“Everyone says your house is haunted,” a classmate declared in the cold, matter-of-fact way only an 11-year-old can.
“It is NOT,” I barked back. His words hit me like one of the thousands of red bricks stacked in our backyard, waiting to pave our unfinished driveway.
So maybe my family’s hulking Victorian exuded Edgar Allan Poe vibes. Its decades-old paint was peeling. The ornamentation around its giant arched windows was unpainted and exposed. While portions of the elaborate 19th-century entryway and porch had been painted anew, the entire side portico sagged, its flaking columns slanting precariously.
Everyone saw a crumbling house, possibly haunted. I saw a different kind of apparition: my dad’s vision to restore the 6,000-square-foot Second Empire home to its original grandeur. Our house had once been the gem of the historic village where we lived; one day, it would be again. Then those stupid kids at school would see.
As I walked home from school, I paid no attention to the luscious trees, the gaslit streetlights, or the pristine Victorian homes dotting Riverside’s curved streets. Instead, I hunched over and stared at my scuffed Skechers. I’ve always had bad posture. Just like my dad.
RIVERSIDE OPEN SUN. 1–4PM.
Tremendous potential in this historic landmark. Enjoy the gracious living that is offered in the 12-room New Orleans Colonial mansion spotted on a 125 x 210 lot. There are 3 marble fireplaces, 4.5 baths & many other dramatic features found in this spacious home of yesteryear, plus a 5 ROOM COACH HOUSE. $225,000
— Newspaper clipping, dated May 5, 1984
My parents discovered the house two years before I was born. They took weekend bike rides through Riverside, one of America’s first planned communities and a National Historic Landmark. The house was already dilapidated. It had been languishing on the market for over a year, its price dropping every few months. Every imaginable old house problem plagued the rotting mansion, which its previous owner had often “fixed” with duct tape. Dad negotiated the price down even further. The owner hadn’t wanted to sell for so cheap but had no other offers.
“Most people wouldn’t have wanted it if it were being given away,” mom wrote in their restoration journal. She only wrote the first entry. She had no time to write others; breadwinning and child-rearing were her jobs. The house was dad’s. The rest of the journal contains his blocky, all-caps scrawl. He was fond of ellipses, as if he was too rushed to write a complete thought. He had too many big plans to realize. He had a house to restore.
In my earliest memory, I play in the front yard while my parents and grandpa pave our driveway. Mom kneels as she places another brick. I pluck another dead dandelion, blow it out like a birthday candle, and watch its seeds float into the heavy August air. We’ve been out there all summer. Them, paving a 100-foot driveway one brick at a time. Me, casting my dandelion wishes across the yard and catching fireflies. The sun has bleached my mussy dishwater brown hair to blonde.
In old grainy black-and-white photos, the house had a curved carriage drive. It had been replaced with a straight concrete driveway by the time my family moved in. Dad wanted to reinstate the driveway’s original curve and repave it with salvaged 19th-century bricks. “Restoration, not renovation,” was one of his mantras. Plaster, not drywall. A slate mansard roof, not shingles. A curved brick driveway, not concrete.
When dad’s focus was good and his energy high, he labored to complete projects with uncompromising perfection. If he wasn’t pleased with the result, he’d rip everything out and do it again. Every weekend that summer I turned three, dad was laying bricks. Onlookers gawked at the unsightly mess. The yard was all torn up. Haphazard piles of bricks, gravel, and sand were scattered everywhere. Dad relished the attention. He knew when he finished, everyone would see the splendor he envisioned.
Eventually, he laid the last brick underneath the side portico. “That driveway looks like it’s been there 100 years,” a neighbor commented once it was complete. It was the ultimate compliment. From the street you couldn’t tell we only had half a driveway. Dad never finished the entire job. The back drive remained unpaved.
Thousands more bricks were stacked in pallets in our backyard. The brick stacks became my childhood jungle gym. If a tree’s too-high branches beckoned to be climbed, I would stack bricks to give myself a boost. To play school, I would fashion a makeshift classroom by building little brick tables and chairs. I played alone, acting as both teacher and student. I would give myself fake homework assignments, then diligently complete them.
I don’t remember what age I stopped inviting friends to play. It was likely when the downstairs toilet broke. It became too complicated to explain you needed to use the toilet in the second-floor bathroom but come back to the first-floor bathroom sink to wash your hands. And you mustn’t use the kitchen sink, because those pipes were shot. Dad had jury-rigged a solution with a rubber hose that drained to an industrial-sized garbage can in the basement. My sister and I washed the dinner dishes every night. When the thick plastic bin in the basement filled with dirty sudsy water, it took all our strength to lug it up the basement steps and dump it into the backyard.
Instead of seeing what my house was really like inside, the neighborhood kids came to their own conclusions. Honestly, it was preferable if they said it was haunted. The rumors were easier to stomach than the truth.
One day our parents sat my sister and me down to deliver some devastating news.
They were selling the house.
Though they only had $15,000 left on the mortgage, there was too much left to do and it was too expensive. I begged them to reconsider. The solution to me was obvious. Dad should just get a job.
“You know I can’t work Betsy,” dad explained. I didn’t see why not. He was capable. He was smart. There had to be something he could do to make money, if only he tried harder. He wasn’t even trying. He should be better by now.
It had been two years since he’d ended up in the psychiatric ward. We never talked about the violent episode that had put him there. The attic stairs. The screaming. Mom in a crumpled heap at the bottom. Dad advancing slowly down. My 14-year-old sister dialing 9–1–1. Me standing mute. The police took dad away, and I went to fifth grade the next day as if nothing had happened.
We visited him in the psych ward sometime later, where it smelled like cigarette smoke and he acted strange, like a caring, apologetic father. I wasn’t fooled. I knew he was acting like that because people were watching. He now had a bipolar diagnosis. I hoped his new medicine and doctors might bring back the dad of better days, the one who could keep his focus on one project long enough to finish what he started.
My family had owned the house for 12 years at that point. Both my parents had put in a great deal of sweat equity. But our home had sunk further into disrepair while dad spun in 6,000 directions. We had no bathtubs left. We washed our hair over the laundry tubs in the basement. When dad wasn’t bouncing between projects, he was moping around in slippers and sweatpants blaring classical music. The foundation of our family and our home was shaky at best. That same grandiosity that drove his big ideas undermined his ability to complete them.
It should have been obvious he would never finish, but our family had to keep believing in something. That hope kept me going. I felt smug when kids made fun of my house because I knew one day my dad would prove them all wrong.
Dad finished one last project before we left. He painted a piece of plywood straw yellow using one of the gallons he’d once purchased for the house’s exterior. He then painted FOR SALE in dark red and the description dark green, both colors originally intended for the house’s trim and ornamentation. I remarked how good it looked; even in painting the sign that symbolized his defeat, his attention to detail was maniacal. I then held the sign steady while dad hammered it into our yard. That FOR SALE sign staked into the ground sealed our fate.
We moved to a newer house far away, leaving behind the graveyard of unrealized dreams. Dad even left his restoration notebook with the new owners and sold them the rest of the unused bricks. We stuffed those skeletons in a dark closet that we dared not open, hardly mentioning the Riverside house again. The new owners completed the renovation and painted the house white with purple trim. It still has that curved red-brick driveway. Part of dad’s vision remains.
I always felt like we were so close to realizing the dream. Selling the house made me realize the reality. Our home always would be broken. We’d never live in a restored Victorian. My dad would not get better. My childhood dream would never come true.
Two decades later, part of me still fantasizes about what could have been. The manse of my childhood hopes still haunts me.