I dined in my sister Mary’s backyard a couple weeks ago, and took a tiny peek at the inside of her home on the way to and from the loo. She gave me a high speed tour of all the niceties she and her wife had acquired during quarantine — the colorful kitchen rug, the round coffee table perfectly situated in the center of their cozy living room, a retro-style microwave in powder blue and chrome. For a moment I relished the novelty of a comforting interior space besides the one where I spend 98% of my time.
I miss the houses where I don’t live. They’ve always been very special to me. As a child I spent long summer days playing with a hand-me-down Fisher Price Little People house, which resided next door to the Hello Kitty house I’d gotten for Christmas when I was 7. For my Barbies I’d use old shoeboxes and stacked books to create abodes where they could get dressed up for their dates with Ken. Every autumn when we’d get the JC Penney catalog in the mail, I’d dog ear the page with the Barbie Dream House and spend many winter afternoons staring at that page and daydreaming about how I’d rearrange all the furniture.
Around the time I got too old for dolls, I discovered a more sophisticated outlet for my obsession. It started one winter Sunday evening, when my family attended evening mass at St Alphonsus church. The stale air inside the building always put me to sleep on those dreary nights. When my snoring became embarrassing, Mom nudged me awake and sent me to the family van to finish my nap. Sitting there on the beige vinyl bench seat, I felt fully awake in the cold night. The street lamps shone through the windows and I noticed a paper bag of Home magazines my grandma Blanche had given to my mom. With nothing better to do, I grabbed an issue and flipped through the glossy pages, full of interior design pics and ads for high end furniture and cigarettes. Eventually I landed on the matte paper section in the back that had floor plans for a wide variety of homes — from humble bungalows to vacation A-frames to sprawling Victorian abodes boasting turrets and wraparound porches. I marveled at all those spacious rooms flowing into one another — the foyer leading to the great room, to the dining room, to the kitchen, to the breakfast nook. They were like maps of wonderful places I’d probably never explore. At that moment I fell into a rabbit hole where I rested quite happily for the next several years.
From ages 10 to 15, I obsessed over floor plans. I subscribed to Home Magazine and purchased every one of their catalogs I could find (those were my favorites because there was no journalism, just the blueprints). I found books full of plans at the library and checked out several at a time. Just as I had once obsessively eyeballed the JC Penney catalog, I’d spend hours perusing these plans and imagining how I’d live in those spaces. Eventually I invested in graphing paper and created my own. I drafted home designs for a set of characters I’d also write plays about. The protagonist was a girl named Anna, who had long, curly hair and her own bedroom in a large Victorian house. She was more confident and popular than me, and had two best friends who thought she was just great.
Being a kid, I didn’t question my obsession or wonder why I was so happy to daydream about these imaginary spaces. In hindsight, I realize it was escapism — from my own humble bungalow with seven tall children and a couple of extremely stressed out parents, from the tension of Irish Catholic patriarchal dominance, from the chilly basement bathroom with the dank corners I did my best to ignore. By the time I was 12 most of the older kids had moved out and there was certainly more space to be had (I even got my own bedroom). But there was always an air of disappointment about our surroundings. This wasn’t the home my parents had wanted. It was the one they’d settled for when my dad got laid off and we moved from Buffalo to Dearborn.
I have vague memories of the Buffalo house, which we vacated when I was four. Since I remember it from a small person’s vantage point, my impression was that it was huge. It had two full floors plus a 1/2 third floor with dormer ceilings. That was the boys’ bedroom. I remember the built-in drawers in that space, and the time I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents on a spare black & white tv they’d somehow acquired. I remember the second floor bedroom I shared with Mary, and staring at the wood grain on the underside of the top bunk bed. I remember standing in front of the living room fireplace and listening to Elton John. As I get older these memories become more dream-like. I know that place was real. I have pictures and stories from five older siblings who recall many details. But now nearly forty years since we left, it sometimes feels like my time there never really happened. It may as well be a dream.
Quarantine has a way of making memories feel more distant. Even the memory of a good friend’s home, right here in the town where we both live, feels completely made up at this point. If the inside of a house exists but only the people who live there see it, does it actually exist for me? I think about how it felt so strange standing in Mary’s cheerful bathroom, with the red walls and checkered tile. Suddenly this place where I do my most mundane business felt like reuniting with an old friend.
Last week my brother Dan shared a found treasure with our family Facebook group. Someone (we don’t know who, it wasn’t any of us) made floor plans of that Buffalo house. Out of nowhere, the old rabbit hole burst open before me. I finally had the deep satisfaction of knowing that the space really was what my preschool memory recalled. There was the corner of the bedroom where Mary hummed Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” and told me, “I like that song.” And there was the hallway where I ran into my sister Eileen one early morning and she said, “Wow, it’s roasty toasty out here.” There were the kitchen stools where we’d get ready to eat our morning cereal and groan when Mom busted out the powdered milk. All those little flashes of recollection are based on something real. And at least for a little while, on a Monday afternoon six months into a pandemic that’s made my current home the site of two full-time jobs plus a third grade classroom, I felt anchored to something outside this one house that is my world.