Moving forces Jennie to reconsider what makes a house a home
Jennie knew every corner of the house she grew up in. Every rut down the center of her bedroom ceiling, every groove worn into the bamboo floorboards, every chip of peeling yellow paint behind the living room sofa. If you asked, she could show you the twining scrape on the laundry room floor from the time her father dragged the plastic hamper from there to the kitchen with Jennie in it; she could tell anyone why there were still streaks of red crayon across the wall in the foyer (no matter how hard they scrubbed, her mom and dad were never able to wash all of her brother Henry’s Crayola masterpiece out of the fading beige wallpaper).
Jennie loved that house, the one on Gardener Street with two oak trees in front and a cluster of pink rosebushes that crawled beneath the wide picture windows, only a block away from the park where Jennie and her best friend, Elizabeth, had spent every day of every summer since they were four years old. The rambling lawn expanding from either side of the little brick footpath leading to the maraschino cherry-red front door, the grapevines dripping like warm honey from the wooden ledge on the back porch, the lavender stalks, tall and gloriously purple, waving lethargically in the wind by the white fence at the edge of Jennie’s backyard—every little detail was a treasure to Jennie.
Everyone loved the house. Sometimes, on steamy Saturday evenings, Jennie’s parents would kindle the Chinese lanterns that teetered with trepidation on the porch beams and lay the scuffed dining room table with Jennie’s favorite tablecloth—the red-and-white paisley that Aunt Flora had stitched as a little girl all by herself. Then, once Jennie’s mother had prepared a pitcher of sweet hibiscus tea, in would stream the guests. Many partygoers attended—Elizabeth’s family; Hannah and her husband, Jerry, who lived in the duplex on the next street over; the Caulfields and their baby, Ben; Mrs. Hamilton from the pink house next door; Daddy’s colleague Harry Swenson and his three sons; Sophie Russell with her mother Allison . . . Jennie could go on and on.
The food was always heavenly: Jennie’s mother would order a peach pie from Franny Belle’s Bakery on Thompson Road—she’d never learned to bake herself—and her father would make brisket in the slow cooker with lots of onions, the way everybody liked it. All of the kids would play hide-and-go-seek in the dark, and Jennie couldn’t remember a time she hadn’t won; because she knew every cranny and crevice, she found a discreet hiding place every time.
The grown-ups would laugh and drink hibiscus tea on the porch if it was still scorching hot outside. In the wintertime, they would sit under blankets in the living room and sip coffee, a fire flickering in the hearth. Everyone would stay long past Jennie’s bedtime, and usually the other kids would bring sleeping bags to place on Jennie’s cream-colored braided rug (stained pink in the middle from the time Jennie, age six, had spilled her juice box and left it to soak in), to doze until their parents crept in through the dark, swathed them in blankets, and carried them out the pristine door of Jennie’s house into the luxuriously blustery night.
Every night, Jennie lay beneath her lace-trimmed, mint-green comforter, one cheek against the scuffed white wall, breathing in the heavenly scent of baking cookies combined with the pungent smell of lavender that had seeped into every corner of her house, thinking just how wonderful it felt to be there, how the house’s walls almost hummed with memories, how Jennie feared the house would combust: it held that much love and happiness.
Sometimes Jennie imagined herself as a mother with two children of her own, raising a family in the house she loved so, her own kids romping in the grass-covered backyard, picking lavender, laughing and shouting with delight. She imagined sitting on the porch drinking iced tea next to a grown-up Elizabeth, and sleeping in her own bed forever and ever and ever. She even imagined Henry living there with her, and her mother and father as grandparents, making pancakes for her each Sunday morning, watching movies in their bedroom every Friday night. Jennie couldn’t wait for these fantasies to come true. She never doubted that they would.
Everything changed in a matter of seconds, as if a tornado had suddenly blown in and torn Jennie’s life apart. There came a call from Grandma Helen in Derry, New Hampshire, letting Jennie’s family know that Grandpa Ben was sick with lung cancer. Then Jennie’s dad got a transfer to Derry, and he left to be with his father. Then came the announcement that there was a new house waiting for them in Derry on Blancheford Avenue, a street without a park on the end or an Elizabeth to accompany her there. That the blue house on Gardener Street had been sold to a family with a girl Jennie’s age. That in a month, Jennie and her family would move across the country into a house they’d never even seen before in person.
Then came Jennie’s tears that wouldn’t stop, the slam of her bedroom door, the crying and crying into her bedspread for hours on end. The shouting, the screaming. The I’m not going!
But New Hampshire happened anyway, and soon Jennie’s whole life, taped shut into dirty cardboard boxes, was bouncing around in the back of a truck headed for Derry. And in a blurry whirlwind of goodbyes and hugs and kisses, Jennie found herself wearing a new, green woolen coat, standing in front of the new house.
The new house was a drab olive grey, a color Jennie loathed the way she did Brussels sprouts. The fact that her parents planned to have it painted a lighter shade of green as soon as the weather improved didn’t console Jennie in any way. It was quaint, only one story tall, with a sloping shingled roof, a wraparound porch, a snow-blanketed front yard, and a squeaking wooden gate that led down the driveway to a brick-paved backyard that had only a small patch of garden at the very edge. There was a magnolia tree next to the pathway leading to the steps, white-barked and stout, with long arms beckoning to be climbed.
The inside of the house smelled like detergent and flowery perfume, a pungent scent that made Jennie’s head ache. And though the living room was beautiful, wide and spacious and painted a spritely yellow, the dining room was a condensed cramp of table, chairs, and a cabinet. Jennie’s bedroom here was bigger than her old one, painted sunset pink. She had a new, white rolltop desk, a furry beanbag chair, and a window that looked out onto the magnolia tree, which she would have fervently adored—but it wasn’t her house, it wasn’t her home. It never would be. So Jennie loathed it. The visit to the house evoked more tears, more sobbing, even hiding in a closet that smelled of dust and crawled with silverfish. Jennie hated the new house with all of her heart. Her heart was still in the old house on Gardener Street.
A long car ride to the hospital followed, then a walk down a hall that was too clean. And there was Jennie’s grandpa in his bed, a huge smile of delicious delight and glee on his wrinkled face. Grandma Helen mirrored his expression, hailing her relations with joy and ecstasy. Jennie’s father ran across the room to kiss his parents, relaxed but brimming with tearful happiness. He looked happier than she’d ever seen him at home, Jennie realized, here with his parents. Henry and Jennie’s mother were happy along with Jennie’s father, jumping up and down and hugging each other and contentedly exclaiming things like, “I missed you so much!” Jennie made her way over to Grandpa Ben, took his hand quietly, and held it. A strange, warm sensation filled up Jennie’s body as she glanced around the room at all of the happy faces. Maybe, Jennie thought, the new house could become my home, even if it smells bad inside and has a tiny dining room. Even if I loathe it, it will still be a home because I’ll be with my family, my mother and father and Henry and Grandma Helen and Grandpa Ben. It’s not the house—it’s the people who live with you that make your house your home.
Jennie smiled at Grandpa, whose face glowed with joy. “I hope you get to come home soon!” she whispered.
Maybe she didn’t loathe her new home too much after all.