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You Can Drive By Again

For years, I'd driven by my childhood home. A For Sale sign got me thinking.

By Greg Daugherty

I used to drive past the old farmhouse at least once a year, more often if I could find an excuse. A used-book sale at the local library would do. Or an antique car show, a farmers' market. I would probably have shown up at a hog-calling contest if the historical society put one on, although that would be pushing it.

A black and white photo of a young boy sitting outside of a big white house. Next Avenue
Greg Daugherty at his childhood home  |  Credit: Courtesy of Greg Daugherty

During that whole time the old house stood empty, but obviously not abandoned. The grass was mowed, the window glass intact, the paint good for another year or more.

It was always reassuring to turn the corner on that winding road and see it still standing there, much as it did when I was a boy.

At first it seemed strange that no one would be living there. I had lived there myself as a kid, which is the short answer of why I was drawn to the place. It was only two years, but I remembered them as almost impossibly happy.

Many of us have a particular place that means more than any other. Perhaps you do, too. It might be Grandma's house, the home where we grew up or raised kids of our own, a cabin on some idyllic lake. This was mine. It was always reassuring to turn the corner on that winding road and see it still standing there, much as it did when I was a boy.

The Fantasy of Buying Our House Back

As the years went by I began to take comfort in the fact that the house was empty. I could entertain the fantasy, at least for the duration of the drive home, that I might buy it someday and move back in. They say you can't go home again and most of us repeat the saying as if its truth were beyond question rather than just the title of an old novel. But how do we know, really?

Meanwhile I married, had children of my own, and bought a house, one that was newer, more practical, and closer to work. But still I came back. Or now we did.

Surprisingly Smaller

On one visit, my wife and I ran into the man who was caring for the house. He remembered me from when we'd both been kids, a bit of information that was probably reassuring to my wife; for all she knew, the whole thing might have been some sort of delusion on my part. He let us in and showed us around.

The cast-iron bathtub where we'd bathed our dog was still as I remembered it.

As most of us find when we return to a place we haven't seen since childhood, it seemed smaller now and a little shabby. I had forgotten that there weren't any closets, common in the days when people owned fewer clothes and could hang them on pegs or in freestanding wardrobes.

But the cast-iron bathtub where we'd bathed our dog was still as I remembered it. Same for the mysterious stuffed crow in the basement. Out back, the old red barn I'd bounced tennis balls off of decades ago, looked no less decrepit but also no more.

Our guide told us that the house was unoccupied because the owner, the widow of the man my parents had rented it from, still hoped to move back someday. I understood the feeling.


Visitors to My Current Home

One pre-Covid weekend not long ago, a woman who had grown up in what is now my house appeared at our front door, her husband and small children lined up behind her. I invited them to come in, but she begged off. Too many painful memories, perhaps. Her parents were both dead now; her sister, as well. I knew that much.

What she was hoping, she said, was to show her family the little park at the bottom of our hill. Basically a vacant lot owned jointly by all the neighbors, it's fenced in and requires a key to open the gate. I let them in and hung back as they poked around, the mom pointing and narrating. Then, apparently satisfied, they said their goodbyes and went back to their regularly scheduled lives.

One person's nostalgia can also be another's annoyance.

Of course, one person's nostalgia can also be another's annoyance. A coworker once described a Sunday morning visit from a family that had once lived in her house. When they asked if they might come in for a look, she recalled, "I said, 'Are you kidding? I don't even have my makeup on yet,' and shut the door in their face." Maybe they should have just stayed in the car.

The last time I saw the old farmhouse, always so reassuring in its sameness, there was something unfamiliar in the yard: a realtor's for-sale sign. I copied the details and checked online when I got home. There was the house all right, 23 pictures of it, inside and out, though, somehow, no stuffed bird.

An Unexpected Sign

The asking price was low for this part of the world, but far from cheap. If I sold my current house, I figured, I might come out a bit ahead. That was good because I couldn't help but imagine that it needed work, and I have learned from my experiences as a homeowner not to attempt anything more complicated than driving the occasional nail.

Selling my house would have meant uprooting the kids, tearing them away from the friends and school system they'd known their whole lives, so maybe that wasn't such a good idea. It might lead also to divorce, and, worst case scenario, murder. Mine, for instance.

On some level, I knew that fantasizing was fine, but fantasies are often better left at that.

Instead, I could cash in my retirement savings. After taxes and penalties, they might cover most of it. Or maybe my children could get full scholarships and not need their 529 college savings plans after all. I was sure that, deep down, they'd understand.

I knew I was really grasping when I remembered the old well in front if the house. That was where its former owner had once hurled his antique clock collection, for reasons that made sense to him at the time. (Alcohol may have been involved.)

Buy the house, dig up the well, sell the priceless old clocks. Being submerged in wet mud for 60 or 70 years shouldn't do too much damage, right?

But I never called the real estate agent. On some level, I knew that fantasizing was fine, but fantasies are often better left at that.

I don't know what has happened with the house, but here's what I'd like to think. Someday I'll just happen to be in the area. There's the house, and the well full of clocks, and the barn out back. There are cars in the driveway and lights on in some of the rooms. Outside, a kid or two is goofing around with a dog or playing in the leaves.

And even through the car window it's hard not to see their expressions: They are almost impossibly happy.

Maybe it's true that you can't go home again, but there's no reason you can't drive by.

Greg Daugherty is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance and retirement who has written frequently for Next Avenue. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief at Reader's Digest New Choices and Senior Editor at Money magazine. Read More
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