the house with nobody in it

My cousin, Dave, mentioned something on Facebook this weekend about looking up childhood homes using Google Street View and seeing them as they are today. I had never thought about doing this before, but I was all over it. The first thing I realized was that there were about five different homes I could look up, but the one I wanted to see first wasn’t even technically my home: it was my Grandma Ruth’s house. Of course, it wasn’t always just my Grandma Ruth’s house. It was also the house where my dad and two uncles grew up with Grandma and my Grandpa Glenn, who suddenly passed away when both he and I were relatively very young.

I have happy memories of spending a lot of time with Grandma when I was a little girl. I remember the twin bed and wood frame in the bedroom that I slept in across from Grandma’s room, and the fan in there that would methodically swoosh back and forth on really hot, summer days in Stockton. I remember playing with my Weebles Treehouse in that bedroom. I remember the bathroom and seeing Grandma’s dentures by the sink at night and thinking how funny they looked. I suppose I asked her about them at some point, but that, I don’t remember. I remember she and I driving to the Safeway near her house in the evening where we would pick up groceries so she could make me the breakfast I always liked to have at her house: scrambled eggs and blueberry muffins. I remember her taking me to the movies during the summer. And, she and I going over to her best friend, Marguerite’s house across the street and watching Lawrence Welk and the Waltons with them, and at other points, shows like the Dukes of Hazard, the Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I remember that I liked the days when I didn’t feel well and got to stay home from school because that meant going to Grandma’s house, where I would always get doted on while laying on the couch watching TV.

So, needless to say, I remember her house like it was yesterday. One thing I did not remember, however, were the numbers for the street address. But given that I have a pretty strong sense of direction and visual memory, it didn’t take me long to find it based on overhead mapping of the general neighborhood. It looks just like I remember it for the most part, except it’s been painted a different color. (It used to be blue.) The big tree in the front yard is still there – the one that used to drop these pointy, fuzzy things with a long stem. I suppose it still does. I didn’t look at whether or not I could see if the old shed was still in the backyard, right next to where Grandma would hang her laundry to dry on the clothesline. Not surprisingly, it full of old stuff that was my Grandpa’s, including an old pair of ice skates hanging in there that were so rusted and dirty – but were kind of neat anyway.

In my mind, my Grandma was the most wonderful, special, caring, perfect person ever – I’m sure in part because she always made me feel like I was the most wonderful, special, perfect girl ever. After all, isn’t that what grandparents are for?

One other distinct memory I have of spending time with Grandma at her house was this bookshelf she had behind her reclining chair in the living room. One time I was looking through some of her books and I came across this book of poems. I don’t remember at all how old I was (late elementary school, if I had to guess) or any of the poems in this book, except one. It was about an old, abandoned house and it’s called The House with Nobody in It, by Joyce Kilmer. I thought it was both sad and touching. I think that for a while, I read it every time I was there. And, I liked Grandma to read it to me, too. Of course at one point it had been years since I had thought about that poem until I randomly remembered it one day when I was thinking of her after she had died (May, 2003). Now it comes to mind periodically, as it did the other day when I found her house on Google.

Reading it now, I half wonder if it wasn’t some sort of early sign of the interest I would have in homes later in life and their ability to play a special role in our personal history. I don’t know but regardless, I still like it.


by: Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

HENEVER I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I’ve passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.
I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn’t haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn’t be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.
This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside.
If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid
I’d put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade.
I’d buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be
And I’d find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free.
Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.
But there’s nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it that it has never known.
But a house that has done what a house should do, a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby’s laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it’s left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.
So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can’t help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.

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