By Zsofi McMullin
For days after we sold our house, I felt uneasy. It felt like the house was still somehow attached to me like a phantom limb—heavy and itchy and restless—and I had to remind myself constantly that it was none of my concern anymore. I didn’t have to worry about shoveling the snow in the driveway or fixing the leaky window in the dining room, and I no longer had to grumble about the cold, creaky wooden floors.
We bought our house eight years ago, just weeks before the housing market collapsed. I don’t think it was love at first sight, but more like comfort at first sight. We could see ourselves living there, hidden among the trees of our wild backyard. We could imagine our furniture in the living room, our pots in the kitchen, our bed upstairs, a crib in the second bedroom. Our small family—not yet in existence—would fit in this small house neatly, comfortably.
Right before we signed the papers to buy the house, we ran into its owner, a middle-aged woman who inherited it from her mother. She lived there with a huge, white dog whose fur we’d keep finding in the most unusual places even years later. “This place really needs a young family,” she told us, waving towards the gray house behind her. I had never owned a house, but I knew what she meant. I knew that this was the place where it was all going to happen—where we would become a family, where we would settle down and be happy.
And it was mostly true. We were mostly happy, mostly settled. We battled with the wild raspberry bushes in the yard, with the ice leaking through the old roof, the paint chipping off the shingles. But the place was ours and I was surprised by how much that mattered to me and comforted me. I felt anchored, secure.
Then we decided to move to another state for a new job. The house was on the market for what seemed like decades, various strangers walking through our rooms critiquing everything from the ceilings, to the size of the kitchen, to its location. I felt insulted and protective of our little nest but also a bit resentful of its stubbornness. Why couldn’t it just let us go? Yet when we finally received an offer on the day the moving truck arrived to pack up our boxes, I felt no relief, no joy. The financial burden was lifted, the responsibility gone, the worry relieved.
Our tether gone, we were free to go. And yet…
I walked through the empty rooms one last time the day of the closing. I only cried when I got to my little boy’s room where he and I spent so much time awake in the middle of the night. I was taking the little boy with me obviously—he was sitting in the car outside—but I felt like a part of me was left behind among the soft yellow walls and the baby blue closet, and the view of the yard.
I grew up in a large, cold, crumbling apartment in the center of Budapest. At one point my uncle, his wife, and their new baby lived with me, my brother, my parents, and my grandfather. There was nothing unusual about this—a lot of my friends lived with their extended families. Once my uncle and his family moved out, my brother and I no longer had to share the tiniest bedroom and my parents did not have to use the living room as their bedroom. These changes felt like huge luxuries, and my brother and I reveled in our new furniture in our bigger—still shared—bedroom. Our desks faced each other and we passed notes and giggled as we did our homework each evening.
My mother grew up in this apartment, rented from the local government. At one point each floor had just one apartment that was later chopped up into three. We lived on the third floor, in one of the larger places. The rooms had tall ceilings and windows and big, double doors. The bathroom was heated only by a gas heater on the wall, so whoever was the unlucky first person in the bathroom in the morning had to turn it on and wait for the temperature to become bearable for a shower. The kitchen was heated only by the oven so we always had to dress in layers for meals in the winter.
During the political changes in Hungary in the 1990s, our apartment building became sort of a no-man’s-land. The government no longer cared for it, but the occupants didn’t own their apartments yet, so maintenance was non-existent and the building declined slowly, paint chip by paint chip. I remember giving this explanation to many visitors before they figured out a polite way to ask about the state of hallways, the elevator, the courtyard.
My parents purchased our apartment after my grandfather’s death. That was the first time that my family owned real estate. Now at least the crumbling walls belonged to us.
When my parents moved to the U.S. a few years later, they first rented out the apartment then put it up for sale. It’s still on the market, along with dozens of similar apartments on our street. I think about it often—I think about buying it, renovating it, living there in some other life, finding comfort in the familiar neighborhood. But the place is a burden on my parents right now, and I wish for them to be rid of it. I wish I could be certain that selling it will feel like a relief—a lifetime of history and stuff packed up, thrown out, passed on to a stranger who can start there anew.
“Is there anything you want out of your grandmother’s apartment?” my father asked a few months ago as he was distributing her belongings among his cousins and other relatives. She died the year before and, by the time I arrived to Hungary for her funeral and saw her apartment for the first time after her death, her clothes were already donated, including what I wanted the most: her red, flowery scarf and her big fur winter hat.
It seemed silly at the time to make a fuss about this—and it still does because I know that what I truly, really want can’t be mine: the smell of Wiener Schnitzel wafting from her apartment into the hallway on Sundays; the scent of freshly ironed linens as she opened a cabinet to pick a tablecloth for lunch; the tap-tapping of her slippers as she walked back and forth to the kitchen down a long, skinny hallway; the clinking of her china on the table; the gurgling of her ancient coffee pot; the cold air that swooshed into the apartment when she opened the balcony door to retrieve the fruit salad that she kept cold out there.
I couldn’t pack up any of these things.
Her apartment in Budapest sold almost the same day as my house in Maine. My parents traveled there to sign the closing papers, and I watched them unpack their suitcases just a few days later when they returned to Maine to their small, rental condo: Ten bottles of homemade jam, a metal key hook, a couple of framed drawings, books, a ceramic trivet, a decorative plate that used to hang in the kitchen.
Lately I think a lot about these three pieces of real estate and about how they came, went, and yet somehow always stayed in my life. Are the walls they held around me just that? Does the weight of owning these walls matter? Do they just hold our stuff, or are they places where our life collects, that place where babies come home from the hospital, where dinner is cooked, where parties are held, where nothing or everything happens? Is there freedom to be had by not being attached to these structures, or does their absence weigh heavier?
I like our new—rented—apartment. It’s modern and much bigger than our little house was. Groundkeepers shovel the snow, salt the driveway, fix clogged pipes. Our furniture gets lost in the big rooms and under the tall ceilings. It’s easy to live here, detached from history, from responsibility, from what comes next.
But I miss the weight, the burden tying me firmly to one place to call home.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a recent transplant to Connecticut. She works in publishing and blogs at www.zsofiwrites.com.