A way that most of us can sum up our passage through this vale of tears is to make a list of the addresses at which we have lived. In many cases, the list will be a long one, given the mobility of Americans. Some of our residences will have left little mark on our memory, but a few, perhaps only one, will seem the very habitat of our heart.
I have lived in South Bend—or, as one could playfully put it, the greater South Bend area—for half a century and am about to leave the house that represents my fifth local address. Each of them has a claim on memory, sometimes sad, but the one that looms the largest on the landscape of my mind is 2158 Portage Avenue. We lived there 33 years.
When we took possession in 1963, our oldest children were in the early grades of school. When we left, they were all married and elsewhere. But the photographs that record those decades remind me how integral that house and yard were to all our lives. There are paintings of it in some of my children’s homes, commissioned by Alice Osberger as wedding presents. I have a framed picture of it, done in ink by my daughter, Anne, as an architectural student. That will go with me. But it will be only an objective correlative, like the house itself, of memories.
Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is not her best novel, perhaps, but it has many merits. A professor accedes to his wife’s demand that they build a house more in keeping with their status, but he retains title to the old house. It is to it that he retreats, to the old study there, in order to get any work done. I would have to reread the novel to see if that is as central to the story as I remember. In any case, it is what stays with me.
When we left the house on Portage for the suburbs in which we had sworn we would never live, I left behind a basement study that would never have made the pages of House Beautiful but was nonetheless the setting of decades of productive work. Before we moved into our suburban home, I had a carpenter make me a dream of a study, all white oak, walled with shelves, illumined by six windows that overlook a golf course, with all the surfaces a sloppy scholar likes to have. When I first sat at the desk, I wondered if I could possibly do any work in such optimum circumstances.
Well, a computer screen looks the same anywhere, and one is scarcely aware of the setting in which he works. Unlike Lather’s professor, I never hankered after my study in the Portage Avenue house. I do drive past it from time to time, and my children do as well, when they are in town—a little sentimental journey. But the house of our memories never went on the market; that is ours forever. The house I will soon leave is where my wife and I spent her last years together. It was here that she died. Two years have made the sense of loss familiar but not less painful. Our house is simply the professor’s house now, and it is on the market.
How will potential buyers see it? Of course, I will disappear when they arrive. I do not want to hear a stranger’s comments on my house. In Rome, in the Via Marguta, an annual exhibit extends for a mile and artists sit by their paintings, suffering the obiter dicta of passersby. I suppose they can only stand it because they are seated, but it seems cruel and unusual punishment. Few of us build our own houses, but there is a similar testiness to anything like critical remarks.
Sometimes, at garage sales, one comes upon old photographs, the kind that were mounted on gray cardboard, their subjects looking at us from a century and more ago. Unidentified. How odd to think of them bought and kept, put on some later wall. But the later walls can be a bit like that, enclosing a present but not quite excluding the past. All houses are, I suppose, haunted.
Will I miss my photogenic study? Not really. I can work anywhere. What has really mattered here does not go with the house but remains ingrained in memory. My final address will be Holy Cross Village. (Penultimate, that is, my plot in Cedar Grove awaits me.) I can walk to class and my campus office. My life will be centered physically as well as spiritually in Notre Dame. And as the shadows lengthen, I can run down the list of my addresses, house rich.