One of the first “normal” things I did after being fully vaccinated was check which houses were for sale in my neighborhood. Not because I have any desire to move. I love my family’s vintage colonial and the things that come with it: the stained glass windows cradling a blue and red family crest; the clematis vines scrambling up the sides of our front porch; an empty tin box of Phoebe Phelps’ Buttercream Caramels that a former owner propped up on a shelf in our attic.
I consider myself lucky to live in this 120-year-old house. But after more than a year of sheltering-in-place, I want nothing more than to peek inside someone else’s.
So on a Sunday afternoon in May, I hopped into my car for an open house field trip. Beyond gleaning ideas on how to beautify my bathroom (I’m now on the hunt for a gooseneck faucet), I love learning about people by exploring their spaces. In the basement of a home in Hyde Park, I met hundreds of mason jars impeccably organized by size and style. I imagined the sellers spending rainy weekends pickling radishes or making jelly from the pears growing in their backyard. In a living room in West Roxbury, I gazed at a bookshelf stuffed with books on exactly three subjects: jazz, gender, and Italian wines. I wondered how I could score a brunch date with the owners of those books.
When my wife and I bought our house in 2013, our friend Paul dug up more than 100 years of public records and building permits for people who had lived here before us: a German-born chef named John who immigrated to Boston in 1883; a young pianist named Edna who formed a women’s collective in 1915. Sometimes I search for clues of their existence, knowing full well that this house looks wildly different than it did when John was cooking sausage in our kitchen or when Edna was playing Bach on a baby grand piano.
Before COVID, visitors flowed through our house in every season. College friends would hop off a Red-Eye and crash on our couch, sometimes with only a day’s notice. A young woman seeking asylum from West Africa lived in our guest room for six months. Our weekly Shabbat dinner guests filled their plates with lemony salmon and kale salad that I took pleasure in preparing on Friday afternoons. On March 6, 2020 — one week before the world shut down — I roasted a chicken for our friends, Xiomara and Sammy, not realizing it would be the last time we’d host friends indoors for more than a year.
Now, with nearly half of the U.S. fully vaccinated, I can feel the possibility of a full dining room table again. But I’m not ready to stop going to open houses. Whenever I step inside a “lovingly maintained Cape” or “sun-splashed Victorian” I enter a micro-world of new life that is at once larger and smaller than 14 months of collective loss. Checkered bedspreads and wicker bread baskets recharge my imagination. Quartz countertops jolt me out of sadness or worry. Mostly, these open houses allow me to feel connected to proximate strangers; to feel the kinship of shared survival after the toll of physical isolation. Moving through each hallway and foyer, my feet quietly say, “You were here. We were here. And our hearts are still beating.” Then I return to my own home, awake enough to notice new cracks in the bedroom ceiling, but relaxed enough to not be bothered by piles of dishes in the sink.
Years from now, if we put our house up for sale, what will new strangers learn about us as they wander from room to room? Will they hear our laughter spilling into the kitchen? Will they notice the grooves in the maple floor from the joyful thwacks of our son’s tap shoes? Will they admire the juneberry tree we planted next to our rhododendron? I only hope they’ll know that even when we were running on empty, we kept our rooms full. And after we mourned and distanced, we swung our doors open again.
About the Author:
Jordan Namerow is a writer and communications professional. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Motherwell Magazine, and Wellesley Magazine. She is working on a book of creative nonfiction about modern Jewish families. A graduate of Wellesley College and Columbia University, she lives in Boston with her wife and son. Learn more about Jordan: https://www.jordannamerow.com/