Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Secret Lives of Houses

The White House is the L-shaped house on the left with the tree behind it.

I grew up in the most atmospheric house I can possibly imagine.
The White House was built in 1760 for Sir Harry Erskine, the local Member of Parliament for Anstruther. So by the time my father bought it in 1965, it was already more than two centuries old. It was in a dilapidated state when we moved in, and for months we lived in just three rooms while the house was being restored under the National Trust for Scotland’s Little Houses Scheme. My parents did such a fine job that in 1972 the government designated The White House as a Grade A Listed Building in Scotland, defined as being: “Buildings of national or international importance, either architectural or historic, or fine little-altered examples of some particular period, style or building type (approximately 8 percent of the total).” Definitely not to be sneezed at.
But as a child, I cared about none of this. What mattered to my brother and me was that it was like living in a ship. The house was situated directly behind the sea wall of the old West Anstruther harbor. During the gales of winter and the spring tides, great waves of water would crash against the house and break over the roof.  And when the weather was calm, we had the whole beach to play on with its continents of rock formations straggling out to sea. A fertile plain for our imaginations, both indoors and out.
It was very much a practical house with the thick stone walls and deep log fireplaces appropriate for the climate. No chandeliers, no fancy moldings, just a couple of fireplaces that were supposed to have been designed by Robert Adam, the famous 18th century architect and interior designer. There was enough room inside for us kids to have not only a playroom, where we made up plays and puppet shows, but also a music room where, as we got older, we played records and entertained our friends. In other words, it was a truly magical house in which to grow up.
But in 1981, my parents had to move south to the London area, and the house was sold. I had been back to Anstruther a handful of times over the years, but I had only seen The White House from the outside. It wasn’t until 2009 when I finally set foot in it again.
I was visiting Anstruther with my niece Florence, and I wanted her to be able to see the place where her father and I had grown up, about which she had heard so many stories. So I called the current owners, Cairns and Lindy, to ask if we could stop by, and they were kind enough to agree.
As I stepped over the threshold through the familiar red front door, I expected to be overwhelmed by a tsunami of memories. But I felt nothing very much. The rooms were essentially the same, though decorated quite differently. It was pleasant to see them again, to compare notes with Cairns and Lindy about how each one looked in our day and to tell Florence stories about where our piano stood or where our poodle Angus slept, but there was no sense of deep familiarity and certainly no emotion.
But then as we were heading down a staircase towards the front door, our tour almost over, I paused to point something out to Florence. As I spoke, I happened to put my hand on the smooth warm wood of the top of the newel post and felt a surge of tactile memory so strong it stopped me dead in the middle of a sentence. It was like my younger self had reached out and touched me, palm to palm. I almost staggered.
How many times must I have touched that post as I headed up to my bedroom to do my homework or played on that staircase with my dog. A thousand? Ten thousand? Enough to leave a kind of psychic imprint that lay in wait for me for 30 years?
When we lived in The White House, people used to ask me if I’d ever seen the ghost of a white lady who was supposed to haunt its hallways. I used to scoff at the idea, but now I wonder. As I get older, it seems more and more plausible to me that houses retain the echo of the people who have lived within their walls. Maybe someone living in the house in the 22nd century will one day hear the echo of childish voices or catch a glimpse of a young girl in bell-bottomed jeans floating down the stairs, with one ghostly hand resting on the top of the newel post.
Top of the newel post at the end of the banister on the right

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