Home search prompts a humble reflection

This column is going to be a tough one to write, I thought to
myself as I sat down to the computer. A major world power has been
brought to its knees by earthquake and floods, and whatever snarky
or complimentary thing I could write about Gilroy would seem so
unimportant.
This column is going to be a tough one to write, I thought to myself as I sat down to the computer. A major world power has been brought to its knees by earthquake and floods, and whatever snarky or complimentary thing I could write about Gilroy would seem so unimportant.

Right now, my life seems somewhat crossroads-ish. We’re thinking of buying a house here in Gilroy, and also considering leaving California altogether. It’s like a headache, the dull, constant rumble of “What are good schools for our kids to attend, can we afford a house that funnels to good schools, will we have a backyard that is fit only for a Chihuahua to stretch its legs?”

But then I think, “Why so fussy?” My god, our city is still extant. I look out the window and see impossibly green hills, lush flowers on a neighbor’s tree, cars easily driving on roads that didn’t buckle like someone was flouncing out fabric before folding it.

We haven’t been told to go inside our homes, close the doors and windows and wait for some cloud of radiation to seep inside while we survive on what food stores we have already in the cupboards. We don’t have to wonder if fellow countrymen are trapped under debris, or drowned or living near the ticking time bomb of a nuclear reactor.

My husband reminded me of how vulnerable we all felt when we lost New Orleans. Imagine that kind of shock not limited to worrying over one city but to the entire nation. Yes, we are lucky indeed right now in our fairly-intact little city.

And life continues. People like me are still going to worry about school scores and back yards. So, with that in mind we went to see a house for sale today. It is a foreclosed home, and as we looked at it online, my husband and I both winced at each other, feeling that benefiting from someone else’s misfortune is not a great way to embark on homeownership.

We met our realtor outside, and instead of pulling a key from a lockbox or her own purse, she … knocked … on the door. And the man of the house opened it, greeted us and let us in to his home. Not just his house: his home.

Photographs of him, his wife and their happy-looking children peppered the walls. Everything was intact: furniture, knickknacks, cereal boxes on the fridge. In short, this family wasn’t ready to move. I felt like a malevolent (and very uncomfortable) house thief as we made our way through rooms where every sign of vibrant, happy life was on display. A child’s drawing from school, a lavendar-scented candle burning in the kitchen.

Finally we made our way to the backyard where the man had withdrawn while we tramped through his home. And there with him were the children and wife from the photos, as well as a few other children. I felt awful, awful. These people were losing their home, and here we were the possible new people who would take it from them. I smiled tremulously across the grass at them, and something incredible happened.

Everyone smiled back.

The children swinging from the play structure, the mom watching them, the dad. And he came over to talk to us, as friendly as if we were friends of friends meeting at a birthday party. He told us things about the house, clearly still caretaking it lovingly and hoping that the next residents would care, too. The house had been in his wife’s family for over a decade. They didn’t want to leave, but the bills had become too much.

The wife gave me a beautiful smile as she volunteered the information that I could open up the toolshed and look inside. I talked with her lovely children who cutely told me whose bike was whose. As we said goodbye, shaking hands, I felt sad inside that their dream of home ownership was coming to an end, just as ours was perhaps beginning.

What is a home, really? It should be a place you can count on to not get washed away by the ocean, or bombarded by toxic radiation. It should be a place you can keep as long as you want, no matter how hard the mortgage.

But if it can’t be either of those, then “home” must be the people who temporarily resided within its walls. If it’s not people, then it’s just walls. Just rooms. Just space.

Erika Mailman can be reached at www.erikamailman.com.

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