The House That Built Me by
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The house I grew up in was perfect in my eyes. It had everything one could ever want in a house. Well, except a swimming pool. (My father thought about putting one on top of the garage, but my mother didn’t think that was safe. Too bad.) But the town we lived in was far from perfect (see My Little Town). My sisters were always pestering my parents to move, but I would say no, I don’t want to leave this house! We broached the idea of picking up the house and moving it somewhere else, but not too surprisingly my parents were not willing to do that.

The house I grew up in had many wonderful features, including an attic and a basement, and both were put to good use.

So, back to my perfect house. Among its many other wonderful features, it had a full attic and a full basement, and both were put to good use.

You can tell from the roofline in the Featured Image that the attic had a sloping ceiling the entire length of it. There was plenty of height in the middle, but as you moved closer to either side, you would have to start stooping over, unless you were a child, in which case you didn’t even notice the slope. The attic had a finished bedroom and bathroom right at the top of the stairs, which was where my grandfather lived. I never thought to ask why he and my grandmother didn’t share a room. You can see the quarter-circle windows on either side of the chimney, and I think it was the closer one that was in his bedroom, but I’m not sure.  The rest of the attic was just open space, with out-of-season clothes stored there along with various boxes containing who knows what. The stairway to the attic twisted in a spiral as it went up, so that each stair was very wide on the left side, and almost nonexistent on the right side (and the reverse when you were coming down), so you had to be careful where you placed your feet. This was particularly tricky if you were carrying something large, so that you couldn’t see your feet. The door to the attic was kept closed, because the attic had neither heat nor air conditioning, except in my grandfather’s room.

The door to the basement was also kept closed. On the inside of that door were hooks where we kids hung our coats. (There was a coat closet by the front door where the adults hung their coats on hangers. The kids never used that closet.) So you had to brush past all the coats to get to the stairs. That stairway was straight, as it was right underneath the stairs between the first and second floors of the house. In the basement was a finished rec room and half bath, as well as the laundry room, where I ironed my hair in high school. The rec room had paneled walls, a couple of couches, a huge cupboard full of board games, a ping pong table, and an enormous old upright piano painted pink, that had been my father’s. (When we went back to visit, we discovered that the piano was still there, because nobody could figure out how to get it out.) There was also a built-in bar, although no alcohol was kept there, but we liked to play behind it and it was a cool place to hide out. When I was in eighth grade, I had a slumber party in that rec room, which was pretty great! All the girls in my class came. Also in the basement was the furnace room, and a one-car garage that was not used for a car because my parents had built a detached two-car garage next to the office. The former garage was lined with metal shelves that stored my father’s medical supplies. In the Featured Image, you can see the driveway that went into the old garage just behind the tree on the right. We never used that driveway, and as far as I can remember we never opened the door that went from the basement to the driveway.

Everyone I knew in New Jersey had an attic and a basement in their house. In contrast, in California I have seen almost no attics, and only rarely usable basements. The first house I bought in Sacramento had what was called a quarter-basement, but I think that fraction was pretty optimistic. The basement held the furnace and the hot water heater, and a couple of square feet where you could stand while you were futzing with the furnace or hot water heater if, god forbid, that became necessary. My second house had a bigger basement with lots of shelves and even a primitive wine storage area, but its most important feature was the sump pump, crucial when there were heavy rains and the basement started to flood. (Yes, we used to have heavy rains. Hard to remember now.) We stored things on the shelves, but never spent any time down there.

My current house, where I have lived for thirty years, has neither an attic nor a basement, and I really feel the lack of any storage space. We used to store things in a room behind the garage, but then my husband turned that into a music room. So now we keep moving boxes and bags of precious miscellany around to whatever bedroom isn’t being used at the moment. How I long for a basement or an attic!


Note: The title song is by country singer Miranda Lambert, from 2010. I don’t expect any of you to know it, both because of the genre and how recent it is. The music video, showing Miranda going back to visit her childhood home, is very sweet, and reminded me of when my sisters and I went back to visit our childhood home.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You speak with great fondness and detail of the wonderful aspects of your New Jersey childhood home, Suzy. We’ve heard about your grandparents’ living arrangements before. That curved staircase must have been difficult to navigate as they grew older.

    It is clear that you spent happy, formative years in this home. I like the detail of ironing your hair in the basement (I remember girls doing it in Home Ec class in my Junior High School). I agree that it must be difficult to live without some sort of storage space (either basement or attic) in homes constructed without them.

    • Suzy says:

      Betsy, I remember the curved staircase as being difficult for me as a child, I don’t know if the adults had trouble with it or not. You just had to be sure to walk on the outer edge of the curve.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    You have many happy memories of that old house, and the stories to go with them. Interesting that your grandfather lived upstairs—at least he could still manage stairs. No storage space is a blessing and a curse—you would think it would encourage paring down, but I relate to your story of bags and boxes stashed around the house in California.

    • Suzy says:

      My grandfather had no problem with the stairs until he had his first heart attack. At that point, we turned the first-floor den into a bedroom for him, adding an accordion-pleat door so he could have privacy. I’m surprised that at that point one of my sisters didn’t move into the attic bedroom, since they both always complained about sharing a room.

  3. Thanx Suzy for this wonderful well-written story about your beloved childhood house. And sweet that you miss basements and attics as California houses don’t usually have them – can you explain why?

    I loved my childhood house too, and altho we had a finished attic where my sister and I had bedrooms, and have many attic stories, I’ll refrain as I’ve written two basement stories already!

    Thanx for another great prompt!

    • Suzy says:

      In my neighborhood we can’t have basements because we are close to the river, and the water table is too high. I also think that in newer houses (not ours, which was built in 1946), it’s just cheaper to pour a concrete slab rather than digging a basement. Why there aren’t any attics is harder to understand.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Your childhood home was charming and I’m sure that picture evokes so many special memories for you. When we downsized, we were forced to go through the basement and attic to discard lots of stuff. Because it was at the height of the pandemic, there was no place open to take donations, so both spaces were crammed with boxes. So lucky we had that extra room.

    • Suzy says:

      I do love that picture of my house. Wish I had some pictures of the inside. My oldest sister is the keeper of all my parents’ photos, which I should look through at some point, but I think most of them are slides.

  5. Marian says:

    What a cool house to grow up in, Suzy, and a really nice basement where you could socialize. I feel your pain about not having storage now, although you’d think a four-bedroom house would be sufficient for two people. On my block no one parks in their garage because that’s where all the boxes and bags go.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, I know a lot of people who park in the driveway or on the street because they use the garage for storage. But I was adamant that I wanted to keep our cars in the garage! Crucial in the summer when the temperature gets over 100 degrees!

  6. Suzy, you conjure a basement and attic with an idyllic appeal, except for the town they were in, and your grandfather’s isolated nook, and the lack of alcohol behind the rec room bar which if there could have turned your girls only slumber party into a wild and crazy night, with casualties. I take it that you w your sisters made pilgrimage to the old manse under new ownership (you can’t go home again, some say; although others say you can’t take the home out of the girl; and still others wonder if there was asbestos around the basement pipes). Where was your grandmother? How did your grandfather manage the stairs? If you had to disappear would you choose the attic or the basement?
    Thank you for this sweet snapshot.
    Jon

    • Suzy says:

      Jon, your comment is so wonderful it could be a story in its own right (or its own write). We did make a pilgrimage many years ago. The house is on a corner, and the son of the neighbors on one street married the daughter of the neighbors on the other street. They bought our house when my parents retired, so they could be close to both of their families. It was easy to contact them and arrange a visit so we could see it again and show it to our kids.

      My grandmother had one of the four bedrooms on the second floor, which is why my two sisters had to share a bedroom. There would have been room for my grandfather to live there too, but apparently he preferred to be in the attic. Until his heart attack (see my answer to Khati).

      Wow, if I had to disappear? . . . . I think I would choose the basement, because the temperature was better regulated. The attic got really hot in the summer and cold in the winter. But it’s a tough choice!

  7. John Shutkin says:

    What a great story about a beloved attic, Suzy. And I can sure identify with those sloping roofs and the decreasing (to nothing) headroom. But so sorry that you are attic-deprived. As you know, that space is really crucial – as are ther memories.

    Finally, thanks for the note about the song title title. Saved me a googling exercise. But what a perfect title for your story — and lovely thought generally.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. Just read your description of the pitch of your roof and the sloping ceilings in your attic. You said it better than I did. You could still google the song and watch the video, it’s pretty sweet. Just be sure to get Miranda Lambert’s video, not Tanya Tucker’s. Miranda had a beautiful house, and Tanya had a trailer.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    I had to go and check the linked story to find out why you are not a fan of Belleville!

    If I had to move back to NJ and it absolutely had to be an uber-urban location, I think it would be back in Bayonne.

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