March 2015

If Walls Could Talk (They Would Tell Stories)

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

A local realtor once described his work by saying, “I sell boxes and dirt.” His statement took me aback at the time, because among his listings were many multi-million-dollar mansions and oceanfront lots. But I think I understand now what he meant. After all, a house, no matter how big or fancy—or not—is just a box, grounded in a piece of earth: a structure, a space, a shelter from the elements, and, if we’re lucky, a place to escape the stresses of the day. A house can be bought or sold for a price, but a home is something more precious. A home is a collection of memories and stories which comprise who we are.

Growing up in East Point, Georgia, home was a tiny brick house, wedged between Highway 166, the lumber yard and the government housing project. The smell of creosote and fuel exhaust mingled with the sounds of 18-wheelers roaring by, emergency sirens wailing and freight trains blasting their horns as they clicked and clacked along the track that ran through the middle of town.

Our family of four shared one small bathroom with the bare essentials: toilet, sink, tub/shower, complete with pink plastic shower curtain. Our living room was unfurnished, aside from an old upright, out-of-tune piano. We had to close that room off at night, because there were no curtains on the window. Bare windows were not en vogue in East Point, but considering our “view,” which consisted of telephone poles, power lines, street lights and the highway, the main concern was not what we were missing, but what strangers might see from the street.

The “dining room” was not a room, but a Formica-topped table in the space between the kitchen and the pine-paneled den where I watched Popeye and Gilligan’s Island on a portable black and white Zenith with tin-foil topped rabbit ears. On the wall opposite the television, a cheap window-mounted air conditioner thundered, threatening to fall out into the backyard below.

We had no garage, but we did have a carport, which doubled as a skating rink when the car was in use. Landscaping was some patchy grass mingled with assorted weeds where I hunted four-leaf clovers, made wishes on dandelions and ran through the sprinkler in the summer.

Life in that house was not without drama. If the walls could talk, they would reveal all manner of secrets, best reserved for a therapist’s office or a trusted friend’s ear. They would tell of a chain-smoking, mentally ill, unemployable father, a working mother struggling to make ends meet and two frightened, confused children. They might also whisper of the day Daddy died at age 42, of Mama’s heartache and subsequent heart attack, of teenage rebellion, raised voices and slammed doors.

But those walls would also cheer us on. They would remember the rocking chair where Mama sang me to sleep, PB&J sandwiches on white bread in a sack, heated games of Parcheesi and Go Fish, hot chocolate on a winter’s night, newborn kittens in the closet, a Barbie Dreamhouse, a shiny new bike, a first kiss at the front door and a heart full of hope as a young woman of 17 packed up for college.

Since leaving East Point, I have lived in dormitories, apartments, a duplex, a house and a townhouse, each with varying degrees of space, comforts and amenities, and all with specific sets of memories and stories.

When I got married at the ripe age of 19 and divorced at the more mature age of 21, I remember calling Mama to break the news. Expecting a lecture and a lot of “I told you so’s,” this is what she said: “Come on home, baby.” That night, I left the house that was no longer home and drove to East Point. Never was I so glad to sleep in my lumpy old bed with the faint odor of creosote creeping through the window screen and the sound of freight trains rumbling through my dreams.

When my mother died suddenly at age 57, my brother and I were surprised to find out that, in addition to providing our basic needs, she had somehow accumulated a small nest egg, presumably for her old age. Turns out that she could have afforded draperies, a new sofa or a nicer house, but she chose to forego those luxuries, gambling on a more secure future.

After the sale of the house in East Point, in honor of my mother’s sacrifices, I decided to spend part of my inheritance improving my own living space. I had dreamed my whole life of an antebellum mansion with white columns, a spiral staircase and draperies that could, in case of emergency, be made into a fancy dress. At the time, however, home was a two-bedroom Newport villa at Shelter Cove, and I was about to have custom-made window treatments that Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud to wear.

Twenty-five years later, when I put that villa up for sale, it broke my heart to remove the silky blue panels and swags, but that’s what my realtor advised—“to maximize the view.” Since my coveted draperies were too old and faded to sew together as a ball gown, I gave my husband permission to discard them. Letting go of those bits of fabric not only opened up the view, but opened my wound for a fresh round of grief, as if recycling a piece of my heart.

The villa eventually sold, which brought with it another kind of sadness—a final farewell to a place that I had called home. But I came to realize that what I sold was really just a box and some dirt. The memories had long since moved on.

Today, home is a wood and stucco house with twice as many toilets as people, appropriate window treatments for privacy and décor, central heating and air, a two-car garage and a golf course view—by far the nicest house I have ever called home. My husband Tom and I have completed some remodeling over the past 10 years and plan to do more this year. It’s wonderful to select pleasing paint colors, new floors, comfortable furnishings and stylish accessories; and while those personal touches can make the space more “homey,” what matters more is the overall feeling the house evokes. What makes this house a home is our presence and the peacefulness we feel within these walls. This is where old memories now reside and new ones are in the making. If the walls could talk, they would tell stories.

  1. Linda,

    This article is a gem!

    Thank you!

    — Pati McGuinness    Mar 4, 01:43 pm   

  2. It’s often the subsequent journey that was inspired by the walls’ “stories” that make life worth cherishing. Thanks for sharing yours, Linda.

    — Joanne Voulelis    Mar 10, 09:03 am   

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