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essay: the things we set down in our homes

(This is excerpted from my yet-to-be-published book, things i (probably) wrote in caffe aroma.)


In the house I grew up in, books and clothes and toys and trinkets and papers — never the papers we needed, no never the papers we needed — all competed for space along with my cats, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, mom, dad, sister, and me. My family managed to stuff our shoebox brick house with all of the treasures we could find, choosing to search for new hiding spots for our items when drawers and tables and the tops of dressers became full. Occasionally, we would host sad, little garage sales, the kinds where most of the cars creep by slowly to see if anything is worth their time and then keep on driving.

Despite my house’s square footage, it could hide documents and half a pair of earrings or half a pair of socks like no other. It was like the opposite of the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter; the item you needed most, like perhaps a birth certificate for a driver’s license, was never anywhere to be found. Instead, here are some garbage bags full of all of your old Webkinz. (Oh perfect, thank you.)

I don’t remember any of my childhood friends ever being bothered by all of the stuff, but maybe that’s because they were too busy eating my dad's tuna sandwiches and cookies or playing with all of the fun toys we had to notice. My house often smelled like chocolate chip cookies, or crepes and maple syrup, or cream puffs, or truffles. My dad was always making us treats and they made my home very popular. He used the scent of French toast as an alarm clock for my sister and me on weekends and snow days.

What we lacked in indoor space, we made up for with our backyard. What kind of kid needs their own room when they have 20 acres of grass and swings and trees and dandelions? (The answer is my sister, Lexie. She would have taken her own bedroom over any woods in a heartbeat, if there was ever a choice.) But I spent my springs catching cottonwood with my fingers like it was snow and winters catching snowflakes with my tongue like they were sprinkles. Our backyard was home to all of the hide-and-seek spots any of my friends could dream of, and I knew them all, so I won every game.


Sometimes I would strategize with my best friends, while we bounced on my trampoline, about doing some sort of deep clean-out day and sending my parents on a trip (with what money?) so we could just bag everything up and throw it all out. My friends were always on board. Many of them loved my parents like they were their own. My dad was a dad to a lot of kids in the neighborhood, and our imperfect house was theirs, too.

Year after year, we were promised our own bedrooms in "the addition" that would never come. I fantasized that maybe I would get cancer and Extreme Home Makeover would visit us and renovate our home while sending us to Disney World.


​The thing about moving out of your parents’ house is that everything you experienced while living there instantly becomes the past. My time sharing a bedroom and a computer and warning new friends that my house was “a little messy," as well as waking up to my dad’s French toast, is over. It was always going to be finite, of course. All of the insecurities wrapped up in the clutter and size of my house belonged to a different me, who existed, and who I love so dearly, but who has long evolved.

The thing about becoming an adult is that you inch closer, every day, to becoming the age your parents were when they bore and raised you. Not a day goes by where I do not miss that house and waking up to the smell of my parents’ coffee while the CBS Sunday Morning Show trumpets played on the weekends -- a sound I no longer hear because, of course, I don't have cable. I especially miss home on sunny summer days or snowy winter ones. What I would give to go back in time and run into my house after sledding down our small man-made hill, which was created to house our sewage tank, and find my dad making hot chocolate in the kitchen, clearing papers and packages and books and pens and all of his miscellaneous items from the table before laying the mug down in front of me.

They didn't make a large home. The house I grew up in wasn't organized or impressive. It didn't have two living rooms or two bathrooms or even two bedrooms -- but it was happy. It was emotional. I could always be the raw, hyper, anxious, and quite frankly, sometimes even feral, me. It was always a shock when I left home and realized everyone else expected me to put on an act.


Part of me has always understood why my parents have so much stuff because my parents are the kind of people who share the truth about things with their daughters. None of the people in my nuclear family understand how to be anyone other than who they are; we are all aggressively ourselves. And I learned the art of sharing my stories from my mom and dad, who have always loved sharing theirs with Lexie and me.

Therefore, my parents’ best and worst moments live inside of me, too, for I’ve conjured my own visions of their trauma over the years of listening to the stories that changed their lives in an instant. Those events flashback to me as I try to understand them and myself, and as I try to make sense of our family. Maybe I’m preparing for the moments like these that will occur in my own life, jerking me from whatever solid ground I had patted down for myself, because things like these happen to each of us. The specifics differ, but the certainty remains.

I think often about the moment my parents pulled up to their home on fire. My memory of this event, which happened five or so years before my birth, begins with my parents turning a corner to find their lives aflame.

They lost all of their animals in the fire. They had a few dogs and a few cats, the names Mischa and Bear stick out — two of the best animals they ever had, they have said. Pretty much everything they owned — my dad's theater set business, my mom’s beloved clothing, their personal photographs, sentimental items, practical things — all burned or became too damaged by smoke to save.

I can picture my mom running up to the front door, determined to save her pets, and almost opening it, before, she says, a profound invisible force stopped her and forcibly pushed her backward. A firefighter later told her that she would have died instantly from a backdraft of oxygen creating a fireball consuming her if she had opened the door, which is the strongest case there is a God that I’ve ever heard.


My parents lived in a neighborhood on Buffalo’s West Side that has been completely gentrified over the past decade. Where their building once stood, an artisanal bakery that infamously sells $12 toast now lives. I sometimes sit at the coffee shop across from the bakery and look out at the plot of grass, now littered with picnickers and public art, that was once home to a much younger version of my parents, a version that used to bring a bottle of wine out onto the roof to drink together, cook dinner together and cuddle their dogs and cats together. I may have grown up there, and been a part of that life. My dad has said that they may never have had children if it weren’t for that fire, because of the lifestyles they were living then. Maybe that’s true, or maybe that’s one of the stories he tells himself to help cope because look what it brought him? Us.

A couple of years ago, my parents and I got coffee across the street from their old building and walked on the land where it once stood. They traced their phantom house and repeated the story they always told me about the fire and their old lives there, but this time they remembered more details. My mom talked about her red curtains and ornate rugs and how beautiful she had it all decorated.

About a decade before the fire, when my dad was 25, only a couple of years older than I am now, he lost his mom suddenly to a cancer he didn’t know she had. He was away from home for work when she entered the hospital for stomach pains and by the time he returned home, all he had left of her were her books. He couldn't get rid of them and part with her, too.

My mom tells a story, tearfully, about when her father threw out the rest of her belongings from when she was a girl, left behind in her parents’ basement. By the time my mom told that story to a younger version of me — I may have thought at the time, “it’s just stuff,” but I also chose to hide my bags of Webkinz in the bottom of a closet instead of throwing them out, even though I knew I would never play with them again — her mom had died from a stroke and her dad had gone after deteriorating from Alzheimer’s. Her childhood home had long been sold. Her children had barely any recollection of her mother and none of her father before he fell ill. She lost in a fire nearly all of the sentimental items she kept with her when she moved out of her parents’ house at 20 years old. I understand, now, why she would want a stuffed animal to remember it by. I would, too.

These stories live inside of me and I’ve lived inside of a home shaped by these stories, and all of the good to come from them, and all of the bad to come from them. It is all just stuff; and stuff isn’t people; and stuff isn’t time; and stuff doesn’t matter; and stuff matters; and I want to go squeeze my mom and dad and sister now.

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Mar 03, 2021

Your childhood home sounds like my dream home! At least the 20 acres of wooded land, crepes and French toast. Great piece.

Francesca Bond
Francesca Bond
Mar 03, 2021
Replying to

Ahh thank you! :)

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