Talking to houses

I love the communal nature of houses.

2013DecJan TalkingToHouses01
Photo by Scott Eason

Unless your home is newly built, there’s a good chance that others have lived in it before you. We bought our first house before we were even married. My future husband and I were living in Portland in an apartment downtown; it was close to campus, steps away from restaurants, hotels and mass transit. I was scared to leave this haven of convenience for the bona fide adult world of houses.

Once we’d moved in, though, I found myself in an ongoing interior conversation with all the folks who’d lived there before me. The mail — all the stuff that failed to be forwarded or rerouted — was a high point in our discussions: Oh, Janis, you still haven’t paid off that Nordstrom account? Oh, Esme, I love those Moonstruck truffles too!

But there were other, subtler conversations in which I mentally asked the earlier occupants if they’d regretted that spotted wallpaper, and wondered who’d originally put covered-wagon-print curtains in the den.

Were they excited about buying that big fridge? Did they feel too exposed by the pane of glass in the entryway?

I never looked into things like the house’s architect or what the area had looked like before the neighborhood had been established. But I did ponder long and hard why none of the previous inhabitants had invested in decent window coverings.

We were in that house for five years, now in our present house for nearly 10. In that time, we married, we moved to Florida, our daughter was born, and I published some more books. And my conversation with the invisible others has continued.

I wonder what sorts of conversations, dinner parties, lovemaking and fighting took place in these walls. I wonder who got sick, who got great news, what sorts of meals they made.

We’re about to move again, this time to something a little bigger, better for a family, on a quieter street. But I feel genuine grief over concluding the conversation with this house. I’ll never know who picked out that soft peach color for the dining room walls, who painted the front door cobalt blue or who gazed through the bedroom window, listening to the oriole’s kaleidoscopic morning song.

And I won’t know who comes next to begin a new conversation, intimate yet remote, a discussion between strangers, without words.

2013DecJan TalkingToHouses02Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of Birds of Paradise, the winner of the 2012 Arab American Book Award. She is also the author of the memoir The Language of Baklava and the novels Origin and Crescent, which was awarded the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction and the American Book Award. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz, won the 1994 Oregon Book Award. She teaches at Portland State University.