Goodbye, Old House – It Was Nice Knowing You

I was just a kid when dad came home one night and announced that he and my uncle had bought a building.

I was certain we were rich.

And then, he explained that the building – an old two-story house in the center of the city – really didn’t belong to them yet; the bank was the real owner.  We’d have to pay a mortgage every month, 12 months a year, for 30 years, and then it would be ours.

Now I was certain we would be poor.

This just didn’t make sense to my ten-year-old ears. We already lived in a pretty nice house; we didn’t need another one.   Plus, this new one was old and in the middle of the city, with buses and traffic and all the noise and grime that comes with city life, while we lived in the pristine safety of the suburbs. It’s not like it was a newly built house or special in any way.  It didn’t have a backyard we could play in or even a swimming pool we could use on the weekend.  This one was two stories, subdivided, and it was going to have a couple of “tenants,” Dad explained.  One day, he told us proudly, it would be all ours.

Frankly, I wasn’t impressed.

We drove downtown on Sunday to take a look at the house – my dad, my uncle, my brother, four cousins and me.  We crammed into the two family cars and drove downtown to take our first look at dad and uncle’s big investment.

It was the ugliest old house I’d ever seen.

A ramshackle clapboard that had been mended, and fixed-up – you could see 50 years of handiwork from its chipped concrete foundation all the way up to its mismatched and faded shingles.  It was covered with a patchwork-quilt of repairs.

“All it needs is a paint job,” my father told my uncle, who grunted – I guess, in agreement.

We tagged after our two fathers as they walked around the old house, surveying their new land, like Lords of the Manor. A small patch of brown lawn accessorized the peeling clapboard, and the back of the building looked even worse than the front.  But all my father and uncle could see was potential.

I wasn’t as farsighted or as hopeful as they were.

We all mounted the back steps (which were missing a handrail) and entered the old building.  It was dark, musty, and smelled like most ancient things that are neglected and unused. It had been sub-divided into three apartments that were small, cramped, and in desperate need of new flooring and paint.  It was all fixable, my father and uncle told one another. Little by little, they both agreed that they could make this old house rentable.  And what wasn’t rentable, they’d use for storage.

I didn’t have their vision.

There was nothing good about this old house that I could see. Room by room we all walked through it, sizing up every inch. The rooms were barren, the walls unfilled. Empty of furniture, it was hard for me to imagine people ever living there.

Until dad and my uncle decided to check the attic.

Attics are mysterious and exciting when you’re a kid.  They’re dark, and unknown – filled with creepy things like spiders and rats, but a place with promise of surprise and treasure too.  Strictly off-limits unless you’re with an adult – at least that was the rule in our family.  But that day in the old house we had our fathers with us and we felt invincible. There was nowhere too dark or too frightening we couldn’t explore.

Led by my uncle, one by one, each kid followed, with my father protecting our rear flank.  We mounted the pull-down ladder and disappeared into the darkness.  It took a moment for our eyes to adjust, but when they did we saw that the attic was as empty as the rest of the rooms below it.  There was no treasure waiting there to be found.  Nothing but a few ragtag books that lay on the floor, with pages filled with dust and some nibbled by God-knows-what.  My uncle handed them to each of us kids, who eagerly saw merit in every decrepit, ripped up volume, much like we did when we’d find metal slugs on job sites.  But one book in particular caused my uncle to pause.  A simple black cover, ripped at the top, and without a title, made him carry the bound pages closer to the opening of the attic where the light spilled brightly into the darkness.  What he had found was a true treasure, and as he opened it, he graciously revealed its pages to our eager young eyes.

It was a scrapbook.

Not like any scrapbook I had ever seen, it’s black satin-like pages were filled from edge to edge – with postcards.  Bright, colorful pictures filled its pages, along with black and white photographs of long ago, with women in long dresses and men staring blanking into the camera.  Among the oohs and ahs that quickly filled that attic, my uncle slipped a postcard out and turned it over.  There was writing on the back!  He pulled out another and found more writing.  Each card he turned over, there was a message and a date.  “June 14, ’09,” “July 16, 1909.”  “November 1, 1909.”  We had found a time capsule into the past.

I hadn’t discovered writing yet at that tender age of ten.  I was a year away from taking a creative writing class in summer school, and falling in love with making up stories.  Looking back, maybe that day in the attic is what put me on a writer’s path.  All I know is that I couldn’t take my eyes off that scrapbook, or those postcards with all those words from people who had lived so long ago.  Like characters in a book, they seemed to be waiting there, to be discovered, just by me.  Perhaps I stayed longer, looking at those postcards, while the other kids moved on to far corners of the attic, and other explorations. Perhaps because I was the oldest I was trusted with the responsibility. Or maybe I was just the kid standing the nearest to my uncle, and he saw my fascination up close.  Whatever his reason, he handed me the scrapbook, and I took it for my own.

I spent so many days reading those postcards and imagining all those people who had written them:

Young Rollin Curtis who was just a boy when Aunt Libby wrote him a letter in 1901 thanking him for remembering her with a Valentine.

Mrs. Marion Andera, probably a boarder or maybe a mother-in-law living with her daughter.

Little Jessie who remains young in all the postcards – with blonde hair, and never a smile.

The relatives of the Curtis’ and the Anderas who lived in Kendall, South Dakota, Salt Lake City. Utah, and Waterloo, Iowa.  Mrs. Andera’s friends who sent her postcards of Hermosa Beach, Ocean Park, and a place Rollin called “City of Angels.”

I looked at the pictures and what I didn’t see I made up in my mind – the way they spoke, and laughed, the voices they had, the emotions they felt, the lives they lived.  That scrapbook opened my imagination and made me ready and eager to create on paper what I was learning to do in my mind.

That day we found that scrapbook was years ago – a lifetime really.  My father and my uncle are both gone now. All of us cousins have grown up with the next generation following close behind us.  We have all been touched with change.

Only one thing has remained the same: that ugly old house.

My father and uncle’s investment has been all paid off to the bank.  It belongs to my cousins, my brother and me now.  Through the years it’s had its tenants – only two apartments have been livable.  My brother was even a tenant at one time when he was a young artist and a student. But it’s a different day, a new century, and now even the city doesn’t like our ugly old house.  Too many years, and too many patchwork repairs aren’t enough anymore.  There’s a list of items to be upgraded, too many rules and regulations to be followed, and costing more money than we have, or that’s more than the worth of this ramshackle clapboard old-timer.

We have to tear it down.

But that’s not as easy as you would guess.  The city wants a historical review done, and at $1500 we have to do it.  A lovely historian lady came and walked through the house – very much like we all did many years ago.  She also oohed and ahhed, but when it was time to write her report, she followed the rules and regulations to the letter, and deemed the building, “not historical.”

Just old.

We could have saved the $1500 and told her that.

But the city needed an official report and so they received one – fourteen pages long. We found out some interesting facts about that old ugly house.  It was probably built in 1895 in the middle of vineyards.  And it was a Queen Anne.  It probably looked like this:

We also learned about the people who had lived in that old house.  1927 was the year it was subdivided into four apartments. The occupants were working class people, with occupations as “watchman, barber, motorcycle police, clerk, bookkeeper, SCE lineman, fire dispatcher, typist, storekeeper, upholsterer, salesman, stone cutter, and auto operator.”

I liked learning about the people who had lived in that old house. I didn’t have a problem with most of the report, but what gave me pause was something the historian had written at the end of the report – that the house had no historical value because there was “no integrity of association.” And as the historian explained further, “None of the people living in the house were important to the community.”

Really?

None of those professions are important to a community?

Reading that historian’s report made me remember those postcards.  I hadn’t looked at them for many years, but I searched through my closets and bookcases until I found them.  I had transferred most of them into a new binder so it was easier to slip them out and read their messages.

I’ve spent the last few days reading through these old postcards and studying the faces of the people, looking at the places they went, where they lived, and who they knew.  They are as real to me as when I first discovered them – when the old house introduced me to them in its attic – these long ago forgotten people who in history will never be considered important.

I beg to differ.

(Here’s a little film I made about the old house and those postcards from so many years ago. The song, “This Old House” is performed by The Rice Brothers on the Bluegrass Class of 1990 album.)

(New to my website? Read my first post, Can You All Hear Me In The Back?)

32 thoughts on “Goodbye, Old House – It Was Nice Knowing You

  1. A beautiful, poignant piece, Darlene. Wonderful images and lovely writing. I’ve always loved exploring attics and basements and searching for treasures such as your scrapbook of postcards. When I was ten I bought a late 19th century photograph album at a garage sale and, like you, I spent hours imagining and wondering about the lives of the people. What did they do everyday? What did they think about? What did they hear and see and feel? Photographs, old letters and diaries and memorabilia, aging family relics, all made me fascinated by the past and curious about people’s lives. And I agree with you wholeheartedly that those “ordinary” lives _are_ important and well worth writing about. That house, too, has a vivid history and personality. Thank you for sharing – you’ve made me want to rummage in my box of photographs that I’ve collected over the years and perhaps use them in some way. Awhile back I published some on the back covers of a literary magazine I edited, but probably only a handful of people saw them! This was a treat to read…and I enjoyed the film, too!

    • Old photographs seem to fascinate many of us, don’t they? Is it because we are writers? Not exactly sure the real reason, but I can easily get lost gazing at the images of people who lived so long ago. Thanks for coming by and reading my post!

  2. What a lovely story Darlene, beautifully told, and sad, too – as you say – the lives of all the people who lived there were as valuable as anyone else’s. Loved your video, and the picture of the original house, what a classic Victorian house, with its sash windows, mock towers and curlicues. When it was built some-one had enough money and enough pride to build what they would have thought was a little masterpiece of Victorian architecture… what was it it, roundabout 1870 -80 – late Victorian, when they went in for that sort of elaboration ???
    Fascinating, thank you – and now I have that music going round and round my mind!!!

  3. Great pictures and video Darlene. I find those old pictures so interesting too. When I was a kid my mom bought a photo album at an antique shop filled with portraits of families from around the turn of the century. I spent hours looking at those pictures trying to figure out what happened after the picture was snapped. Such cool stuff.

  4. Love this post. We have many pictures, post cards and items from my husband and my ancestors. The pictures and stories are part of what makes us who we are. Each one is important and had value when they walked this earth. You inspire me to go back and revisit these family members from years gone by. Some I know the stories but others I can imagine what life was like for them. All of them lived in small towns and had seemingly ordinary lives. When you research the history of the time they lived in you find nothing ordinary about them.

    • You’re so right! I feel it’s important to honor the ones who came before us, but I’m not sure our culture places much merit on doing that. Other societies are better at acknowledging and venerating ancestors. The comments that this post has been receiving, however, shows me that many people DO like to connect and honor our past, and that’s reassuring.

  5. When both of my parents past away, my brothers, Linsey and I cleared out all of the memories and took what was important to us. We shared the picture. There were of course pictures of us growing up and we smiled at the memories. Linsey found an old box, a very old box of pictures. It opened up a whole new world to us. Linsey is the family historian. She researched all of the pictures. It’s fascinating what we found out about our family. My great grandparents and their adventure to Ellis Island, wedding pictures, my grandmother with her sisters dressed in Alsatian clothing of the time. So much more.

    There aren’t many families that have photos that go back that far. They get lost and lose their value and importance. But they belonged to someone at some point. Important enough to keep.

    Thank you for writting this story Dar. It brought big old fat tears to my eyes and helped me remember the importance of family.

  6. Darlene, thank you for sharing such a wonderful story! Everyone visions at some point finding that treasure in an attic but you indeed found one of rare quality. Photographs from that period of time are absolutely priceless. When my mom passed away in 2010, I found an old box of photographs but their identification unfortunately died with her for none of the pictures were marked. Had she still been alive when I found them I would be she could have named very person in every picture. Back then family was what family is suppose to be! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful memory and especially the postcards and pictures.

  7. As usual Darlene, a wonderful piece. I really enjoyed reading it. Very timely, because at this time I’m going through all of our old family photos and scanning them, in digitizing them so that they won’t be lost as the colors are all fading. As I do it, I can’t help but wondering what the people were thinking and doing and saying in those photos.
    Great old house, reminds me of my grandparent’ place. Definitely well lived in and well loved! Thanks once again for such an entertaining article.

      • right now, I’m just digitalizing them to my hard drive. So far, I’ve finished my mother’s family (at least the photos I have and the photos from one cousin, I may be getting more), I’ve started on my dad’s family…fewer members but way more photos – so many professional photos of my dad as a child and young adult!! – he was the apple of my grandmother’s eye as they say– she was a single parent of one child who was born when she was 38! Then the massive job begins of digitalizing all “our” family photos – there are about 30 albums of those! — my goal is to burn 3 DVDs of each set of photos (as many as will fit on a DVD) – one for each girl and one for us. About 6 years back, I spent a whole summer burning all our vhs tapes to DVDs – but still need to make duplicates of those – meanwhile they live in our safety deposit box along with the original tapes. I’m not too happy with the quality of work I did 6 years ago, so I may re-do them — iDVD has come so far since then. But who knows — I have a feeling the 30 albums may take me 5 years -especially as I find it incredibly boring!! As for the Cloud, no, I don’t think I’d put them up there if that were the only copy — maybe as a back up I would. I’m sure at some point, Apple will start charging for the Cloud storage — or do like they did with Mobile Me and just have it go away!!

      • That’s my fear too about the Cloud. I already paid a fee to Apple to get space on the Cloud, plus I’m paying Dropbox a monthly fee for more space. I’m backing up my back up – I don’t trust the whole setup. By the way, I hope you’re labeling your photos with the names of people in the shots. Years from now it will mean more to those generations who never knew the people in the photos.

      • yes, Darlene, I agree that it never hurts to have too many backups. And yes, I’m trying to label all the photos with names and dates (as close as I can get). I guess I better start working on that again – I took a hiatus of about 2 weeks after I did about 100 of them!

  8. I too enjoyed the beautiful story, pictures, and music! Darlene, you are a brilliant writer! In a short story you captured the history and the mood upon saying goodbye to the old house vividly! All old houses are important are all the former occupants!

  9. Thank you so much for your very kind words. Is Tia Marquesa’s house still around or was that one taken down too? I have very vivid memories of visiting her in her house when I was little. I remember it being over by the empty lot where my uncle kept his pigeon coop.

    • You are so welcome, Raani! I try to post every week, but sometimes these little stories are more complicated, needing photos, music, and even a video. I don’t like to rush putting them together so it may take me several weeks before they’re ready to be shared. It makes the time and effort so worth it when people come to the site and leave me comments like yours.

  10. Lovely piece of writing; thank you.

    What follows isn’t good writing, but it tells the tale.

    I’m house-hunting, and I’m seeing some sad, and some old, and some sad, old things in the houses I look at. In one, untouched since the 1930s – been lived in by the same folk for 90 years I was told – there was a beautiful long-service award, in a cheap frame, hand-lettered in calligraphy, for 40 years service from a local company that no longer exists, and a lovely old book of fairy tales (from the 1920s, I think), on top of a box of old books. The cover illustration was reminiscent of Arthur Rackham, with pages of that old thick cardboardy paper, slightly foxed.

    It pains me that it will all go in a skip when somebody buys the house. There are built-in cupboards throughout, sturdily and honestly made in strong, wood-stained and varnished plywood, in the 1930s or ’40s I think, which will all be ripped out soon. The estate agent told me that there had been some interest in the house from ‘investors’ who wanted to partition it up into flats. Investors? Desecrators, more like. This noble family home deserved better than this fate. Stewart Brand wrote ‘How Buildings Learn’ about the way buildings are transformed over time, ‘learning’ to adapt to their surroundings and inhabitants. Some buildings don’t get to learn; they just get abused.

    You said:

    “None of the people living in the house were important to the community.”

    Well, thanks to you, they’ll be remembered longer than that lady from the city…

    And this use of ‘the community’ is interesting. Actually she means ‘the state’. Her exact same words could have been uttered by any party official in East Germany.

    J.B.Priestley warned that the greatest danger to the British people would not come from the Germans if we lost the war, it would come from the toadies, the lickspittles, the petty bureaucrats, the sort of busybodying folk who would flourish under the Nazi regime, eager to do the bidding of their masters. The occupied Channel islands and Vichy France illustrate the truth of his words. And now, thanks to ‘health and safety’, and ‘safeguarding children’ (note below), and what I like to call The War Against Terror (it’s an acronym), the pettifoggers have won in both our countries.

    None of us are important to ‘the community’.

    Sorry to be so gloomy.

    Somebody said: ‘the most important thing we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history’. Just googled it: “What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.” (George Bernard Shaw)

    I always get gloomy moving house.

    Thank you for remembering those unimportant people.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Note:

    Latest example of this ‘safeguarding children’ stupidity – it took a foster parent five weeks to get written permission to take a child for a haircut, she also has to stay with the child at cubs, embarrassing the child in front of the others, when no other parent stays. How does going through life at school for five weeks needing a haircut ‘safeguard’ the child? They call this madness ‘child-centred’ , they say they are ‘putting the interests of the child first’. Thanks to various child abuse scandals in this country, the state now assumes that everyone is a child abuser. That includes people who want to be foster parents. Many foster parents were orphans, or adopted, and knowing what life is like for unfortunate children, they want to help others. If you see a foster parent on the street, you should assume that there is someone who cares so much for children that they are prepared to put up with appalling behaviour from a hurt child, and appalling behaviour from an abusing ‘Children’s Service’. The wonder is that we have anyone left who is prepared to foster children, given the bureaucracy and suspicion. They say ‘but it is all worth it, if it saves just one child’s life’ to which one might reply:

    1. you aren’t doing very well on the child;s lifesaving, are you? – abuse and murder keep happening;
    2. is it really worth it, if it blights the lives of everyone else? Really?

    Gah.

  11. This was really interesting. I live in a house that was built in 1886 by a tinmaker (the ceiling in the kitchen is pressed tin). I have a picture from the 1930’s or 1940’s with the residents sitting on the front porch. I heard from a neighbor that the older woman amongst about four or five men and a male child was “really mean.” She looked it. Sometimes when I walk into the living room or go down to the basement to do laundry, I imagine the people who have come and gone, and lived in this little Victorian cottage. I try to imagine their clothes (how did they fit anything into these closets)? Most of this house was built with “cast-offs” from the building boom after gold was discovered in Helena, Montana. We have tried hard to take care of it and make it pretty…new kitchen…etc. But sometimes I think about how someone may walk around the house and wonder about the people who used to live here…and I think about how I’ll be gone, and perhaps considered unimportant. I’m just passin’ through. Nice piece, Darlene!

  12. Hi, Darlene. Superb article. How sad that ‘This Old House’ has to go… My husband and I restored a similar old and neglected Victorian home in Maine in the 1990s. Before we sold it, we made some wonderful memories of our own. Also, did lots of research on the place and found many treasures that we left there when we sold it. Fortunately, our ‘Old House’ is still standing and happily occupied. I wrote a poem about it titled, ‘This Old House’. I think I’ll share it on my blog and reference your article as well. Will bookmark this page. Best wishes, Bette

  13. I was just sent this link and it brought back many childhood memories. I grew up right there! My family lived right next door to this house, I can’t remember the address but west carrillo with the big Palm trees! I always thought they’d fall over and crush us some day! I remember your brother too, glasses skinny, he lived in the firtst divide facing carillo? That whole block was our playground, the back alleys connecting castillo, bath and Fig. I’m Chito, there was also Ralph and Vincent and so many other kids that lived in and around there. As kids we would crawl under the big house and hang out as there was just enough room for little guys like us. I’m assuming your Dad was our landlord, big smile, all the time and very very nice. I passed by today as a matter of fact, empty but lots memories. I’m glad I found this page, therapy!

    • How wonderful of you to write me and to share these memories. Yes, my brother is the skinny guy with glasses and I will make sure to tell him that Chito remembers him. And if the landlord had a smile on his face that must have been my Uncle Danny, because my Dad was usually the worrier and probably was frowning. Although yes, there were times when he did smile and it was a great smile too. I’m so happy you read my story about the old house and that you also wrote to me. I will tell my family that you dropped by and pass along to them your memories of them and Carrillo Street. Many thanks!

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