"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

House Sisters

Newspaper caption: "Three - year - old Ben McCartney
descends the newly painted staircase of his family's home,
a four - story Queen Anne - style twin that dates to 1890."

In January 1993, Gerry and I flew out to Philadelphia to preview the real estate market. We looked at three fine houses in the suburbs and three more in the city, just to get an idea of what was available. I still remember walking through the door of "814" for the first time and thinking to myself, "We could live here!" It was the kind of house that I was used to seeing in magazines or touring as historical landmarks. But, apparently, here in University City (West Philadelphia), a normal everyday citizen could buy a house like this and live in it! In February, we saw a second round of houses, a dozen at least; but at the end of the day, there was one that we just couldn't forget! We asked our realtor, "What about that one we saw last time: '814.' "

Back in Indiana,our house sold quickly, and on Easter weekend, we arrived in Philadelphia, ready to renovate and learn about urban living. The house closing was utterly chaotic, but our beautiful old city house was worth all the stress. We loved it at first glance (and still do, even though we've been gone so many years). Gerry began immediately with the necessary renovation projects: exterior and interior painting, re - sanding the floors, and re - building the main staircase -- baluster by baluster!



About a year later, we were honored to have our house, and Gerry's handiwork, featured in the local paper. Here's the bulk of the article, if you care to decipher (click on text to enlarge):

and the smaller photo that acccompanied the head - liner above:

Within a week of our house appearing in the paper, we received the most amazing letter:

March 28, 1994

Dear Mr. and Mrs. McCartney,

Hello, how are you today? You do not know me personally but we have a few things in common, and I just had to write and tell you. On Sunday I read the article about you in the Inquirer and looked at the pictures of your present home. Disregard this letter if I am wrong, but my family and I are convinced that you now live in the home that all of us grew up in at 814 So. 48th St. You stated that this is probably the nicest house you will ever live in, and I am writing to you today to tell you that I completely agree! You never will find another like it!

We moved into "814" when I was 12 yrs old, and I lived there for 8 more years until my marriage in April of 1971. They were truly some of the best and worst years of my life; but I'll tell you that from the day I left until today, I have not stopped missing that house. It is just such a beautiful home, so much charm, so many beautiful rooms and hallways and those elegant stairs! Luckily I am able to remember every inch of it, although I understand some changes have been made over these past 20 years since we left. In those years, I have raised 4 children and still come into Benny's Barbershop, around the corner on Baltimore Ave. and when I do, I always go by to say hello to my old home.

Friends of mine were friends of the previous owners, and we actually met in Benny's one day and meant to get together again, but unfortunately we never had the chance before they moved. My children have grown up hearing stories of our life at "814." It was a wonderful home and one of the nicest neighborhoods to live in. Our neighbors were more than friends; they were more like family to us than some of our own family were. When we first moved in, my father - in - law, whose family lived right across the street on Beaumont Ave. organized a block party every summer. They would close the street and we would have all kinds of games and food and fun. Every family on the block participated. It was such a great day for all.

Over the years, we had family members live in the apartment on the third floor. We always had the kind of extended family environment that you only hear about nowadays. It was a wonderful experience for all of us who were fortunate to be a part of it.

Anyway, I just couldn't let the opportunity to contact the new owners of our old home pass me by. Hopefully you and your family will be lucky enough to make for yourselves as many happy memories in that grand old house as we did. Good luck & maybe someday we will have the opportunity to meet face to face and swap stories. If you are ever in need of a good haircut, please go around and visit my friend Benny, you won't be disappointed I'm sure. Maybe it will even be a day when my children and I will also decide we need to make a trip into Benny's ourselves.


Please take care of that gem which you are fortunate to be in possession of at this time because there's someone out here who loves it and will never forget the years spent within its walls. Take care and bye for now!

Cordially, Vicky Duffy McLaughlin


Well, you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive that letter and how anxious to respond! Certainly in my life, there are a couple of old houses that I would like to re-visit, to be greeted with open arms by the current resident and welcomed inside to relive my past. Houses that come back to me in dreams:

Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

by Derek Walcott, b. 1930
Saint Lucian poet and playwright; professor at the University of Essex
1992 Nobel Prize Recipient

Needless to say, I invited Vicky over at the earliest opportunity and she paid us a number of visits during the reminder of our time at "814" (April 1993 - August 2001). We were privileged to meet her dear father, Mr. John Duffy, who shared with us many details about his purchase and upkeep of the property. Another time she brought her sister along and some of the children, nieces and nephews. She showed us a hidden spot in the living room where her brothers had signed their names one year after re-painting the woodwork. She met my British in - laws on one of their annual visits to Philadelphia and became one of their favorite American pen pals. And my sons grew up just as Vicky's did, getting their haircuts from our mutual friend Benny.

As for the two of us, Vicky and I have been "house sisters" ever since, united for all time in our adoration of "814." As American poet, playwright and professor Kenneth Koch (1925 - 2002; see also) writes in one of the best old house poems ever:

To My Old Addresses
. . . O
My old addresses! O my addresses! Are you addresses still?
Or has the hand of Time roughed over you
And buffered and stuffed you with peels of lemons, limes, and shells
From old institutes? If I address you
It is mostly to know if you are well.
I am all right but I think I will never find
Sustenance as I found in you, oh old addresses
Numbers that sink into my soul
Forty-eight, nineteen, twenty-three, O worlds in which I was alive


Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, March 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Dream House


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/21/opinion/brooks-going-home-again.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=3

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQYNM6SjD_o

    sung by Miranda Lambert:

    The House That Built Me
    Tom Douglas / Allen Shamblin
    I know they say you can’t go home again
    I just had to come back one last time
    Ma’am I know you don’t know me from Adam
    But these handprints on the front steps are mine

    Up those stairs in that little back bedroom
    Is where I did my homework and I learned to play guitar
    I bet you didn’t know under that live oak
    My favorite dog is buried in the yard

    I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
    This brokenness inside me might start healing
    Out here it’s like I’m someone else
    I thought that maybe I could find myself
    If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
    Won’t take nothing but a memory
    From the house that built me

    Mama cut out pictures of houses for you
    From Better Homes and Gardens magazine
    Plans were drawn and concrete poured
    Nail by nail and board by board
    Daddy gave life to mama’s dream

    I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
    This brokenness inside me might start healing
    Out here it’s like I’m someone else
    I thought that maybe I could find myself
    If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
    Won’t take nothing but a memory
    From the house that built me

    You leave home and you move on and you do the best you can
    I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am

    I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
    This brokenness inside me might start healing
    Out here it’s like I’m someone else
    I thought that maybe I could find myself
    If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave
    Won’t take nothing but a memory
    From the house that built me

  3. Kitti,
    As the current inhabitant of 814, I feel as you do about the house. While I'm hoping to leave it feet first, if I do have to move, I know I'll do so sharing your sense that no place could match it. Every night when I climb that staircase to go to bed, I say to myself "I can't believe I live in such a wonderful house!"
    Looking forward to seeing you and your family here soon,