“Mama wanted an East Memphis house,” my husband told our daughter one night, not long ago.
We were in the kitchen, putting away groceries and talking about one of our daughter’s friends, a neighbor, who was moving to a new house in the part of town generally known as East Memphis.
For architectural context, if nothing else, Midtown generally, and our neighborhood in particular, evolved in the early 1900s, as the city gradually spread east, away from the river. East Memphis evolved in the post-WWII era, 1940s-1970s, when the city continued to grow through annexation. The 1971 federal order to desegregate schools through busing accelerated the process, and many white families, including mine, left older neighborhoods near the city’s center for what were, at the time, newer neighborhoods farther east.
“Mom, no, that can’t be right,” my daughter said, incredulous.
“Oh, it’s true,” Bernard continued. “She had the house picked out, ready to sign on the dotted line. Every time something goes wrong with this one, she reminds me.”
When we were looking for a bigger house, in the summer of 2003, I found exactly what I wanted: A tidy brick 3/2 with an attic playroom and a fenced-in yard, in High Point Terrace. It was the right price, and it needed nothing. There wasn’t a single part of it, down to the kitchen appliances, that required replacement, demolition or remodel. We could move in, I argued, and just be a family.
It’s one of a handful of Sliding Doors alternate reality moments that I revisit, not infrequently. What if we had settled for something easy and generic? If we hadn’t been tested by all the trials and tribulations of this old house, would life have been better or worse? Was my mother’s dismay (“Oh, Jennifer, what have you done?’) misplaced or on point?
“It’s true,” I confessed to my still-disbelieving teen. “One hundred percent true.”
She looked me up and down, reproachful. “Good thing Dad saved you,” she said, walking upstairs. “Call me when dinner’s ready.”
What he had said, at the time, speaking about the house I wanted to buy, was this: “You’d be bored in that house.”
What he had also said, at the time, about Jackie’s house, was this: “It’s the only way I’ll ever be able to give you the grand house you want.”
And I relented, considered that he might know me better than I knew myself, considered that he might be right.
So we chose the hard road, bought a house that had broken under the weight of time and history.
We bought a house that other people feared, for reasons ranging from practical to superstitious, with a dose of judgment thrown in. The dark, scary house on the hill. The house with an overgrown yard and horrible kitchen. The house that smelled of cat piss and nicotine. The haunted house of haunted characters: attack dogs; an imperious mother; a philandering father; termites; a fire; a suicide; wild, drunken lesbians, out of sync with time; an acid-trip basement. The house with good bones but bad joujou, old money gone sour and sprinkled with scandal.
We bought a house that needed rebirth and a bit of redemption. In it we invested our hearts, planted our fledgling family, a new generation born of our own past experiences, hopes and disappointments alike.
Slowly, sometimes painfully, over 17 years that old house has become our home, a stable (if not always conventional) place in which we’ve lit birthday candles and buried dogs, survived potty training and helped study for learner’s permits.
In this house I’ve become a mother, independent of my own, trying to carry forward from her only what bore repeating.
Here we’ve gathered around a table for holidays and during power outages, raised children in a co-op of neighbors, tried to mute the vigilante voice of NextDoor.
Here we were nurtured by Harriet and Alfred, with whom we shared a yard. Here we met an architect, who has become one of our most cherished friends – our friend, both of ours, equally.
In this big, rambling house, we’ve celebrated Valentine’s Day and Christmas, Easter and any number of birthdays, fostered a concept of “family” beyond bloodline connections.
Here we’ve worked and cleaned and reckoned and fought and grown up.
We’ve fallen in and out of love in this house, back and forth more than once, the way I believe all couples do, if they are honest about it.
And our kitchen, the only room we designed as a true joint venture, has been our room of reconciliation.
It’s where we’ve cooked together, navigating a work triangle that needed an inch or two more clearance, as our architect friend said it would, for two people to work comfortably in tandem. We’ve pampered an old stove, tolerated a new dishwasher, taught our children to make scrambled eggs and ramen noodles, fed their growing self-sufficiency.
I started writing in this kitchen. Cradled dreams. Held dear and let go.
“Cheese soufflé? Really?” my daughter said, her disappointment obvious, when I called her back to the kitchen for dinner.
“Yes, really,” I responded. “When I asked what you wanted, you said ‘I don’t care,’ so I made what was easy, because it’s late, and besides, you like cheese soufflé.”
“Fine,” she said, heaping some on her plate. “Where’s Dad?”
He’d gone up to shower and lie down, I explained. The weather was hot, and he was tired after a long day.
We ate, just the two of us. I asked what she had been laughing about, earlier in the evening, while I was cooking. She and her friend, the one moving to East Memphis, had been looking at photos of multi-million dollar houses, she said, and one of the houses had 11 bedrooms, each with its own ridiculous theme (mermaid, princess, Wild West, and so on). “It’s HILARIOUS,” she said, “hang on and I’ll show you.”
She got her computer, pulled up the photos. She was right; the house was ridiculous.
Then I got a tour of the other houses they’d been looking at – houses with movie theaters and bowling alleys, indoor swimming pools and multiple kitchens. One house was sleek and modern, all windows and white furniture.
“That’s our next house,” I joked. “We’re going minimalist and clean, leave this old house behind.”
“But I love our house,” she said, suddenly serious. “Why would we live anywhere else?”
One day, years from now, this will stop being our house and start belonging to someone else. What I want them to inherit, when that day comes, is a legacy of love, not fear. A history of laughter and resilience.
It is my deepest wish that my children take the same when it is time to plant seeds of their own, with people of their own choosing as their families, in houses that become their homes, systems in place, carrying forward only the parts of us that might bear repeating.
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.”