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Illustration by Heather Landis

How a Visit to a Childhood Home Spurred a Meditation on Time, Love, and Loss

Writer and comedian Adam Cayton-Holland on the enduring power of place.

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The house I was born in went up for sale last year. Not the house I grew up in; the one I lived in until I was three, with my mom and my dad and my older sister. A little bungalow on Albion Street. It was just the four of us there, those few years before we moved into the house I think of as our family home—the house where my little sister was born, where we grew up, and where my parents still live to this day.

My little sister died by suicide when she was 28, eight years ago. It’s as simple and complex as that.

Is her death relevant? Does it matter to the story of our first house that she’s no longer with us? She hadn’t been born then. That house never knew her, never watched her roll over and learn to crawl and take those awkward first steps across its carpet. Does a house even care about the family that inhabits it after the family is gone? If so, would it be devastated to know the fate that befell us? Does the shadow of her death spread across the memory of that house like it spreads across all my other memories, just as it will blanket the memories of the houses where I’m yet to live?

I know what my little sister would say. She’d say it’s foolish to anthropomorphize.

We were happy in that home. Life felt limitless there, like it was all in the future. Like nothing could ever touch us.

We met on a Sunday, my mother and father, my older sister and me. We wanted to see our old house again, figured this was our last shot before it passed into new hands. My wife and newborn son joined us. I held him in a carrier strapped to my chest, his little head and arms and legs arranged like a perfect five-point star.

There was no small talk with the Realtor or the stream of young couples at the open house. We didn’t engage. We weren’t looking to buy a home. We were nostalgia tourists, visiting our own past lives.

Together we migrated from room to room, my parents leading the way, remarking on what had changed and marveling at what hadn’t. My older sister remembered more than I did. Every room seemed to spark a memory for her. For me, the recollections were scattershot and oblique, occasional shapes and features that felt deeply familiar, and comforting: the porch swing, the sunroom overlooking the backyard.

Then, in the living room, the picture crystallized. I was there. I could see the old couch against the wall, the television opposite. Rabbit ears and twisting dials, M.A.S.H., the glow from the screen flickering onto the couch, enveloping my mother and father and sister, the dogs, the cat.

Adam Cayton-Holland. Photo courtesy of Cherith Fuller

It was overwhelming. I felt present in the memory, as if I hadn’t ever really moved away from that time. And had I, in the grand scheme of things? Wasn’t I still just a three-year-old watching television with his family? In the vast timeline of the planet, the one with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs and the ice ages and Christ and Coca-Cola, wasn’t I still pretty much at the exact same point in existence? Three years old. Thirty-eight. What’s the difference if you zoom out wide enough?

We headed up the stairs—another jolt to my subconscious, more powerful this time, planes folding in on themselves, Proust and his madeleine. My first memory, chalk outlines of it anyway, architectural blueprints: the stairway, every element gargantuan. The window. The railing. The banister, each individual slat. Dark wood. Crumbling plaster. An old chandelier. Curtains. Sunlight streaming through the window. All the significant insignificant details of my childhood now right there in front of me. Nothing and everything. The fabric of my consciousness.

At the top of the staircase there was a bedroom, my nursery. I could see the wallpaper in my head: woodland critters, rabbits and mice and squirrels. I could feel myself being carried up that staircase, a little bobbing head, like the one now bobbing against my chest as I made my way up to the second floor. 1980, my father carrying me. 2019, me carrying my son. Fathers and sons, houses and nurseries. It’s as simple and complex as that.

I rounded the corner and entered the first room I ever lived in, but there was no woodland critter wallpaper. Just white walls, some exposed brick, a skylight. I had forgotten that skylight. How many hours had I lain there beneath it, wondering at the sky?

I asked my father to take a picture. I wanted to have proof of that moment, or to be able to show it to my son, anyway. I wondered if it made the house happy to have us there again, in the same way that seemingly random displays of symmetry make us feel less overwhelmed by the relentless march of time. Would you look at that? The baby who lived here had a baby. And they’re all here together: grandfather, father, son.

I thought about the house I live in now, with my wife and my son, the one we bought two years ago, on the other side of City Park from the house where I was born. I pictured it sculpting the fabric of his subconscious. The creaking of the floorboards, the beveled glass—it was all going into the mix. Would that house come to love my son? Did it love him already?

I know what my little sister would say: It’s foolish to anthropomorphize.

After our tour, we lingered outside awhile, none of us really wanting to leave. My dad talked about how he used to sleep in a sleeping bag on the balcony, underneath the stars. We looked up at the balcony, worn and rickety, an entire side collapsed. You could almost see him lying there, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood in the dark.

I wondered about the first time he carried my little sister up the stairs to her nursery, in the house we grew up in a few blocks away. I could see my mom doing the same. I thought about how badly we all miss my little sister. How we wish we had gotten more than 28 years with her. I wish we could’ve had 80. I know there’s no difference, if you zoom out wide enough. I know we’re just blips in the vast history of time. Blink, our lives are just beginning. Blink, our lives are over. But that doesn’t make things any easier. It doesn’t make us miss her any less.

We noticed the giant Russian olive tree in the front yard. My parents couldn’t believe it was still there. My mother pointed out one of its enormous thorns on a branch—easily two inches long. She told us about the time my older sister got one stuck in her foot when she was a baby. They couldn’t figure out what was bothering her. Nor did they have the time to. They were rushing to the airport, off to Virginia to visit my mother’s family and introduce everyone to the new baby. They said she screamed the entire flight. She was inconsolable. That night, at our grandmother’s house, they took off her shoes and socks and discovered the problem: a thorn buried so deep they had to go to the hospital to have it removed. We patted the trunk of the tree gently and laughed at the memory.

Potential buyers trickled in and out of our old home on Albion Street, and we stood there on the sidewalk and listened to everyone discuss their thoughts. They all agreed it was a total gut job. The kitchen was outdated, the bathrooms were run-down, and it needed work in the cellar, new electric. It would be a lot to take on for whoever bought it. Still, it had good bones. There was no denying that. And character: built-ins and dormer windows, the type of charm you can’t fake.

It sold a few weeks later for $650,000. My dad bought it for $68,000 back in 1977. We were blown away by that—how dramatically it had increased in value, how popular the neighborhood had become. How nothing and everything can change.

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