A few days after hurricane sandy made her way, clumsily, morbidly, along the Atlantic Coast, a friend emailed my father a picture from the Hartford Courant. The subject line read: “This isn’t your old house, is it?” The answer was no. The thing in the picture wasn’t a house at all.
Unlike Connecticut’s coastline, where surging water and winds damaged thousands of homes and killed three people, the hurricane mostly spared the state capital. Few homes were damaged. But at 647 Broadview Terrace, the address on my birth certificate, high winds uprooted a giant oak tree in the front yard. The tree toppled, its reluctant roots splitting the asphalt of nearby driveways, leaving wide woody grooves, before landing atop the house whose front yard it had shaded for almost a century.
The façade of the house was shorn off completely. In the picture, the giant tree obscures most of what remains, its flailing limbs reaching up and out, spidering over the frame. Yellow caution tape surrounds the waist of another tree in the yard, feebly marking off the wreckage. And a lone red campaign sign, obscenely still-standing, colors the foreground. For a moment, I wonder with vague irritation, whether some Chris Murphy for Senate supporter had walked by and propped the sign back up.
But beyond the downed tree, the piles of wood and metal debris, a triangle framed Victorian roof emerges above the slipshod ruin. And if you look closely, turn your head slightly to the right, you can see a whole room on the top floor—a red door, powder-blue dry wall, a light switch—seared of its fourth wall. A dollhouse.
Luckily, there was no one at home. In 1992, my parents sold the house to a woman they met through our friend Phil. My mother says they discounted the price for her because she wanted to fix the roof. But she never did. Phil said she only lived there some of the time. A few years ago there was a story in the Courant about the old house. Other homeowners on the street complained about its disheveled condition. It looked empty. The paint peeled. An exasperated neighbor had weed-whacked the overgrown yard, but the yellow, unkempt lawn was still an eyesore. It was a local embarrassment, the neighborhood haunted house, where middle-schoolers dared their dates to knock on the front door or stand on the porch for five whole minutes. And the roof needed fixing.
The woman, Phil told me, worked for the US Department of Justice, “in a hard-to-locate division that reviews civil rights complaints about state and local grantees receiving federal funds.” He had misplaced her contact info. And I couldn’t find her online. My mother says the woman was a “progressive of sorts, in the low-income housing advocacy community.” When my family sold her the house, my mom says, they believed they were passing on “something of value to someone else who would value it.” They thought she was “kindred in some way.” But the house stood empty and derelict for years. When she saw the hurricane damage, my mother was angry with the woman. The house, she said, “had held me and my family, my newborn babies when they came home from the hospital.” And it struck her, staring at the picture, that the woman “had finally unloved it to death.”
My father says a different tree fell on the front porch in 1985, two years before my older sister was born. At the time, my dad, a union labor lawyer, represented the jai alai players from the fronton in Milford. The players were on strike. So, he says, “the union president, Riki Lasa, came over and cut the tree into logs with his father’s axe.” The axe, like jai alai, came from Basque Country in Spain. My dad says the tree didn’t touch the roof.
Unlike my mother, he doesn’t care much about the house itself. “No regrets about it being destroyed,” he told me, “another world, another time.” He’s just “happy we all survived and flourished.” (This the kind of stuff my dad says regularly.) But he remembers the sounds of “creaky stairs, of babies sleeping, crying, emerging.” His mother-in-law’s laughter as he, a “New York City kid,” tried to mow his first lawn. My sister’s first birthday caught on VHS. And an image of me, as a baby, “sitting in a box in the back yard covered with leaves.”
My sister, who was four or five when we moved, has her first memories there. For her, the house represents what might have been lost when my parents divorced. “I felt surprisingly sad,” she told me, “not because I care about the house as a physical thing, but because thinking about it made me remember the beauty of my childhood family, the family that for a long time, I felt I had lost, but now am slowly coming to find and feel again in a different shape.”
I don’t remember the house. We moved when I was two. But like pictures of living rooms in Staten Island filled with two feet of sand, like front stoops in Breezy Point, Queens, that lead to nothing, a charred floor, the big blue sky, there’s something horribly lewd about seeing a house’s inside being made out. When we look at these pictures, our chests tighten with empathy. We see the pain, the loss. We see the terrible burden of costly repairs. But also we see a violation of the sweet domestic delusion that what happens inside a home—the games we play, the meals we cook, the arguments and sex we have—is somehow distinct from what happens outside it.
Our eyes linger on the massive piles of debris, the scattered shards of domestic ephemera, the half houses and three-quarter houses, the roofless and wall-less and flooded, because somehow they reveal, tragically but also alluringly, that there is always only wood and metal and fiberglass—physical not metaphysical barriers—separating private from public, inside from out, tranquil domestic solitude from the howling winds of the social. When my mother saw the picture of the house on Broadview Terrace, she said she hated to see her home, which had been “filled with love and the sense of building and nurturing new life,” so “torn apart,” so “exposed.”
And there’s something about exposure, about being able to see through, that makes these houses into not-houses. The everyday voyeurism of walking down a street at night, window-framed flashes of foreign familiarity, revelations of the realness of the other—these only remind us, in the end, that we too have someplace to be. But in the picture of our old house on Broadview Terrace, you can see everything. Can’t not see: the little powder-blue rooms where we began to try to make our lives together.
A woman who witnessed the tree falling on Broadview Terrace reportedly exclaimed to her boyfriend, “Oh my god! I can see into their house. Their house is gone.”
SAM ADLER-BELL 12.5 is covered with leaves.