I was sixteen years old when my great aunt’s house fell in love with me. Well, technically, fell on me. But I knew what it meant.
The timing was apt. Not because I was at some peculiarly ripe age for handsome old houses to start noticing me. I mean. Is there ever a wrong time for a house to choose you, and mark you as its own?
This is probably not a hypothetical question.
Our house, as I’ve mentioned, was old. Inherited complete with its contents from my Great Aunt Eva, who left us in sole possession of her lovingly hoarded Staffordshire collection, a handful of blown eggs, and a prodigious assortment of clawed mahogany furniture, which we proceeded to trash. Three kids, five Newfoundlands, and a stunningly casual attitude towards housework will do that to a place.
The house was delightful. Built sometime around 1910, it featured six-over-six leaded glass windows (which it would be my teenage duty to clean in the spring), beautifully inlaid floors (which we would laboriously refinish one hot autumn), and a generously proportioned porch (which would choose to hug me in an exuberant fashion in the summer of my sixteenth year).
It was the summer of our big family reunion, so we had an unusually large audience for the occasion of my great aunt’s house declaring its love for me.
For this is, in fact, how I chose to view it. Oh, sure. Some skeptics might have called it the inevitable consequence of going too long without addressing the need to replace the rotting wood at the base of the pillars that bore the weight of our veranda.
I’m gonna be honest with you. With my wider extended family arrayed almost ceremoniously in front of me on the wide, freshly mown lawn, it felt more like a declaration than that.
It took me quite by surprise.
I was doing what most teenagers do at large family gatherings — standing awkwardly to one side, rereading the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine. My mother had bought me a subscription the year before for my birthday, to support my burgeoning interest in geology. I remember flipping the pages idly while looking up to see who was winning the badminton game being played out a few paces in front of me on the lawn.
It was the badminton that saved me, I guess.
For in that moment, I saw that the white grecian column closest to me was slowly tipping over, cascading down toward me without a sound — but with alarming haste — toward the top of my head.
I took one quick, furtive step back. The ragged edge of the column’s top grazed down across the front of my shirt, sheared delicately along the length of my legs.
It was a very near thing.
In the end, we decided that most of the blood was coming from the large gash on the front of my shin, a cut only about three inches long. We debated for a while about whether or not we needed to mark the occasion with a visit to the emergency room for stitches, but it was eventually agreed that a few butterfly bandaids stretched gamely across the wound would do the trick.
My mother and uncle are both nurses, so I was quite thoroughly cleaned up, you needn’t worry. And the party went on.
From that day forward, I felt a new bond between me and that house. I had always loved it, from the moment we first moved in. At the time of the move, I was young enough to only associate it with the warm smell of cookies Eva was prone to baking for us when we came tumbling off the school bus. All I knew, when she passed away, was that we were moving into the house with the cookies and the gleaming cabinets of white.
Later, I learned to love the speckled green paint on the back hallway floor. The rough, raised surface of the alligator staining on the doors. The cool, embracing velvet of the curtains that hung between dining room and parlor, allegedly there to conserve heat in the winter but really, as we all tacitly understood, hung for the sole purpose of the theatricals I mounted with increasing regularity for my assembled, eternally patient family.
It’s no wonder we fell in love, really. It was such a heady time.
I hardly ever notice the scar now, of course, although it’s never really faded with time. The house has continued its long, slow decay. All of the columns were long since replaced by less graceful posts erected more for duty than for flair, and the gleaming white porch has been tinged a damp olive green after too many summer rains.
The last time I was in my old bedroom — to rescue some old books from storage, no doubt, or to rummage around for the odd picture or two — I noticed with dismay that there were tendrils of ivy snaking quietly in through the splitting window frame.
Then I saw it more clearly; saw that it was just the old, viney hands of great aunt Eva’s old house, reaching in for one more sweet, leafy embrace. I ran my hands slowly down a thin, green stem, and remembered how gently this house had always held me.
Notwithstanding that one time it climbed all over me like a big, clumsy dog, her claws drawing just a little bit of blood in her happy eagerness to get close.
Notwithstanding that one time, this house and I have always been in love.
Image by wickenden.