Why do you love your house?” the young woman asks me.
We are sitting on my front porch while she interviews me about the flood. She is doing a study on the River Des Peres that runs alongside the street perpendicular to mine, meandering through a concrete culvert before sliding into an underground tunnel not to emerge until it reaches Forest Park, several miles away.
Decades of chronic mismanagement of this river along with failures in the Metropolitan Sewer District led to the catastrophic floods in my St. Louis, Missouri neighborhood last July.
I pause for a minute to consider her question.
I didn’t really love the house when I first bought it in 1992.
“Not a drive-by!”
That is what was written on the for-sale sign when I pulled up to the curb with my realtor, April Schwartz. I didn’t know what that meant until she explained. The house isn’t much to look at from the outside. It’s better on the inside.
She was right. It wasn’t particularly pretty. An old cedar tree leaned toward the house, dropping brown needles and casting a dark shadow over the porch which was already dark with screens. The color of the brick was uneven but mostly a ruddy red and the trim around the windows and roofline was a deep Kelly green. The green trim and red brick reminded me of the houses of my childhood. Old fashioned.
There wasn’t a lot of inventory at the time in St. Louis, and I wanted to buy a house. It was important to me. I was proving something. After a ten-year marriage and a painful separation, I was establishing my independence.
The airiness that greeted me when we walked through the front door defied the heaviness of the façade. The living room swept into the dining room with an open flow uncommon in houses built before the “open-concept” rage. And this house was built in 1923.
As with other houses of that era, it was adorned with stained glass and honey-gold wooden floors. The fireplace was surrounded by leaded-glass bookcases.
The house embraced me with a sense of calm, a sweet belonging. And so it became mine.
I did not imagine I would live here long. This was a “starter home,” after all. But here I am thirty years later.
Why do I love this house?
“It fits me,” I answer.
I love the way the house changes with the seasons.
I know summer has left from the way the deck boards feel chill under my bare feet when I step out on the back porch with my morning coffee.
I love the way the reflection of the autumn leaves turn the walls of my rooms gold and russet making me feel I am floating in a bath of amber.
When winter comes my radiators hiss with warmth. Ribbons of light thread through the naked branches of the maple trees outside and across my desk, chasing dust motes.
At the first sign of spring I step eagerly out into the back garden, my coffee cup warming my hands against the chill drops of dew. “Have they come yet?” I ask. “Have they come?” I gently brush back the leafy loam in the flower beds, searching for the tentative crocus buds. Soon the garden will blossom with daffodils, forsythia, magnolia, and red buds. With the azaleas, the hostas begin to push their leaves up through the soil, curled tight at first until they unfurl in green and blue fronds, wide enough to shelter the bunnies that will inevitably eat them.
By the time the hydrangeas bloom, summer is not far behind. At night the whir of the insects serenade my sleep and the morning birds call me back from dreams. Once the heat sets in, I close the windows and drift in silence, always searching for the cool side of the bed.
My house fits me.
I did not expect to love this house, but I do.
I often think of the early-thirteenth-century priest-poet Kamo no Chōmei who sought to simplify his life. In his poetic memoir Hōjōki (The account of my ten-foot-square hut, 1212), he describes the way he tries to divest himself of goods and property, moving further away from the splendor of the court until he ends up in a rustic hut. It’s tiny, hardly room for anything of any consequence. And yet, he has a shelf for his books, a corner for his lute, a place for all that he needs. In the summer he enjoys the cuckoo, in fall the cicada. In the winter the snow brightens his view, and in the spring, he and the little boy who lives in the hut at the bottom of the hill head into the woods to collect flowers and parsley and other edibles. As the years go by, Kamo no Chōmei comes to understand that though he sought to leave the trappings of the capital behind and live a life of austerity, he still finds himself attached to the beauty of this world.
His hut fits him.
My house is still “not a drive by.” The bricks are discolored, the landscaping is lopsided, and the front door is scuffed. But inside, where I spend most of my time after all, this house contains all of my happiness. I have found my ten-foot-hut.