My Sister’s House
My sister’s house stands in the middle of a hilly, tree-lined block in a neighborhood that feels like a composite of small towns from around the world. Beautiful Tudors and classic ranches mingle with capes and colonials. The community reflects a similar mix of style and history.
A short walk up a bumpy hill brings you to the main drag that runs from the more urban parts of Mount Vernon to the leafy and green conservative elegance of neighboring Bronxville.
It is a neighborhood where you can hang in a funky Cajun bar/restaurant/music club, or compete in a weekly trivia contest at the corner sports bar. Cross the street, and you can be wiping the oil from a hot slice of pizza off of your wrist. Experienced eaters know to place a strategic napkin at the junction of wax paper and folded crust. Novices soon learn this vital skill.
A few steps west, people pay their respects at the local funeral home. Afterward, they eat away their grief or raise a glass in remembrance. It is life, death, and extra cheese served on noisy concrete and cracked blacktop. But mostly it is life.
My sister’s house was wise to pick this neighborhood.
This remarkable house at first seems quite ordinary. A living room, dining room, kitchen, and breakfast nook define the main floor. A narrow staircase leads down to the basement, remade several times over the years. There is a laundry area leading to the garage that rarely sees a car.
The second floor is again traditional. The master sanctuary doesn’t look like the “master suites” we see on those ubiquitous home improvement shows. This suite is fairly sized, practical and gives off a vibe of stable permanence.
Two other bedrooms and a bathroom surround each other, doors all facing out towards the landing where the beautiful wood staircase offers its pedestrian service. A small office sits tucked in the corner, filled with books, computers and a telephone sitting on a practical desk. A comfortable chair sits waiting. Many-sized feet have worn many-sized grooves into the wood.
They are not all visible, but they are all there.
There is a lovely deck off the living room. It faces a beautiful yard, thoughtfully configured. While there are no formal “areas,” the setting lends itself to clustering. It is big enough to hold a family celebration, but it is also intimate enough for a quiet conversation or a peaceful nap.
Behind the yard, a city street carries vehicular and foot traffic night and day. Just beyond, the Cross County Parkway ferries cars from the edges of Westchester County. Connecting roadways lead to and from New York City and towards the northern suburbs. The links continue onward, taking travelers across the Hudson River to New Jersey and beyond, or north into Connecticut. You can get there from here if you want.
The noise from all those vehicles can be overwhelming. Soon though, the sound fades into your mind and becomes a canvas for your thoughts.
Wise house wins again.
My sister’s house is not expansive, but it gives generously. The footprint softly stretches to provide space where parents and children can meet. To rage. To battle. To question, and to find ways to a grudging compromise. The footprint has forced family to deal with themselves in close quarters. The doors that open onto the house also close, creating private spaces. Uninterrupted, minds whir through every possible response to hurt, slight, or careless comment. Answers don’t always come right away, and that is just fine.
Sometimes things survive and even thrive. And sometimes things break.
Creaks, Cracks, and Leaks
My sister’s house has survived many traumas. Even with great care, things wear to the point of failure. Barely perceptible drips over time erode what they contact. Small faults widen as relentless pressure weakens the casing meant to keep things inside. Some impending failures are sensed, but not fully recognized until the erosion’s effects are apparent. And then there are the sudden, catastrophic breaks, where there is no choice but to shut it all down, pull things apart, and decide – repair, replace or let it go.
Fix what can be fixed, but understand–everything carries a price.
My sister’s house has seen its share of debates over which option to select. It is good that there is a team who can argue through all the choices. Argue is not always a bad word. Creative people do it all the time. Engineers and lawyers are trained to argue. So too should those tasked with keeping this place together. Small choices are made; individual decisions accepted. These outcomes are the reduction from long-simmering efforts to win every point, and the realization that will never happen.
Adults live in this mature house.
Maintaining a Foundation
There are rarely times where my sister’s house is silent. Friends and family often fill the space, bringing a little something new with each visit. Sons suddenly have deeper voices, and softer faces by their side. No problem – grab a chair and join the family. The house makes more room. High chairs and strollers are squeezed into corners and closets, next to the coats and hats that these adults wore when they were earlier versions of the children they now bring to visit.
My sister’s house is Mother to all, even when it is too much to be remotely fair.
Sometimes the dining room is overpopulated–not a problem for this house. Guests circle through the adjoining rooms, grabbing a plate or a soda from the kitchen, or a cold one from the cooler on the deck. On pleasant days, heavy paper plates carry the day’s menu to outside places that somehow sprout folding chairs. The less agile sit at the round wrought iron table overlooking the yard. Eventually, the thump-thump of a basketball will creep in, followed by boasting boys and slightly hobbled men who still have a pretty good outside shot. An occasionally forceful slam against the backboard will cause things to rattle and wobble.
The house can take it. It always has.
My sister’s house is a living memory. It knows when grey was brown, and when the dining room wall was filled with roses. It was there when the front walk was rough and absent the lush, fragrant flowers that now line the paths. It remembers each crazy neighbor, every first love, and the voice of every child who entered. It recalls the pain and despair of illness and the satisfaction of small triumphs. It carries the heavy heart of things that could not be fixed, and the acceptance that the best that could be done, was.
My sister’s house is a shelter. It is a refuge and a retreat. It is a place where life and love have a home. This wise and giving place, sometimes abused but always evolving, is an eternal touchstone for spirits in need of calming.
Memorable thoughts. Only hope I, too, get such a lovely tribute some day.
I love this. I want to MEET this house and its inhabitants. It sounds idyllic, yet in some ways you let us know that turmoil does happen and is dealt with. Either taken apart and fixed, replaced, or? I swear I heard loud conversations, laughter, arguing. It conjured up memories of these wise words:
Between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor Frankl –
Thanks for the memories!
I loved how the house’s character grew on me a bit at a time until I was left with the feeling that she was a very good friend of mine.
Bev Praver said:
So lovingly written, I felt I have been in that house.
Suzanne Lamoureux (Kriesant) said:
I was so lucky to live 2 houses down for my first 14 years… (The “boys” are 2 and 3 years younger than I. I babysat E. They are my brothers and my sister… )
And I know this house so well. And it is everything you described.
Thanks for helping me visit my second home from far away. I miss it.