Layers of Life.

By Alison July 27, 2005 3 Comments 3 Min Read

Family1 So there we were lying in bed, listening to the house fall asleep, when it struck me that who knows how many other people had done the same thing in our bedroom. In this house.

Mark, I said, Do you ever think of who lived in the house before us? About how many different families have lived here in the last 145 years?

Never, he said. And promptly fell asleep.

Now, though I will confess to a mild addiction to "Most Haunted", for the most part I don’t believe in ghosts- but I do think that the history of our homes is written in the layers of wallpaper we peel back to reveal it’s story. That every joy and moment of sorrow felt by previous inhabitants exists in some form within it’s walls. I want to imagine a lady in long skirts swishing up and down the landing; a new baby born kicking and screaming in the back bedroom, where Finley lies sleeping. The couple I know spent the wartime years in this house lying in a creaky bed like ours, holding hands and aching for their soldier son. I don’t want to know who died here. I’ve got no interest in the convicted paedophile who lived here two families ago, or the man with the mororbike who saw fit to paint everything a shocking shade of bottle green, but I acknowledge that each and eveyone of them contributed in some small way to making the house what it is today…

In "Home- The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived In Our House" Julie Myerson described it thus:

"Most of us live in our homes knowing we’re not the only ones to have done so. But we rarely confront  those shadows in any significant way.  Why should we? This is us and that was then. Their clutter, their smalls, their noises and there way of doing things are long gone. We’ve painted, plastered, demolished and constucted and converted- a loft, a bigger kitchen, a new power shower in the bathroom.

Our moments have blotted out theirs. Maybe this is a necessary element of domestic living- maybe it’s the only way we can c0-exist comfortably with each others past lives, each other’s ghosts. If Lucy Spawton, or Melda Mcnish, or Salome Bennet ever stood in the kitchen and sobbed or kissed or opened a fatal telegram then it’s all gone now. If it wasn’t, the sense of claustraphobia would overwhelm us. We’d be stifled by years of emotional history every time we passed through a doorway or climbed the stairs."

Giving up on any nuggets of wisdom from Mark being forthcoming (he has his moments!), I lay there listening to the loft creak (mice??) and the reassuring click of the lady next door pulling out her plugs as she made her way to bed,  and  came to the strange realisation that although we considered ourselves the mortgaged owners of this tiny Victorian church cottage, in truth we cannot claim to own anything that will continue to exist long after we are gone. We are not owners, but the current guardians of a house that stood standing before we were born and will probably still be standing after we die. It is a strange thought and one that I believe should foster respect for the bricks and mortar we live in: if future generations are to enjoy the house in the way we do , and if we want to believe that we are just one in a long line of families to be so priviledged, then it is up to us to preserve the house to the best of our capabilities, and to do our upmost to ensure that our layer, is a happy one…


  1. SSavannah says:

    I liked this essay, Alison. It touched my heart. You know, I always have loved the apparent and ambient history in lived in homes, rooms, items, etc. I always regretted that my first husband and I decided to build a home. Somehow, and this seems idiotic and I shouldn't say it, but sometimes I feel that I don't possess the creative life force to be the FIRST family to have lived here… Without echoes of tradition to follow and resonate … I have fallen short. The next family to live here may just well start afresh. I love my home and this sounds stupid and my mom would smack me for even thinking it, but although I am artistic, strong, happy, and all that razzamatazz, I don't exude a lot of passionate vitality… and I have been sad here often… my home is a silent little sympathizer and comforter. It could use a little riot, roar, and raucous behavior… Anyway, thanks for a beautiful piece today. You are a gem, and your family and your home are lucky to have ya,as are we.

  2. Kerry says:

    Loved this too Alison! When I left my marriage and found this little place … even with its ugly 70's carpet (all musty and stinky); its amber glass in the light fittings and front door; and avocado kitchen … it had a 'good feel' to it. The previous family (the FIRST and only other family) had raised their children here; loved here and died here. Normally the thought of someone having died in my home would kinda put me off, but this time it didn't. I've lived in much grander abodes than this … and yet where I am right now feels the most like HOME. (My previous home was rambling and in an expensive area but I could never seem to get it to feel like home … I always said that although it had good bones, it had no heart. My marriage fell apart … just like the previous two couples who'd lived there).

  3. Nancy says:

    I wiped a tear………
    I moved to my current home after 23 years and the raising of my only child in the same house. It was SO hard to leave….the walls were like the pages of our lives…memories and words of love on each one. We had the door frame marking her height…which we celebrated grandly, given she had a bit of growth problem as a little one. The scuffs and dings and marks were like page holders in the book of our life. It pained me so to leave it behind but a new beginning can be good too. I had the pleasure of sharing my home's heart one Christmas with the lady who lived there before me. I was on the annual Christmas Tour of Homes and a friend filmed my sweet house all decked in Christmas finery and took it to the nursing home to share with the previous owner. It made my holiday!
    Thank you for a reminder that a house is not a home unless love builds it.

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