The house is big. You get a sense of its size from the street, but can’t feel the full impact until you walk in the oversized front door and pass through a long, low-ceilinged entryway and go around a corner to where the great room in the middle suddenly soars up to a twenty foot ceiling and you realize you are standing in a single room that on its own is nearly as large as your entire house.
The house is old when I stop and think about it for a moment, although it’s not of the century-and-a-half-old vintage and Union architectural style of the upper Midwest that is usually required to make me categorize a place as an old house. It was probably built in the early 1950s, maybe the late ‘40s, in the mold of California faux-Mediterranean mansions you might see in Glendale or Bel Air, sprawling horizontally under a red tile roof with draping trees and a few interesting angles thrown in for relief, the oval pool in the back yard growing green with algae, its central fountain long dry and its water splashed only by the once-a-week hose and the pool guy who doesn’t seem to clean it as well when the old lady isn’t there to watch him.
The house is stuffy and empty, despite being crammed with furniture and fifty years’ worth of stuff, smelling of old people and their artifacts. I wonder if my house will smell like that when I’m 80, if aging offgasses some weird blend of camphor and stale air you’d never voluntarily elect when you’re young. The girlfriend goes there to water the plants a few times a week. I have only come with her twice, poking around the ancient volumes in the immense library while she fights the overgrown catclaw in the back, able to view the compiled pair of lifetimes stored in the empty house dispassionately since I never knew the old people very well, didn’t spend half my life with them in the background of my mind like she has.
Aside from major differences in building scale and style, it’s not so different from my grandma’s house back in Illinois. Houses whose size has outlasted the needs of the occupants other than as a repository of what they had to keep and what they refused to throw away, the material correlates of choices, behaviors, beliefs, lofty values and mundane requirements of daily living, the entire human experience distilled into silent rooms and musty closets and hot attics full of now-forgotten things that persist there because they were once too valuable to discard. The old woman looks at them and says this is my life. Her grown children look and mutter how the hell are we going to get rid of all this crap?
The watering done, the girlfriend sets the alarm and locks the door. We drive off to our busy, shiny new lives, leaving the house and its history to the catclaw and the dust.