It was more the things left unsaid than anything spoken.
When we bought Jackie’s house, we knew several of the neighbors on the block, had many friends in the neighborhood, and found connections at every turn. Two of my mother’s close friends had grown up on this block, one a couple of houses to the east and the other next door to the west. Yes, of course they knew the house, they told my mother. Yes, of course they knew Jackie. But that was all they would say.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to Jackie’s house,” one of mother’s friend finally admitted. “Ever.”
“Homer K. Jones! He sold me a book once,” said a man at Rotary as we went around the table introducing ourselves and making small talk about where we lived.
We knew our house was built in 1905, purchased in 1911 by Homer K. Jones and his wife, Martha. Homer K., an accountant, moved to Memphis in 1905 and married Martha Titus Edmundson on November 28, 1908 (his 27th birthday).
Their daughter, Jaquelin, who was born in the house in 1916, lived here until 2002.
We knew Jackie was a photographer who looked, by all accounts, like a female Johnny Cash. She built a darkroom in the basement and a studio in the attic. We knew she was a lesbian who lived with the same partner for decades. We knew they had moved downstairs, converted the sunroom into a bedroom, when they became too frail for climbing up and down the stairs.
We learned, more by observation (with help from our architect friend) than anything else, that the house had been renovated in the 1920s to reflect Homer K.’s success and social prominence. The ornate plaster details in the living room, the marble mantles upstairs and down, the stained glass French doors, and the sparkling chandeliers were indications of a once-grand home.
But even the grand artifacts were just a little… off. Nothing appeared to have been lovingly preserved. It felt as if the house had been under occupation.
And then there was the basement.
Photographic darkrooms are odd spaces — smelly and claustrophobia-triggering. Spend enough time in one, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit crazy.
The graffiti wrapped around from the darkroom into the coal storage room (still full of coal). The cat and the spider each were given an entire wall (the painting of the spider is too much even to share).
“Jackie struggled,” one neighbor acknowledged (only when asked repeatedly).
A year or so into the renovation, Bernard was sitting outside on the front steps when a dark sedan pulled up. “Is this your house, son?” asked the driver.
How he was familiar with the house, this man (who appeared to be in his 80s), was never clear. But he had stories: The Steinway grand in the living room was where Mr. Jones stored money and guns. The sunroom, added in the 1920s renovation, had the first curved glass windows in Memphis (we had heard this multiple times). Theodore Roosevelt had been in this house for a party once (this, too, we’d heard from the closing attorney, who’d had to do extensive title research because the house hadn’t changed owners since 1911).
But what he really wanted to know, this visitor, was whether or not we’d found the flag yet.
Martha Titus Edmundson Jones was the grand-daughter of a well-known Confederate officer, the man said, and somewhere in our house was a Confederate flag that was worth a great deal of money.
By this point in the construction, the house was down to studs and joists, from first floor to the attic. Bernard assured the man that, although he’d found fragments of letters, a christening gown and plenty of Goldcrest cans, there wasn’t a trace of anything that resembled a flag.
I was telling this story, a day or so later, to a friend who’d grown up on the block with his three sisters, one of whom (also our friend) returned to live in their family home.
“I was scared of that house,” my friend said. When he was a teenager, he and his friends played a game of dare to see who could walk closest to Jackie’s house, where two Doberman Pinschers were chained in the front yard. Only one day, when he was walking this dare walk, the dogs were not on their chains, and my friend had to climb on top of a car and wait for help.
I said something to the effect of, “that must have been a terrible commotion for the neighbors, all that barking.” I remember the look on his face, his reluctance to answer. No, there hadn’t been a commotion. The dogs’ tongues had been clipped so they couldn’t bark.
“He shouldn’t have told you that story,” my friend, his sister, said later, when I asked about it. “There are some stories that don’t need to be told.”
“This house needs an exorcism,” Bernard said, “maybe that’s what we’re doing.”
One morning, a few years later, another neighbor invited me for coffee. Her daughter and I had been best friends in kindergarten, but I hadn’t put it together until our first Halloween on the block, when the mother had opened her door to my toddler son and we recognized one another instantly.
We talked about our families and then about the house. By then I’d heard enough of Jackie’s story to have devised a narrative in my head, a story of struggle between conservative parents and a daughter who was, to their standard, an aberration. In my made-up story, the crazed paintings in the basement and the overall cloud of sadness and depression stemmed from parent-child dysfunction.
What I didn’t say, but must have implied, was that I believed Jackie’s spirit still lingered in our house, waiting for some kind of elusive reconciliation.
“Honestly, I think it was the boy’s suicide that Jackie never could get over,” my neighbor said.
This was a story no one had told us.
According to my neighbor, a wildly-creative, sensitive architecture student had rented a room from Jackie. And he had killed himself, in the house.
As the saying in recovery groups goes, a person is only as sick as her secrets. So this next part may not be entirely surprising or unexpected:
When I walked in our house after coffee that morning, it felt different. Rationally, I understood it was I who felt different, unburdened from the weight of unspoken history.
With the worst secret now out in the open, I thought, maybe our house could finally heal.
Note: This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”