My New England home was my favorite place in the world when I was little. We bought it with several acres of land and it was surrounded by fields and forests and freshwater ponds on all sides. Our property was flanked by the longest line of ancient green-and-blue fir and spruce trees in the state. My parents were very proud of that. We grew up blueberrying and ice-skating and catching painted turtles.
My parents, who were born of Depression-era parents, were fiscally conservative and hugely diligent savers. They bought the house for $49,000 in the mid-70s and sold it for almost a half million in the late 90s when they retired. In the interim, they ceaselessly worked the land to make it beautiful.
Growing up, my mother was the only mother I knew who fed her kids from her own orchards and gardens year round, just for the pleasure of it. A teacher and artist, she set her summers aside for planting and canning for winter. My father was the only father I knew who could build and landscape almost anything from nothing. He loved deep-sea fishing and we ate seafood — mussels, scallops, flounder, bluefish — year-round hooked off his boat. He caught so much he would often give it away to the neighbors.
Our home had a cascade of manicured clearings set in railroad-car fashion behind it with paths and streams winding through them. Bonfire day was the ultimate family affair. No one could play sick and everyone had to trim and prune the forests to absolute perfection — or until my dad was satisfied. My sister Sara and I got used to it, especially because there were toasted marshmallows afterward.
My father and mother hand-laid the concrete foundation when they finally saved up enough to build an extra wing onto the house in 1987.
After coming home from their jobs, my parents would always take a long walk in the woods at sunset, catching up on the day and admiring each other’s handiwork.
How it is so many years of sweat and toil disappeared inside just a decade, we will never know. But it is hard not to see it as a sign of the times. Houses like mine are sitting empty across the country, even as whole families go homeless.
My mother’s orchards and gardens are gone. The pool is gone. My enchanted childhood forest is rotting. No one loves a beech tree the way a child loves a beech tree. Every leaf, every branch, every scar on the bark. My father’s horseshoe pits and workshop are covered in vines and nettles. We think a homeless person may have decided to live in the shop, judging by the number of personal possessions arrayed outside. We have no idea what happened to our lovely home, but we know it must have been something terrible.
My parents sold the house to a doctor and his Russian wife near the height of the housing bubble. The couple split up and left, neighbors say, in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Furniture and appliances that were once inside the house are outside the house. It is haunting to see, as some of that furniture used to be mine.
My old hometown, Norwell, Massachusetts, is a very proud, rich — some would say snooty — town. Yet a house can sit abandoned and falling down and become a magnet for vagabonds and there’s not much anyone can do about it.