments in this house. Each one has two rooms, a kitchen, and a tiny bathroom. Back when my husband’s family moved in that was considered to be enough for a family of four. His father was four when they moved here, his brother not yet born, and every day their father took the train to Munich to go to work. He was very proud of his work, and later, much later, after the war, he got a certificate because he had spent 50 years working in that same place. Of course, when his second son was born he wasn’t home much. He was in the war.
The town they lived in was a target at that time because out here in the woods there’s a facility where they kept fuel in big tanks for the military. Up to this day there’s a part of the wood where you can’t go, a part with barbed wire and signs to keep you out.
So there were bombs. Out here there were no shelters. My husband’s uncle tells tales of mattresses in the cellar, the cellar that’s moldy and damp, and how the Western side of the house was cracked because of a bomb. It didn’t fall down, that wall, it just had a crack from top to bottom.
My husband’s grandparents were living on the first floor with their two children, and at first his grandmother’s sister with her family lived upstairs. But that grandmother must have been a fierce and unpleasant woman, and soon enough she had one too many fight with her sister who moved out never to speak to her again. It was my husband’s father who later found her again. If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t know anyone from that side of the family.
Some time later, a few years after the war, a family of Silesian fugitives came to live in that apartment upstairs. A couple with their two teenage daughters. My husband’s grandmother looked down upon them, a family who had lost everything, forced to flee by the Russian army.
That family was my mother-in-law’s family. She, her parents, and her younger sister had finally found a new home here in this house. They too had only two rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. There were oil heaters in there, the rooms small and square, and two big chimneys going through the house.
When they all got a little older, the oldest son from downstairs and the oldest daughter from upstairs wanted to get married to each other. My mother-in-law never had another boyfriend but the one she met in the house she lived in.
She didn’t want to move ever again, and she persuaded her parents to look for a new apartment so she and her husband could stay in this house. The small apartment on the second floor became their home. Just on top of his parents who were fighting all the time. A few years later they had a son, my husband, and when he started school they had another one. The house was crowded at that time. The grandparents on the first floor, fighting and playing the violin, and listening to music, and the family with two small children on the second floor. And up under the roof there was a room that wasn’t even meant to be a room, and that’s where my husband’s uncle lived at that time. He is my husband’s godfather. Both of them tell stories of singing Christmas carols together up there under the roof.
Some time later that uncle moved away. He married and started working as a teacher, and so the family on the second floor could spread out upwards. In the late sixities two rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom suddenly didn’t seem big enough for a family of four anymore. My father-in-law must have spent many a weekend turning that attic into two rooms for his sons, and some years later he even added a tiny bathroom. That must have been quite some time later because my husband still tells tales of having to resort to the garden when he had to use the toilet in the night because his father would lock the apartment door, and there wasn’t a bathroom accessible.
This house seems to grab at people, my mother-in-law never wants to move out again, and my husband came back to live here several times, the last one being when I moved here with him.
His grandfather has died of cancer here in this house, in our bedroom. We still don’t have a doorbell on our apartment door because my father-in-law deactivated it when his mother went cuckoo and started ringing it for no reason day and night. They had to send her to a nursing home eventually because they couldn’t keep an eye on her all the time.
Shortly after she died her son became ill as well. I only met him twice, and already he was only a shadow of the man he used to be. We didn’t get along at all. He resented that I’m not Bavarian, and he preferred the girlfriend my husband had had before me. He died the year I met my husband, in this house, in his bed on the second floor right above the spot where his father had died.
Three months later we moved in. It was a weird feeling for me, moving in with all that history. This is my husband’s grandmother’s kitchen sink, and the tiles she chose, and her bathroom. This is where they had to renew the floors because my mother-in-laws dishwasher broke and there was water all over. That is why the tiles in the bathroom, and the horrible floor in the kitchen don’t really match anything else. His grandparents are the reason we still have aluminum wiring in our apartment (but nowhere else).
We have her sink, and her kitchen cabinet. We have her old big table in the basement where they used to do the washing. I have her sewing basket and I use it often. We also have been living here for sixteen years now so we have made memories of our own. The kitchen bench we got for our wedding. The table that my brother-in-law gave us because it was too small for his growing family. The bed and closet that we bought from the money my mother-in-law’s father gave us. The shelves that my husband’s ex-girlfriend built, the other shelves I brought with me when I moved in, and finally the annex we had built so we could work from home.
It’s getting less crowded in this small house even though we have a child now. Shortly after he was born, all of a sudden I had the feeling there was somebody in the house. I couldn’t see anybody, it was eerie. I’d go down the hall and there’d be this presence. At first I thought it might be my husband’s grandmother, maybe she was unhappy with what we had done to the house. Her son had cut down all her fruit trees, and changed the garden into lawn and flowers. We had renovated the whole house, new windows, new paint, the annex, and finally a new roof (but that was later). But it wasn’t her. It was very strange.
I had the feeling there was somebody, and that somebody was related to us, and was attracted by the baby in the house. As if that somebody wanted to drink our life in, watch us, watch the baby. Then I knew it. It wasn’t my husband’s paternal grandmother, it was mine. Which was double strange since she was supposed to be still alive if quite muddled in the head. I told her to go away. I told her that we loved her, and that all was well with her great-grandchild but that she should leave us alone because she didn’t belong here.
Only a couple of months later my mother said, “And after your grandmother’s death…” and I said, “What? She died? Why haven’t you told me?” And my mother, “Haven’t I?” and it turned out that she had died just before I had felt her here, in this house.