Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Little House

We got the classic picture book The Little House at the library the other day. For those of you who haven't read it, it's about a little house in the country that sits on a hill covered with daisies. The anthropomorphized house is the main character of the book. The house is a "she," which makes sense to me as I have always thought of inanimate objects as having a gender (spoons are girls, forks are boys, etc.) Way out in the country, the Little House spends her days watching the moon change from a thin moon to a full moon and wondering about what life would be like in the far-away city whose lights she can see in the distance.

You can guess what happens next, right? It's kind of like Up without the balloons. Slowly the city encroaches on the Little House until she's surrounded by oppressive tenement houses and the constant clatter of elevated trains. The Little House can't even see what season it is anymore because everything that surrounds her is covered by cement and steel.

The tiny house looks ridiculous surrounded by all the tall buildings in the big city. One of these things is not like the other…one of these things just doesn't belong. Eventually the Little House is moved back to the country where she belongs and all is right with the world.

I live in a Little House. It is one of the little houses that was original to the neighborhood when it was first developed in the 40s. Over the past 70 years, only four families have lived in this little house, my family being the fourth. I still find notes from the original owners. There's a recipe for sourdough biscuits on the inside of the heavy vintage kitchen cabinet doors. The yellowed recipe says "From the recipe file of Betty Dodge" and has a picture of an old-fashioned oven, curlicues of steam issuing from it.

We don't own this little house. We're just renting it for now. We're moving out soon and our landlords have been sending over builders to look at it. Our little house is on a huge lot in an area of town where the land is very valuable. People don't want little houses anymore. They want big houses with lots of rooms: media rooms, mudrooms, playrooms, gift-wrapping rooms, workout rooms, man caves, mom caves, walk-in closets and soaking tubs. Hey, I wouldn't mind having some of these things myself. Who wouldn't?

Our little house drives me crazy all the time. I am not a tall person, but I am constantly hitting my head on the kitchen cabinets or the sloped attic ceilings in the boys' rooms. The stairs going up to the kids' rooms are so narrow and steep that I can barely carry a laundry basket up and down. I have always worried about Teddy, our youngest, falling down the stairs, but so far I am the only one who has taken the plunge down the black diamond staircase.

As a lover of all things HGTV, I have tried to imagine what the Property Brothers would do to our little house. I'm sure there are amazing things that could be done to make this little house feel more livable by today's standards. But doing them would probably cost a fortune and the house would still be little.

All around us, little old houses are being knocked down and enormous new ones are being built in their place. Teddy and I watched a house up the street being knocked down a few months ago. It was amazing to watch. The front walls had already come down, so we were looking into this house like it was a dollhouse or a theater set. Just when it seemed like a character in a Neil Simon play should come bounding down the stairs declaring he was going to Greenblatt's for a loaf of rye bread, a bulldozer scooped up a chunk of the living room like it was made of Legos. Thinking of the human dramas that had likely been played out in that house made the demolishing hard to watch, but at the same time I couldn't look away.

A few blocks over, the neighborhood swim club is being torn down and rebuilt. This has involved leveling the old victorian house that was on the property. Construction workers on the project were alarmed one day when they saw a little girl peering out of the window of the victorian house they were about to knock down. They went over to talk to her and then she disappeared. People in the neighborhood say the ghost, who is always seen wearing victorian garb, has been a regular around the pool for years. After her death at age fourteen in 1913, her parents moved out of the victorian house and it was later turned into a sanitarium for Washington dignitaries. She has been known to swim with children at the pool and generally hang around the house, that is, until her home was leveled a few months ago.

For some reason that story doesn't creep me out. I think houses are infused with the spirits of the people who inhabited them, so imagining that spirit taking human form isn't that big of a stretch. Like the book, I anthropomorphize my house and think of her as an entity with feelings and needs. I think houses have souls. That's why I leave the biscuit recipe up.

Is it wrong to knock down all these little houses? In a way I feel lucky that I don't have the kind of money it would take to worry about such decisions. I wish we didn't think we needed so much stuff and so many rooms to feel like we are okay human beings. And when I say "we" I really mean "I." The house envy I feel when I walk around someone else's giant new house isn't pretty. It's not pretty but it's so real it practically has a beating heart. I find it ironic that as a society we probably spend far less time in our houses and have fewer children living in them, yet we still can't manage to fit our lives into these relatively small spaces. What does that say about us? What does it say about me?

I think it's probably inevitable that this house will be torn down after we leave it. I'd like to think that when that happens Betty will show up with her biscuits. Mad as hell.