Jan 2012


I leaned in and peered more closely at the lone photo on the rough wall, hastily mounted in a cheap plastic frame. The grainy black and white photo was of two women in front of a stone house. Before them, posing stiffly were three children, two with bows in their hair. One of the women was smiling with her hands on her hips…ready to go back to work or was she laughing at the photographer? The yard was packed dirt, but tidy, with farm tools leaning neatly against the house. I did not think it was Augusta’s house, but was one of the children Augusta? Or was she the flirt? Given the fact that, to me, many houses and people look the same in the 1960’s as they did at the turn of the century in Italy, I am often deceived by the age of photos.

Luciano and Giancarlo had already followed the contractor up the crooked front stairs of Augusta’s house to the rooms upstairs. I stood alone in what used to be the living room, before it being turned into her bedroom in her later years, and before her daughter took her away last summer. Now we were inspecting her empty home, contemplating buying it.

“Luciano, there are many possibilities for that house, the main one being that in this way, our family will own the entire building. We could fix it up and rent it…we could fix it up and live in it and rent our hous…”
“Serena, the house is a tearer-downer, not a fixer upper.”
“Ok, fine. But the land alone is incredible. I would go nuts with a garden.”
“We have to think it over. The contractor is coming next week.”

Giving a final glance at the faux tortoiseshell bed frame filling the small room, I followed the sounds of the men quietly talking. Negotiating the narrow crooked stairs, I slid my hand along the thick plaster wall for support. Anna Maria’s kitchen was on the other side of that wall. There didn’t seem to be a single right angle in the entire building. I was feeling slightly queasy as I joined G and L who were scrutinizing the fissures in the walls and the sagging ceilings. The contractor jumped up and down to demonstrate the floor was sound, but that seemed to be about the end of the good news. In fact Augusta’s husband Gino had been quite the pragmatist and, faced with a growing family, just kept slapping more rooms onto what had once been a single floor two-room house with an attached stable and a detached outhouse. With a little creative carpentry he had expanded it to include a bathroom and three bedrooms, none up to code I imagine. And none of it was aging well.

“Luciano, I think we should offer half of what they are asking.”
“Hmmm, really? Do you think they will go for that? And do you really want to take on that headache?”
“Look, the house is wrapped around your parent’s house. They will need tweezers to separate the two buildings. No one is going to want that hassle. And yes, I am prepared for the headache. Look at these drawings of my ideas for the space… “

In fact, Augusta’s children never acknowledged our offer. I suppose that was to be expected and I was prepared to wait them out. But one year later quite suddenly, while we were in California, a young family bought the house. It took a few weeks for this news to settle in. I had to turn the new reality over in my head for, as often happens, I had already visualized my garden with roses brimming over the fence and the beautiful garage for Topo (my car) constructed in the footprint of Augusta’s house. The small, but lovely apartment above the garage was already rented to a very quiet and wealthy lady who had no interest in gardening, but loved dogs and while she did not really want one of her own, was happy to take care of ours when we were away…Yeah, I had gone into some detail…in my head.

The new owner is a tall, slim man with unusually large hands. He is very focused on his house and arrived with his head down, prepared for work. In short time he had removed an interior wall, pulled up a tree, torn down a shed in the back yard and dug a deep sharply cut trench to finally bring gas into the house. Gino had refused such a service, preferring to periodically fill a huge tank buried in the garden. For months our new neighbor labored, toiling with his large hands and broad shoulders as his young daughter played in the garden and his wife planted raspberry bushes where the chickens used to scratch in the dust, keeping Augusta company. After six months of sweat, he came to a realization: It could not be done. The house was not restorable. It had to be torn down.

Within weeks there was scaffolding wrapped around the house and workmen with chisels began the delicate work of disentangling the two houses that had been joined from birth, like surgeons separating Siamese twins. Who gets the lung and where shall we divide the kidney? Anna Maria and Giancarlo, determined to remain unflustered, sat in their kitchen reading and sewing as if there were not a riotous pounding inches from their heads. The house next door was being removed and they did not flinch. Until of course, a hammer came through their kitchen wall, presumably with the workman still attached to it, and then things got really raucous. I went next door to see and found Anna Maria still sewing, albeit a little jumpy, but Giancarlo sat; arms crossed, closely watching a nervous worker in their kitchen, patching the wall. At this point Anna Maria and Giancarlo elected to leave every day for a road trip, preferring to be away in case the roof came down.

Two days later, with daylight showing between the houses and a hastily installed fence, a large tractor with shovel arm lumbered down our little street and took position in the front garden. That huge mechanical arm reached up against the grey sky and then, with delicate but powerful nudges, flicked at the stone walls of the now thoroughly blank, soulless building. I truly had thought I would feel a tug of sadness; those rooms had once been filled with life, children, and memories. But as the plaster and stucco of the upper floors turned into dust that filled the air, I felt only awe at the power of that arm and the expertise of the driver. With a deafening roar the roof came down, collapsing into the most resistant part of the house, the original stone house and stable. This too gave up, violently torn open to the sky for the first time in over a hundred years. I glanced over at Luciano. He must certainly be sad…he grew up with that house too, but his face was inscrutable as usual…I would check in later.
A light rain had started to fall making the scene all too depressing, so I went inside our house as the other went through its final throes. I stood for a moment in our dining room. It was quiet and a little dark in the pre-storm gloom. The silver coffee pot, a wedding gift from my mother, gleamed softly in the cupboard, the flowers on the table trembled slightly from the nearby destruction and I could hear the clock ticking. In the quiet I could feel our fully-alive house breathe, hum and draw me in protectively.

In Italian there is no word for home. While there are several words to express different kinds of love, the word “house” or
casa is used for everything. In English a “home” is not a building; it is an emotion. In baseball you run home. Wherever you lay your hat is your home. Luciano is my home. Augusta’s house had become a house. And our new neighbor, standing in the middle of his suddenly blank slate with those big hands on his hips, could now plow forward, head down, prepared for work, building his home.

Meanwhile, perhaps Anna Maria and Giancarlo should invest in little hard hats.