To help me fall asleep at night, I try to think about soothing subjects. This is why, since I turned fifty several years ago, I have found myself renovating houses in my head. On home-renovation shows no one is ever disappointed, and every episode ends with smiles, good feelings, and a sense of transformation. I am particularly interested in renovating the houses of my childhood. I’ll never be able to step inside them again, but I can rearrange and reimagine the lives once lived there. I think about expanding the kitchen at my great-aunt and -uncle’s, providing much-needed distance between the two of them. I add a full bath to the basement of the house where I lived with my mother and father and sister — so we won’t always be banging on the door of the lone bathroom. I widen the closet in my dead cousin’s bedroom to make room for all the clothes she left behind. It’s a pleasing way to fall asleep, remodeling my youth to better fit my needs in middle age.
I think often of my grandparents’ house, the 1,200-square-foot row home where Nana and Pop DeLong lived for forty-six years, up until I was in my mid-thirties. Out of all the houses of my past, it’s the one I have the most trouble renovating. In my imagination I sit near the front door in the tiny living room. Nana is sitting in her chair to my right, concentrating on her “stories,” and Pop is napping on the sofa to my left. And I can’t think of any way to improve what I see, despite the fact that the house was built in the 1920s and sorely needs modernization.
The first thing they do on home-renovation shows is take down walls to “open up the space.” But at Nana and Pop’s the only interior wall on the first floor is the one that hides the stairs. I suppose I could expand the living room to enclose the front porch, just like the house across the street, where I lived with my sister and my parents until I was five. Then we moved to a house in the suburbs. And then, when I was ten, Mom, my sister, and I moved out.
But if I expand the living room onto the front porch, Nana and Pop won’t be able to sit there on summer evenings, talking to Bonnie next door and watching the people walk by on the sidewalk and the neighbors park their cars. And when I’m a newly licensed teenage driver and desperate to escape my stepfather’s house because of the anger and the yelling, Nana and Pop won’t be there to watch me park and say, “Kelly! Come sit with us and tell us what you’re up to.”
On home-renovation shows the kitchen is usually the first room to be torn apart. Nana and Pop’s kitchen is in the back, behind the stairs. I suppose I could replace the cabinets, which are metal and were probably installed sometime before 1955, the year Nana and Pop moved in. The countertop is also metal, while the sink is porcelain or some similar material. Nana keeps everything so immaculately clean, the kitchen appears brand-new despite its age. Nothing looks out-of-date — that’s because Nana is never out-of-date. She’s there at the stove every Saturday morning while my sister and I sit at the little round kitchen table pressed up against the back window, looking out on their narrow city yard with the giant maple tree. She pours us two glasses of cranberry juice, tells us what she’s planning to make for lunch, and asks what we would like for dinner.
At night we sit in the kitchen eating potato chips and cheese curls and listening to the police calls from the CB radio on the counter. On my right Pop is carefully pouring his bottle of Rolling Rock into a small glass and telling my sister and me how, when he was young, he had only enough money to buy a head of lettuce for lunch. To my left Nana is laughing at the stories Pop tells. She wants to know if my sister and I are ready for ice cream, or some ring bologna, or Cheez-Its?
It’s the same scene years later when, looking for something to do on a Friday night, my girlfriend and I visit them. We sit where my sister and I used to, and Pop tells us stories of his younger days while Nana makes sure we are well-fed and happy, saying, “It’s so good to have you here. I’m so glad you stopped by.”
It is hard to imagine any changes in this room.
Now, the basement is a possible candidate for renovation. I’m certain it looks nearly the same as it did when the house was built: uneven cement floors, unpainted cement walls, exposed-joist ceiling. There are the washer and dryer Nana uses on Mondays, laundry day. Along one wall stretches Pop’s workbench. A long wood plank evens out the floor there, and on the far end Pop often sets up a pyramid of tin cans for my sister and me to knock down with a softball rolled down the plank. Pop calls this “basement bowling.” After we knock the cans over, he sets them back up, and my sister and I cheer each other’s bowling ability.
To the doors of the storage cabinets under the basement steps, Pop has taped newspaper clippings. Several are photos of high-school basketball games. If you look closely, you can see Nana and Pop among the spectators sitting midcourt, the best spot to be accidentally photographed by the local paper. In one my friend Jason and I are sitting next to them with smiles on our faces. Pop has circled our heads with a pen and written, “Kelly and Jason with Nana and Pop.”
I don’t know where, but somewhere in this basement Nana and Pop hide money. Products of the Depression, they don’t entirely trust banks. When I’m seventeen, I’ll ask Pop if I can borrow money to buy my first car. He’ll go down to the basement and emerge with a wad of bills, which he’ll place in my hand, saying, “Pay me back when you can.” I’ll end up paying half back before he tells me to forget about the rest.
Though it’s true that the basement, at first glance, looks like the part of the house most in need of renovation, I don’t think I’ll make any changes here either.
The dining room used to be an empty space you passed through to get from the living room to the kitchen. Several years after my mother and father separated, however, they sold our house in the suburbs and split the money, and Nana and Pop took our dining set: a table and chairs and a hutch. They squeezed all of it into their tiny dining room, leaving just enough space to move through.
The stairs of the house are steep. One year a relative of Nana’s fell going up them. She tumbled backward onto Nana’s sister and Nana, leaving a pile of stunned old ladies at the bottom. Most people hold on to the railing when going up. To show my agility, I leap up two at a time. I do this because I am happy to be at Nana and Pop’s house after being away for weeks, sometimes years. Climbing these stairs I’ve known my whole life gives me a feeling like no other.
At the top, on the right, is what Nana and Pop call the “back room,” because it overlooks their backyard, shaded by the big maple. This was my father’s room from the age of ten until he married my mother at twenty and moved across the street. It still has the same furniture it did when my father lived here. Like every other room in the house, it is small — made smaller by the full-size bed, which takes up most of the space. This is where Nana sleeps. Because Nana and Pop don’t believe in throwing anything away — they’ve had the same phone for thirty years and still listen to a radio from the 1940s — the mattress is ancient, the springs so worn that two people can’t comfortably sleep on it. Nana isn’t tall, but she is wide, and the nights I stay over and sleep in this bed with her, I have to hold on to the edge of the mattress to keep from rolling into the middle.
The room still has a lot of my father’s belongings in it. His graduation picture sits on the dresser. The closet is jammed with things he left behind when he moved out. Nana once showed me a box in there full of his school papers, art projects, tests, report cards, and notebooks. Even if I were to change this room in some way, I would keep all those things in that closet. I wouldn’t throw any of it away. If, say, I were to paint the walls, I would put everything right back where it had been after the job was completed.
Outside the room, in the uneven hall — the house tilts noticeably as you move from room to room — I step into the small bathroom. Tub, sink, toilet. It would be good to put in a shower, but Nana says that taking showers is what caused my father to start losing his hair in his thirties, whereas Pop kept most of his into his sixties. Besides, a tub is just fine for them. It’s what they’re used to.
Each time he uses the bathroom, Pop comes downstairs first to ask if we need to go, because he will be a while. Pop has hemorrhoids and prefers to take his time. My sister and I have learned to use the toilet before him even if we don’t have to go. You never know how long he will be.
Next to the bathroom is the “middle room,” which has never been used as a bedroom, despite the fact that it has a bed in it. The bed is mine, from the house in the suburbs that Mom moved us out of and Dad later sold to give Mom her half of the money. Dad moved to an apartment and needed very little furniture, so Nana and Pop took what they had space for. The middle room is dark because it doesn’t have a window, just a lamp and a desk by the door. The desk is where Pop sits with his reading glasses on and pays the bills and draws colorful doodles on letters he sends to friends and acquaintances for anniversaries, retirements, birthdays.
I like to look at the pictures under the glass top of the desk. One is of my sister and me sitting in our kiddie pool in the backyard of our house across the street, which was just like Nana and Pop’s, only instead of Nana and Pop, our house had a father who was never satisfied and a mother with ulcers who groaned at night when she thought we were asleep.
At the end of the hall is Nana and Pop’s bedroom. On top of Pop’s dresser is the gold cup he won in 1934 for being the fastest mile runner at the Emmaus Diamond Jubilee. Next to the winner’s cup is an eight-by-ten black-and-white photo of Pop in his tracksuit, his muscled arms holding the cup. How many times over the years have I stared at that picture, thinking, “This is Pop, my grandfather, who used to look like that, who could outrun anyone who dared race him”?
These days that picture sits on my dresser in my bedroom, and the cup is on a bookshelf in my living room. What I wouldn’t give to have them both back on top of Pop’s dresser, where they belong, in that house where I belong and to which I dream of returning, though that will never happen. Nana and Pop are long gone. Their house was sold to strangers more than twenty years ago, and I live eight hundred miles away.
Most houses, I grant you, need updates to make them more livable, or perhaps to erase the memory of what took place there. I have spent time in such houses and have given much thought to the changes they need. But not all houses are like that. Not all spaces. What they get wrong on those home-renovation shows — as they change floor plans, reconfigure, make everything new — is that there are some homes, some spaces, that shouldn’t be reimagined. When I am falling asleep at night, searching for peaceful, calming thoughts to guide me to unconsciousness, I think of the people I will never see again, and the spaces I have inhabited that were perfectly built all along, in memory, by me.