A major theme of Dream House is how we shape and are shaped by our houses. When I told friends I was writing Dream House, many of them were immediately eager to tell me about important houses in their lives. Their stories were full of deep emotion, passion and beauty. I am excited to share them here.

I would love to include your story. In 10 - 1000 words, can you describe a house that you can’t forget, that you mourn, that changed you, one that you couldn’t get away from fast enough? A house that you will be forever, contentedly at home in, one you pine for, one you can only imagine and dream of? What about that house (or houses) affected you—the arrangement of rooms, its features, landscape or the emotional life that took place in its rooms?

If you have a house story of your own, you can send it to catherine@catherinearmsden.com.

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Home: A resting place, a refuge, a feast, my blank canvas.

Moving in, painting walls white, and slowly, over time, deliberately adding layers of our lives. The refracting lens of my journey through the years, each house with it’s own character; a small wooden cottage, high on the hill overlooking a wide bay view; our family’s weekend house on the beach with windows reaching out over the Pacific; a contemporary shingled cottage in the redwoods, our children’s first family home; a fisherman’s row house overlooking the bay, its view in constant motion and changing light. One of my favorite homes was in Paris where we lived with our children one year. Walking home from school, we’d turn the corner onto our quiet street off the wide, well known boulevard, press our building code and push open the enormous carved Haussmann door, climb the four flights of stairs and walk into the spacious white apartment, quiet above the city noise and pulse below. We were home.

It’s still a treasured feeling, coming home at the end of the day, hearing the familiar barking as I walk up our steep San Francisco steps, greeted by wagging tails and two “happy to see me” wiener dogs, closing the door behind me and breathing in, home.

Many afternoons, home is a quiet place for solitary creative time, that much needed space “in between”. On other days it feels routine & familiar, messy or spotless, elegant and inspiring, filled with sunlight or shrouded in fog.

Home is sitting at the kitchen table, our favorite gathering place, echoing hysterical laughter and loud voices. It’s where we cook for each other, an expression of love or a need to show off a creative whim, be it a homemade Thai curry or a platter of sugar dusted Christmas cookies. Our kitchen is at the heart of our home.

As we move through the years, grow and age, our house seems to morf alongside us. It has white walls and fresh spaces, figurative art and peaceful landscapes, treasures carried home from far away places, old and new, curated and eclectic, mingling on open shelves and tables, French antique mirrors and buckets, glass jars with fresh flowers, black and white numbered ceramics, striped pillows and linen fabrics, and open windows facing the bay.

Home is the reflection of what’s inside, a symbol of who I am and of our family. It’s a place where I belong, feel unconditionally accepted and safe. It’s the quiet, inner voice saying “I’m home” and the daily appreciation to be blessed with this treasured sanctuary.

The Pennsylvania Farmhouse

I’ve lived in nearly 30 dwellings in my lifetime, but the houses of my childhood—of course—hold the strongest emotional charge. Among those eight houses, the little farmhouse in a small, eastern Pennsylvanian township asserts the most agreeable memories. On a country road dotted with sour cherry trees and flanked by large fields, the few houses there sat at least a quarter of a mile apart. Most, like ours, had barns and private wells with tasty water that left a ring of mineral residue on the tub. Unlike most, ours was not part of a working farm at that time. But it did have a red barn that housed some owls and leftover hay, along with a broad field alternately golden, green, brown, and white that a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer rented for growing corn.

I was 14 when my three siblings, two parents, and I sank into our brief rural idyll—and susceptible to romanticizing my environment, as I sat out on the spare (i.e., concrete slab) patio in our single chaise longue, reading magazines and trying to bronze my hideously pale skin. I experienced the privacy and openness of the space around us as luxury, the little alcove for the telephone as modern style, and the presence of a laundry room as privilege (well, it was certainly nicer than our usual dank basement with rickety stairs). This little saltbox of a house had all the requisite rooms, but in miniature: a petite kitchen, a doll’s house dining room, a living room all but taken up by my mother’s baby grand, two tiny baths, and three itty bitty creaky-floored bedrooms. But those creaky floors were hardwood, which I knew to be a desirable feature in a house.

During those two years, we co-existed with and were amused by cadres of field mice. These little critters could find any knothole entry to our house and would scurry beyond the reach of Mom’s broom with ease. Trying to keep them out was a hopeless cause. Inevitably, when guests were seated in the living room, some curious mouse would peek up from a minute floor hole in one corner and then scramble to another microscopic exit across the room. We children were instructed to ignore such mice, lest we alarm the guests (and embarrass our parents). But my Down Syndrome sister, Jane, was incapable of such deceit and would stifle her squeals for seconds, only to sputter and shriek, “Mouse!” while pointing at the terrified mini-beast.

Upstairs, my professor father—arrogating his due as master of all—appropriated a bedroom and bath, while the rest of us shared the remaining two bedrooms and one bath. Small perks, such as a window next to one’s bed or a shelf for one’s toiletries over the tub were cherished, as we children accepted almost unquestioningly our patriarch’s allocation of space. Our mother, who grew up the youngest of five children in a harmonious household headed by mutually adoring parents, never developed the personality traits or interpersonal skills to challenge her husband’s prerogative. Nor had the feminist movement, which gave strength to her daughters, arrived to give her the thinking or language to resist.

Cream-colored with forest green shutters, the little house somehow contained us and even nurtured us. I felt healthy and secure there, dressing at 6:30 a.m. to be ready for an early breakfast and the 7:15 school bus full of the high school-aged children of farmers, doctors, and businessmen (yes, they really were all men in those days) who shared the magnificent Pennsylvania countryside as their home. Could we not have had more than two years in that sweet house? I wonder who resides there now, more than 50 years later, and whether the house even still stands.

Family Home

I grew up in a beautiful old home on the main street of a small midwestern town. My grandparents had lived there for a time, and when I was a toddler my parents acquired it. The house had great bones and retained most of its character, despite the new addition to the backside of the house 25 years ago.

I couldn’t wait to escape the fishbowl of living in a small town, and for many years feared returning lest I get “trapped” there—an irrational but real fear. I put the town and the house out of my mind for decades.

It has taken over 40 years to realize the importance of that house in my psyche. It holds so much family history: Thanksgiving celebrations of three generations of great aunts and uncles and their progeny; nightly dinners with my parents, sister and brother; Christmas celebrations; stolen kisses with my boyfriends; Saturday mornings with card tables covered with blankets to make forts, general stores, or school rooms; piano practice; summer projects with my mother’s Singer sewing machine, as well as myriad quotidian activities. When I put my mind to it, all I can think about are happy childhood memories.

While the house is still our family home, no one lives in it anymore. Seven years ago my 91-year old mother moved to an assisted living facility in a city an hour away. Everything in the house is still exactly as it was when I was growing up, frozen in time for our remaining family members.

I haven’t stepped inside that home for many years, but it now has a hold on me.

Aunt Mary’s Eulogy

Walking into the house where my maiden Aunt Mary lived and where my father was born was always a homecoming for us as we gathered from wherever our foreign service family of six had been in the world. Mary had lived there her whole life and my father, like she, was born there. The house, an old, creaky, cavernous three-story home was the final repository for everything in my father’s family, all the stories, all the people and all the things acquired during their lifetimes. When I wrote Mary’s eulogy when she died at age 92, the eulogy was as much about the constancy and comfort she provided in our lives as it was about her house. Mary’s warmth, welcome and ever presence were intimately bound with that of her home. She and it gave us the rest we needed to once again reenter our lives in the world swirling outside her door.

Mary was our jewel. Our precious gem. Our port in the storm, our safe harbor. She was a constant in our lives, our anchor in rocky seas. She provided a place where we could go, where we were always welcome. Our home away from home, our balm against the loneliness, so far from our parents.

She was the Red Line to Washington Street, switch to Orange for Forest Hills, down the steps and catch the bus to Anawan Avenue. She was 325-3371. She was 78 Stratford Street, West Roxbury Mass. 02132. As burned into our brains as any other significant piece of data in our lives. She was always there.

She was candy in the top left hand drawer in the dining room, beef casserole on Sunday nights, meatloaf on Thursdays, the dish of ice cream with chocolate jimmies in a pressed glass bowl, several Pepperidge Farm cookies resting on the underliner. The menu never changed and neither did the warmth and nurturing that went with it. She was a card on every occasion signed in her beautiful Palmer method,penmanship “With love, Aunt Mary”. She was prayers from the Cenacle during dark periods. Her card sent during an anxious pregnancy has been my watchword since I received it 14 years ago: “I know not by what method rare, but I know this, God answers prayer.” She was the Sunday afternoon phone call to Agnes, her friend of 70 years, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. Constant.

She was pinning 20 dollars to the inside of Dick’s pocket, just in case, and taking him to the Carney for his vein operation. She was bringing a nervous freshman to college for the first time, and treating a bored high schooler to some new spring clothes over another long and parentless spring break. She was having something good to look forward to at dinner and offering an anxious soul a kind word and a plan, believing there was comfort in control. A visit to 78 and a simple meal could make anything better.

I will never forget her beautifully applied makeup and the soft folds of her perfect skin. Her patrician nose, my father’s nose. Her large, sturdy hands, broad fingers, nails clipped, no polish, my father’s hands, my father’s mannerisms, those hands patting down on the air in front of her. Calm now, steady. Every thing will be all right. As it always was, with her light burning in the window, the night owl that she was, for whenever we came to her, from Libya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Pakistan, Rome, New York, South Hadley, Andover, Groton, Philadelphia, Cotuit

She was lilies of the valley in the front yard, laundry on the line in the back, and treasures in the attic. She was the keeper of the flame.

She kept my father’s letters home from World War II which have helped us to know him before he was ours. She kept the caul, folded onto itself, hidden in the dark of Gertrude’s strong box, a good luck charm against the fears of an age. She kept the ordinary objects of everyday life spanning a century that told a family’s story. She was the steward of that legacy, the family historian, the one who knew. She spoke of Uncle Dan, never the same after World War I and Aunt Josephine, the smart one, of Grandfather Cashin, an enthusiastic cook and oarsman and the lady that was her mother.

She was the something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue in our weddings. She proffered family names for our babies, dating back to the Civil War, a passion of hers. She supplied the context for Marshall and Jane Kevill and the Duke that no one ever used. She cheerfully produced silly chants that softened the chaos and stress of our lives. Even now the memory of her “When in trouble, or in doubt, run in circles, race and shout.” brings a smile and ease.

She never married. She came home when my father, 10 years her junior, age 17, went to war. She never left. He got to know her through her letters and her packages to him, commenting in one letter home that the nuts she sent him served as his platoon’s Christmas dinner as they were tossed from foxhole to foxhole during the cold week he spent in the Ardennes in late December 1945. She took care of her parents, burying each in turn. Then Gertrude and Marion, Bill, Peg and Richard. She treasured her friends, keeping up with those she had acquired at Notre Dame Academy, Regis, Simmons, Mt. St Joseph Academy and the Cashin Company. Her neighbors became her friends. She made friends all her life and some of the most stalwart were those she made towards the end of her life. Her Lillians, her Marys. She was smart and stylish and dependable and we were so blessed to have her. Everyone should be so lucky as to have an Aunt Mary in their lives. She was devoted to us.

She brought shrimp and spiced pecans to Thanksgiving. She cooed at our babies’ angel lips. Always the protectress of children, she knew just what would please and occupy them, from a fresh box of crayons and a coloring book, to a shiny red matchbox car , to a box of bandaids with all its possibilities. Even at the end of her life, she could turn a phrase, reflecting the best of the Irish tradition. She never ceased being a lady. She was our touchstone of gentility in an increasingly rude and unkind world.

In our mind’s eye, we will always see her standing on the porch of 78 Stratford Street, waving goodbye as we left her cocoon and headed off into the world yet one more time. We stand here today and wish you God Speed, Aunt Mary, as you loose your mortal stays and join Jesus, at whose mention you never failed to bow your head, even in the last restless days of your life. We thank you for your constancy in our lives.

Two days before your death, my mother sat with you quietly, intoning Hail Marys, feeling they calmed you and thanking you for allowing her to fulfill her role as a diplomat’s wife overseas so far away from the four children she had to leave behind in boarding schools. Enveloped in the fog of leaving and the haze of the medicines used to ease your pain, one last time, you rose to the occasion, as you were so wont to do throughout your life and you comforted my mother, who claimed you as the best friend she ever had, by touching a tissue to your lips, no longer the hanky that you always kept tucked under the cuffs of your cardigan with grosgrain trim, saying to her, “I was happy to do it. I loved you.” Your final goodbye to us.

But not to me. Leaving West Roxbury on Tuesday, I headed for home. The wrong way up LaGrange. Lost, I began to navigate by feel. Nothing. I reached for the eulogy I had been working on and glanced at it on my lap as I slowed at stop signs and lingered at lights looking for the familiar. As my eyes fell up the words “catch the bus to Anawan Avenue”, I saw it. The sign. Like a beacon. Beckoning. Anawan Avenue. 78 Stratford was just up the hill and around the corner. Had I gotten out, I might have seen her eaves. One last time, your light in the window, a benediction, guiding me home.

As we say our goodbyes to you, we hope you find rest in the company of your mother and father, for whom you waited and to whom you called more and more often in the last year of your life. Mary, we certainly found rest in you, a woman without children of her own, who became a mother to us all.

My 30th House Reunion

My father was a homebuilder in the mid-1950s and he built the house I grew up in. It was in Shaker Heights, a liberal, upscale suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. We moved into the house when I was 2. It was in Shaker’s eastern section, which at the time was still undeveloped. When we moved in, our block had empty lots on it, and there was an old farmhouse up the hill, just east of our house. Most of housing stock in the suburb’s western half, which bordered Cleveland, was built before the Great Depression, and it had a fair share of large, stately homes. Our house—a red-brick, four-bedroom colonial—was modest by comparison, as were the other houses in our immediate neighborhood.

A few months after I graduated from high school and went off to college, my family moved to a different suburb. The Thanksgiving of my freshman year was the last time I stepped foot into the house and slept in my old bedroom.

Thirty years later, when planning a trip to Cleveland for a high school reunion, I decided to contact the people living in the house to see if they would be willing to let me drop in for a quick visit. I called them twice before my trip and left messages, but they didn’t return my calls. So I just showed up and rang the doorbell, waking up a middle-aged man from a late Saturday afternoon nap. He was not happy to see me.

I introduced myself and said I had called him about seeing the house. Squinting, he said that he and his wife thought it was scam so they didn’t respond. I assured him that I had indeed grown up in the house and just wanted to see it again. No scam.

He asked me for my driver’s license. I handed it to him, and while he was inspecting it I asked him, pointing to the bedroom window on the left side of the house, “So, does that bedroom still have orange walls?”

He looked at me and smiled. “Were you the guy responsible for that?”

 “Yeah,” I replied, smiling back. “I was a Cleveland Browns fan.”

 “Well, come on in,” he said. “Let me show you what we’ve done to the house.”

He gave me an extended tour, pointing out with pride the changes he and his wife had made, including the color of my old bedroom’s walls. I have to say, the house was a lot smaller than I had remembered, but he was happy with the house, which made me proud of my dad. He offered me a drink, and we swapped some stories about the house.

That quick visit stretched into an hour, and I really had to go. I thanked him profusely for his hospitality and wished him a good evening. I had another reunion to go to, but this one will last me a lifetime.


In 2010, I cleaned out the basement of my mother’s house. My brother had come by to help for a while but had to leave. It was a huge effort, on my own one summer evening. After two big trailer loads of old paint cans and rotten rubber hoses and broken lawn furniture, I was finally at a point where I was able to sweep downhill from the stairway to the garage—a river of debris: decades of mouse turds, unrecognizable chunks from countless sources, bent nails from childhood projects. It felt like clearing out the sediment of my subconscious mind. Soaking in sweat and coughing from the dust, I managed to push what became a small mountain down to the floor of the garage—helped by gravity to the lowest point—like helping a river to the sea. It was the last phase of the clean out—a kind of ceremonial event.

Grandma’s House

The house was an odd collection of rooms—no rhyme or reason why one would be attached to another—bedrooms off a small central sitting room, a dark secret room off Grandma’s bedroom, a long hallway running the length of the largest bedroom and a kitchen at the end. The main attraction in the kitchen was a large wooden table with picnic benches, enough room for all my aunts and uncles, I suppose, all eleven of them. Off the kitchen, in a dark corner was a furo, a Japanese bath, a deep wooden tub with a wood burning fire beneath to heat the water to scalding.

The outhouse was away from the main house down a concrete path past the murky fish pond. It was painted a dull red, the fetid odor unmistakeable. Inside, a plank of wood with two cut out holes served as seats—enough room for two.

The house itself was old and rotting by the time I was born. Already it was descending back to the termites and earth, back to the rats that crawled on the roof rafters inside. In Uncle’s room the floorboards were so termite-eaten, they gave way underfoot, the dirt far below visible through the holes.

Yet I loved Grandma’s house. I loved rocking in her chair on the wrap-around verandah, loved watching her squat to pluck the weeds in her immaculate vegetable garden, loved listening to the loud chatter of everyone around the kitchen table, loved walking the stone path to the back door next to the water tank.

When I was about ten, Uncle built a brand new house right beside the old one. It was a modern house, complete with the town of Kona’s water system. No more praying for rain during a drought to fill the tank. No more cloth tied to faucets to catch debris. It had a toilet and shower inside, an electric stove and three bedrooms off a hallway. It was a Hicks’ Home, a pre-fab quick to build house that only cost $30,000. Grandma and Uncle bought a brand new gold and tan flowered sofa with a matching loveseat. They bought end tables and cheap lamps. They kept the plastic on the lampshades to keep them new. The picnic table could not fit in the new kitchen, and by now only Uncle lived with Grandma. They bought a dinette with a faux wood finish and matching vinyl chairs.

The old house, as we came to call it, slowly descended back to the earth. Uncle took what good wood was left and built a small shed for his farm tools. He used the corrugated iron roof to make a small carport for his pick-up truck. The rest of the junk lay there in piles to be picked from until it seemed there had never been a house there at all—just some rocks and wood and pieces of metal. They tore down the outhouse, buried what was left beneath it. The fish pond was filled in.

The old house to me was like my Grandma. It was built from love and necessity. It grew to house many children, to watch many deaths, to toil and serve. It survived many hardships and tropical storms, but experienced great joys and many blessings. It was weathered like Grandma’s mahogany skin, had dirt under its fingernails, and yet it was warm, full of love. It was patient and kind. And finally, when time would not stop, the house ever so gracefully departed, going back to the fertile mountain soil, to the thick Hawaiian air and the tradewinds. In its remnants, I can still see Grandma slicing fresh sashimi with her expert fingers, her eyes scanning the flesh for parasites. She murmurs something to me in her mixture of pidgin English and Japanese and then beams at me, all her gold teeth showing. There is still that bright twinkle in her eyes.


I could tell David was burning out on house hunting so when I saw the ad for a not–too-promising-but-you-never-know house, I decided to drive by and see if it was worth making an appointment. The house made me sad just looking at it, but the yard! Big and sunny! How I longed for a big sunny yard for a vegetable garden! So I called the realtor for an appointment, and went on my own. That evening when I described the house to David, I said, “Well, it’s probably not worth your while. It’s a dark and dreary thing–battleship gray aluminum siding, tiny windows, mansard roof, I mean, the house looks like the kind of place the Adams family would have lived in. But the yard! I’d buy it just for the yard–maybe you should have a look.”

When David came home he reported on the same disappointing experience from the realtor’s tour: after the initial excitement of seeing the crown jewel of the house, the Victorian rose-tiled fireplace with a gorgeous carved wood mantel it was all down hill from there. Room after room revealed decades of benign neglect and tasteless home improvements: a dirty gold shag carpet, florescent lights hanging from sagging and pock marked homosote which lowered the height of the once soaring 12 foot ceilings, peeling vinyl and chrome wainscoting where once there was probably wood bead board. The whole house was just dark, dark, dark! And then, there was Mildred, the 93-year-old widow and home owner who sat quietly in the living room. We could see the resignation on her face as we inspected her home of 90 years to judge whether it was good enough for us.

Still, there was something undeniably compelling about this house with its swooping curved roof and jutting, carved window brackets that hinted at hidden treasures beneath the aluminum siding. And when the home inspector came he said unequivocally, “Buy it! Nothing has been wrecked—it’s all just been covered up—there’s a gem underneath.” So buy it we did. Little by little we peeled back the layers that had been added in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s when Mildred and her aluminum-siding-dealer-husband, Bernie, were in their prime. They had attacked home improvement with a Yankee do-it-yourself zeal. No surface or room was denied Bernie’s handiwork. Mildred proudly informed us theirs was the first house in town to get aluminum siding—it was a showpiece for Bernie’s business. When we’d saved enough money, that too would be removed and we’d discover the patterned latticework and carving that lay underneath.

Finally the day arrived when this quirky little house was ready for us to move in. It felt good, waking up that first morning, amidst the rubble of boxes, and ah! Was that toast and bacon I smelled wafting up from the kitchen? Did David get up early to surprise me with a real cooked breakfast on our very first morning? What a nice man I married! But bacon? We never cooked bacon for each other—hadn’t touched it for breakfast in at least a decade. And WHAAAT? I turned to my right and David was still sound asleep beside me in bed. So who was making breakfast? Our oldest child was six and was at least three years shy of turning on the stove burners. Our pyromaniac four year old who might have dared turn on the stove wouldn’t have known how to procure bacon. I got up to investigate. The smell increased as I headed down the stairs and led me in the way that only bacon can into the kitchen where I found no one and no breakfast. As I turned this way and that the smell slowly receded and then puff, it was gone without a trace. I went back to bed to wake David who was not impressed or even particularly interested in my inquiry. I’d have to let it go. It must have been a wishful dream. The next morning, David woke first. “Jess, the toast and bacon–I smell it!” There it was again. We both tracked it down the stairs and into the kitchen. Again it receded as we poked around and found no one. And then it came to us, simultaneously. “It’s Bernie!” He was checking us out or at least had come back for one more visit. “Hello Bernie!” we called out. “We love your house!” And that seemed to satisfy him. Bernie never came round again to cook breakfast. And we have never cooked bacon for each other. But wherever we are, whenever we smell bacon we think of Bernie and yes, Mildred, too.


In these odd hours, lamp shade looms large,
plumbing sighs and wall bones crack,
rugs wait their traffic.

This couch has let herself go,
muscle to fat, that adventurous print
now old. It’s all so familiar,

this house where our children
grew in their sleep, where
the cat-raked chair stands still
though the cat is gone.

Smells only the dog can smell,
the guest who sat near the window to smoke,
the aunt who always brings her dachshund.

These walls neither see nor hear
nor remember or know, but
they must vibrate with every word,
however imperceptibly, instruments
we play without knowing,
these rooms an orchestra.


On a hot summer day, the temperature would drop noticeably as you got closer to the house and the ocean. The avenue down to the house was tree-lined and dark. As you passed through the stone gates topped with bronze owls with glass eyes a bright world would open up. Smells, sounds and sights would change – the fresh smell of the ocean, the chugging sounds of lobster boats off-shore, the sight of sparkling water and, of course, of the house – Owlsgate.

Tall, shingled, Victorian, with welcoming metal handrails stretched wide and a heavy front door that was usually open. Through the screen door, it was possible to see all the way across the dark front hall – the whole width of the house - to the glassed-in porch and the bright ocean beyond.

To the right of the front door there was a small study lined with books and a fireplace on one side and a long, built in, down-filled sofa on the other side, under the windows. All the woodwork was made of sandalwood which gave the room and the whole house its own unique scent.

To the left of the front hall there was a long, elegant living room with a bow-front window facing over the sloping lawn towards the ocean. Bookshelves were filled with old leather books and glass-fronted cabinets held just some of the beautiful objects my ancestors collected. There were treasures everywhere you looked at Owlsgate - lusterware china, pigs that commemorated membership in Harvard’s Porcellian Club, hand-crafted wooden jigsaw puzzles, figurative Victorian metal doorstops – parrots, horse-drawn coaches, sailboats - at each door. There was even a room in the basement called “The Treasure Room”. It held Louis Vuitton steamer trunks, marble busts, bone-handled cutlery, 30’s style cigarette trays, piles of extra china, brass candlesticks and Wedgewood lamps. (Overflow from the Treasure Room was stored in the carriage house – extra furniture in old horse stalls and huge ornate mirrors leaning up against the walls.)

In many ways, the dining room was the center of the house – a fire blazing behind my father at the head of the table in the winter, the windows open to ocean breezes in the summer. Winter or summer, there was always wine and candlelight and Lord Dartmouth looking down from his portrait on the wall.

To a child, Owlsgate meant exploration and mystery. There were stairs to climb and doors to unused rooms to slowly open. The grand mahoghany front stairs led the family to their rooms on the second and third floors. The plainer, oak back stairs stretched straight up four stories from the basement and had, years before, led servants to their small rooms. Those rooms, by then servant-less, were filled with objects from other times – old-fashioned telephones and brass bedsteads. At the top of the house, there was a small room that had no stairs to it. You could see it but you could not get there. There was also a second, abandoned barn with huge, old sliding doors to open and holes in the floor to avoid.

The ocean was all around. You could see it from the little window in the tiny third floor bathroom with the marble-topped sink and the claw foot tub. You could see its vast expanse all around you as you ate breakfast on the screened-in porch on quiet, hot summer mornings. There were perches and porches everywhere to sit and look at the ocean – a wide, open porch off a second floor bedroom, a canon from the USS Constitution on the lawn, a bench right above the rocks on the shoreline, hidden spots by tidal pools on the rocks.

Owlsgate was torn down by new owners in 1994.

The Farm

The painted floors were cool under our feet no matter the season. Smooth, pale green borders surrounded central scratched black patches we were told had once hidden under area rugs. In the corner of each of the three parlors were free standing Franklin stoves with scroll feet sitting on metal pans. “Modern, more efficient for heating” my father explained. When my parents purchased the house, the only furniture was a large dining room table with matching chairs. At the head, under the table skirt, a wooden button was electrically wired to a buzzer on the kitchen wall. My parents, eager to furnish the surfeit of rooms, bought the contents of the house down the road. The owners had been childless, the wife once an opera singer, and both had recently died. They must have loved rockers because a pile arrived in the back of my father’s station wagon. One was made of back-bruising turned wood. Another, diminutive, had an upholstered seat retaining the memory of the singer’s fanny. Our favorite was massive, covered in scratchy plaid fabric, and could comfortably fit three of us at once. Later on, when we were teenagers and holding a séance, my uncle tied a thread to it, pulling it at a crucial moment and causing us to scream in the dark.

The kitchen had a hand pump set into the double cast iron sink on legs. Although it took some time to get it going, with effort it would gush frigid water, even in mid August. The enormous black cook stove sat silent most of the year. It came to life on snowy January weekends. We would arrive late in the cold dark and immediately fill it with dry tinder pulled from an enormous pile in the attached woodshed. Someone, years ago, took pride in being amply prepared. Once lit, we would set pots of snow on top to melt into water to prime the pump. The well never froze solid. The room would soon warm and our foggy breath would disappear.

I shared a bedroom with my oldest sister. First born, she was burdened with sibling rivalry, and though the room was large, she resented cohabitating. We bunked together in a high antique bed. The arched headboard was not topped with expected carved roses; we were confounded by its single, polka-dotted egg. The stiff mattress of horsehair woke us from sleep with tiny pricks from coarse pelage. Our bedroom’s windows faced the long, straight dirt driveway with grass growing sporadically down its middle. We could spy the arrival of guests through sweeps of leaves, our view screened by enormous maple trees planted a hundred years ago that had grown much too close to the house. During storms their limbs banged our walls, once crashing through glass panes and spraying shards. Below our windows was a thickly painted front door, beside it a clear glass knob that when pulled, mechanically jiggled a tinny bell. To annoy us, our brothers would stand on the front porch ringing for us until we answered.

Children ruled in the attic. Our parents rarely ventured up the stairs hidden behind a door in the second floor bathroom. Three sloped ceilinged rooms, windowed with decrepit sheer curtains, remained dusty and mysterious: a child-sized home within a home. Dispersed in the eaves we found little china cats of various breeds, a collection from a previous young inhabitant. Upon discovery, I stood frozen, feeling the presence of a long gone child much like me. She flared up in my imagination and then subsided as my sisters fought over who could keep which cat.

Chafing at domesticity and fulfilling taunts of “tomboy” I found escape in the cavernous, dusky, animal-scented barn. Stalls filled with tools of unrecognizable utility provided private retreats. The hayloft was piled with disintegrating bales, tidbits of which rained down through wide boards onto heads below. Though against the rules, my oldest brother and I climbed to the uppermost loft via a rickety, unsecured ladder. This internal “tree house” was set high into the peak, an open platform that lacked any semblance of safety. Ropey and impulsive, my brother would dangle, clutching the edge, daring a death drop. Even the keen perception of life’s fragility did not deter him from trying this again and again.

Love of place extended beyond the built environment through the surrounding hundred acres of farmland left to go to seed and reclaimed by trees. Behind the barn, through high unruly grass, two barely discernable ruts of an old farming road led up through a young, dense wood. At the crown of a rounded hill a brook erupted and began it’s decent from rock to rock. Endless leafy shade encouraged a forest floor littered with magically colored mushrooms after rains in the fall. In summer, spongy moss lit by full moons allowed us to run wild and barefoot at night. The lower, bushy meadows were dense with blueberries, wildflowers, and crickets. Grasping blackberry canes and tendrilous grape vines snaked along tumbling stonewalls. An abandoned dumping ground sprouted dirt-filled bottles of long gone elixirs. Too far from the house to hear a censorious parent call, an impossibly tall pine stood. Stubs of broken branches allowed scaling up into green bows. Gently rocking, resin sticky branches provided a comfortable, private perch that reduced the realities on the ground to far, far away.

As children we lost ourselves into what seemed an infinite landscape. We padded silently through spare, airy rooms finding corners for reading in rare quietude. We snuck stealthily through the shadowy barn of possibilities, our pupils widened, adjusted to gloom. Our freedom at the farm belied a family chokehold. We were loosened from a secret, inward, congested atmosphere, a miasma of unpredictable tempers and capricious whims fabricated from a scarcity of love to go around. The farm was the antidote to toxicity. Intrinsically tied to a past I would rather disavow and forget, I am haunted by my desire for the acute, healing pleasure of cool painted floors under my pitch stained feet.

House of Canvas

Boot creaking cold
under an aluminum pot sky
A streak of watered down
tomato sauce along the rim
of a once proud sun
Her rays neglect us now
as we walk together
a boy and his dog
Steam erupts from our nostrils,
mine collecting in frost
in my untrimmed white beard
Baxter’s dripping to the much
closer blanket of foot packed snow
My mind wanders
as cold settles into my bones
hands and feet always first
Is it death we fear
or is it life?
Do gravitational waves
proven only give mankind
another worry?
I am in the woods, Maine Woods
from whence I lived not a
long time ago, seemingly yesterday
I think of the winter of 1976
my life more Spartan than Thoreau,
in an old musty tent
through a Maine winter alone
but not lonely
Within the canvas walls
separation from nature
though a membrane thin
provided me with shelter
from the elements
and outside news of a world
I hid from
My sanctuary of canvas,
worn thin by sun, rain and snow
was my home for one year plus
Plastic bins of books, fountain pens
and a pencil for below freezing writing
with an open book and an oil lamp I lived
in the mansion of freedom
An Alpine Design sleeping bag,
on pallets and a pad, my bed
Mother Nature’s son
guided by the sun and the moon
and twinkling stars.
A canvas home in retrospect
was more a home than many,
before and after
Respect and care of my pine forest world
was earned and demanded
I loved my house of cold and dampness,
my sheath of dreams and wonder
The house that connects us
to what we love
is a house we never leave
in spirit or mind

My experience of my house is fraught and wrought with complexity. It is a humble lovely early 1900’s bungalow that is nestled in a warm historic eclectic neighborhood near downtown Tucson. It’s a place where my children grew and launched. They walked to the neighborhood bilingual school and rubbed shoulders with the homeless, the artists, the dignitaries.

It’s a place where my artist/cabinet making husband could never quite finish the wonderful renovations he began in each room. It’ s a place where the dark cloud of divorcing occurred . That was 4 years ago. In these past 4 years I have tried to change , mold, reinvent this house . I have cursed the leaking roof and the crumbling water pipes. I have battled the ambivalence of moving. I have begged and bartered with this house to free me of the sweet sadness of the years of history that live here. I have wanted to remember and I have wanted to forget.

But time has a way of softening these edges and equanimity is settling in. I still wonder if shedding this house as my marriage shed would have sped the healing of my broken heart. And then I look around at the bounty I still retain, the known, the security of familiarity and the loveliness of community that still exists in this close neighborhood. My house is starting to be a new sort of friend, one that is constantly evolving in a nurturing way. I think I’ll stay a little longer.

The House That Built Me

The House that built me still sits on a hill in Bernal Heights. The cool stone steps are a dark muted red with white and black speckles. On hot summer nights, my brothers, cousins and I would sit barefoot on that expansive stoop listening to the sounds of the city.

There was a large picture window that spanned the entire dining room and if you peered in from the stoop, you could see the mahjong players laughing and telling stories of their past lives on the islands. My father could be found sitting beside my mother as she shuffled the mahjong tiles, or in the kitchen cooking something outrageously delicious that involved garlic and fried rice and marinated beef, sliced thin, like the Puerto Rican Bistecca with caramelized onions and sweet plantains.

Sometimes the players would ask me to play “The Entertainer” or “Für Elise” on my Wurlitzer piano that my father bought with his maintenance mechanic salary. I’d play above the din of chatter. I was sent on a grocery runs for Salem 100s or Pall Mall Reds—they didn’t check for I.D. on an eight year old if they knew your father back then—and Coca Cola (our water substitute). If they wanted chicharron, then I’d have to make an extra run to the Filipino Market.

On any given night we had a house full of people newly emigrated from the Philippines. My mother’s St. Kevin’s church group was a constant presence. My grandfather’s Navy Veterans group, with their triangular caps, had the mysterious air of a Flintstone’s Grand Poo Bah gathering. My brother’s Army infantry buddies from Fort Ord could be found on our sofas, still wearing their camo gear, dog tags, their olive duffel bags stacked in a corner. My godfather, Uncle Ray lived eight houses away. My cousins: the Oriolas, lived across the street; the Salinas’ were within walking distance; and the Fulgencios would often drop by from out of town.

I loved that street, where my cousins and I would race to the top on rollerskates and then fly past our house on the uneven sidewalks. We played hide and seek between the parked cars and little alleyways, long into the night. A game of Jacks on the stoop usually involved sprinting down the steps after an extremely bouncy ball, before it went into traffic at the bottom of the hill. One day, my two nephews, unattended, got the idea to climb into the old child-size newspaper stands, facing one another, and then burst out crying as soon as they heard the stands click shut. Luckily, the mastermind was flexible enough to do a Houdini and lived to tell the tale. Then there was the night some kids crashed my brother’s garage party and a knife fight broke out that my father stopped.

After three warnings, we had to come in for the night. We would continue our games before the television set, as “Tales from the Crypt” or “The Twilight Zone” played, telling our own ghost stories in between. Our house was haunted. No one could deny the sudden chill you felt in the garage where the prior owner had left his tools like old museum relics. Or the time in the kitchen doorway when I looked up from a conversation with my grandmother and saw a strange man for just a second, holding onto my favorite throw blanket. But even the possible ghost was muted, or absorbed into the general fun and rowdiness of our group. Perhaps we frightened him.

At the bottom of our hill was the busy intersection that leveled off before dropping again to another hill. That first plateau had four corners: the public library, the grocery store, a bar, and the bike shop, where I got to pick out my first apple green bike with training wheels. My father was so proud to purchase it for me. He pushed me up the hill to our house as I waved to the neighbors, like a queen on a float. I caught the Ten Monterery at that intersection. It connected me to Luther Burbank Junior High in the Mission-Excelsior, and later to Lowell High. It’s also where I would wait impatiently for my father to return from work. I’d see him get off the bus and run down to meet him and talk his ears off all the way up to the house.

Whenever I hear that song from Paul Simon, “It Was Late in the Evening,” it takes me back to that house on Andover Street on any given night:

I remember there’s a radio
Comin’ from the room next door And my mother laughed the way some ladies do
And down along the avenue, some guys were shootin pool
…And I am walking down the street…I’m with my troops,
…Singing late in the evening…and all the girls out on the stoops

And that last line could easily be for that house with all of its memories:

I guess I’ve been in love before, but I never loved no one like I love you.

The House that Found My Family… Again

Some people in Camden Maine used to call it “the house with the tree growing through the roof.” The tree is now gone and only a ceiling hatch remains in a closet.

“How could you sell the house?” my daughter challenged me. My parents, who had retired to Maine, had died. My only sibling had no interest in the house. Living north of San Francisco in Marin and never having lived in Maine, the idea of my owning an old house across the country seemed not wise, not wise, until the ties that bind bound me up.

My father, as his health was failing, climbed into the eaves of the old house and cut away a piece of an original beam to give to his favorite caregiver, Lisa Pendleton. She was with him until he died in the house in 2006. His life ended with a Pendleton. The house had started with a Pendleton.

Isaac Pendleton built the house circa 1798. Arthur, his brother, married Mary Fay, daughter of Silas. Silas was my father’s great, great, great grandfather. The family connection was unbeknownst to my parents when they bought the house. It was the charm of the old house in need of endless repair and what remained of the barn that called to my father. The house found my father.

After several years living in the house, when researching land deeds for the local land trust, my father put together the family connection. He had purchased a house whose wide plank floors his relatives had walked upon in the late 1700s.

Visiting my parents over the years, I watched them grow old with the house. My father, at age 90, crawled up the narrow twisty center stairway each night, refusing to move his bed downstairs. He had his pride, as did the old house.

Now that the house is mine, it is a comforting contrast to my life and the houses in Marin. There is comfort in a house with character developed over centuries. When a Mainer came in the kitchen, the comment was, “My, it doesn’t look like you are from California.” When a Marin friend came for a visit, she questioned, “Are you going to fix it up one room at a time?” She is just fine as she is I thought. Houses, as most items, are female in Maine. Ah-yup, she is a mighty fine house for me.

Would a Marin real estate fact sheet list the following? Sloping floors require blocks at the foot of the bed to level her out, ceiling plaster cracked providing reflection for images that can be found within, aged closet wall paper calling out a challenge on what year the pattern was picked, low ceilings, large stone cellar walls with crevices for mice entry, gravel pathways for water flow through the cellar as the upper hillside drains to the river, claw foot tub suitable for 4 children at a time, tub fixture provides no overflow so watch as you fill her up. Special feature: barn houses antique ice tools used to haul ice up from the river. Caution, sliding barn door may freeze shut in the winter. How could I sell the house? Not possible.

Three Kinds of Blue


I got, now own the Chinese Export Porcelain. Been in the family forever, my aunt said, packing the pieces in cardboard boxes, pieces wrapped in pages of The Valley News (circulation: 3,800 readers). My cousins got the house, its voracious view of a big blue mountain hunching up against a Vermont sky. My china sits on a kitchen shelf, underneath halogen lights, in our suburban Boston home. It doesn’t look out on anything except a stove, stainless steel countertops, sink, butcher block island, breakfast table, the fridge. The fridge makes purring, burping noises to produce ice half-moons. We don’t use the porcelain––not dishwasher safe.


Two hours or so north of Boston, my cousins’ house catches the wind. Leaves fall into gutters, snow piles on roof, pollen drifts upon window sills. Sometimes organic wasps or bees circulate through its two floors. The rooms are spacious, library a square space, perfect for books like the OED (first edition, thirteen faded red volumes). A new driveway has been built. There is a gunite pool. On August days my cousins sit in chairs on a grass terrace, admire the view, glasses of wine, beer or well water in hand. They look out over hay fields, second growth forest. Dirt roads, too, they see. It’s a fine landscape––their New Hampshire’s chock full of calendar art. Far off they catch glimpses of the Connecticut River, pewter strip dividing one state from another. A bit farther on they see Ascutney––a crouched yet rising mountain, in every season changing its skin to subtler passages of blue.


My cousin’s house is of a shingled, weather-beaten brown color. It should be painted some kind blue for the sake of this poem. But it isn’t. And neither is my kitchen. But the Export China is blue (and white), finely crafted with designs that, from where I stand, defy understanding, but are intricate. Lovely to behold. One day my children will inherit these pieces. Living as they do, they possess small regard for valuable china not dishwasher safe, I have no doubt they will wrap the porcelain in pages torn from The Boston Globe, store these treasures in basements between furnace and old paint cans. Stored and ignored. Or sold.


If you think I feel blue about not owning the house, only possessing china from my grandmother’s estate, your are right. But my Chinese Export Porcelain could have been left with the property. Then I’d have nothing to store on my high kitchen shelf under halogen light. As my aunt said, wrapping up the porcelain so we could take it away with safety in our Chevrolet station wagon: “What is given is most always better than nothing at all.” Apologies. I made up this quotation. My aunt, well-read, smart, un- sentimental, was a foe of waxing emotional or philosophical about objects. The porcelain was, and is, an admirable gift. Guests always give it a round of applause. When I look at it, I think of ancient China, a painter’s floating landscape of washed out crags, of spindly pine trees–– fragility hung on scrolls of rice paper. Art on paper centuries old. One day I’ll break open a fortune cookie (courtesy of our local Chang An eatery) into one of the blue (and white) plates, read the enclosed message cribbed from the Analects of Confucious––a zinger perhaps about how ownership, the worship of goods fosters imprudence.