The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams[…]there exists for each of us an oneiric house, a house of dream-memory, that is lost in the shadow of a beyond of the real past.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
In one of my earliest memories, so early it feels imagined, I lie face down on the thick orange wall-to-wall carpeting in the lopsided octagonal hallway of my childhood home. My head pressed into the corner where the doors to the attic and my mother’s study meet, I examine that corner as if a hidden doorway may at any moment appear to take me to another side of my home, the sleeping side, the side I could only see with my everyday eyes closed.
My mother’s father told her that all you have to do is look at a familiar place from a different angle and it becomes entirely, magically, transformed –the idea inspired a comforting ritual for my young mother, lying down on the floor in each of the numerous houses she inhabited as a child always on the move, to see the hidden aspects. Dusty floorboards in a French attic, sloping rafters in Virginia, sun-faded venetian blinds in southern California- she catalogued each aspect to build her evolving concept of home, an amalgamation.
Enacting the ritual I tried to memorize every angle of my own house so as to really and thoroughly know it, owning the space in my memory–able to recall the feeling of its sharp Victorian corners as I am now. I sought to build out of my real house an equally convincing dream house that I could return to later at will. A safe house built of memories.
Is home so precious because we deep down believe it will be taken from us? That it is unsustainable to possess a place so emotionally? Too good to be true, untenable, home can only exist at some point as a feeling. Yet the memory remains portable, cannot be stolen even when we lose access to the place itself.
I always dreamt vividly, especially as a child. Some definitive nightmares, sending me careening in terror down the same orange hallway from my bedroom to my parents’ in the wee hours. Others were less clear in tone, and often these involved recurring spaces, invented houses that became familiar through dreaming. Some protective and others haunted, all eerily concrete- more real than the real. I return to these places again and again.
On my father’s side, a lineage of architects working in the modernist tradition, straight lines, and honesty of form as a religion. My grandfather designed the house where he and my grandmother lived and died. 16 Trotting Horse Drive, perfect in its simplicity, its ship like minimalism and versatility. But not merely a dream house, the house was a home from the moment it was built. That is its significance.
I fell asleep for most of my childhood listening to the whir of my father’s analog editing deck in our front hall. I drifted off listening to the making of a movie, the making of a dream that you can watch. An attempt to create something surpassing reality in the honesty of its lies. Movies are dream spaces made visible.
My father’s father died as he had always intended to in the house he designed for my grandmother, where they lived together until her death several years before. His heart stopped while he was shaving one morning and his watch stopped too. I slipped it on my own wrist while I observed him lain out in the bedroom that day. The dappled light filtering through the east facing windows seemed gratuitously generous as I photographed him lying there. Afterwards I stowed the negatives away, not sure why I needed them.
After my grandfather’s passing I began to have dreams set in that house. I wander through familiar spaces until I open a door onto a room I have never seen, a room that doesn’t exist, flooded with blinding light and wallpapered with endless rows of books. My grandmother sits sipping a martini. She responds to my shocked expression with an incredulous “But I’ve always been in here!”
Recently a regular at the bar where I am working told me unprompted about his nearly identical dream of his dead mother. He opens a door in his childhood home into a room he’s never seen, and there she sits, reprimanding him for not visiting sooner. “Not sure what in my life has lead me to deserve these dreams,” he says wearily, “but there they are.”
Spurred by dreams after my grandfather’s death, I move back east and into the empty house in the trees. My family indulges my need to be there, trying to let me do something it seems I need to do, all of us knowing the house cannot remain as it is, that is just as it always had been. It represents a unique opportunity to sleep in the past we often dream in. I sleep fitfully on a futon on the floor of the dining room on the first night. My grandmother hovers close to the ceiling dusting the corners with her long nightdress, “You can do anything you want here” she tells me.
I want to make a film, use the camera to somehow hold together my memory of the house before it evolves or disappears completely from my life. It’s harder than I anticipated. I find it difficult to interject the camera into my relationship to the place. I tiptoe through the artifacts, the carefully curated detritus of a couple blessed with keeping their home close right up to the moment of death. I feel insignificant in the face of it all.
I begin to realize how much my experience of the place goes beyond waking. I point the lens at the small things, the way light filters through the bottom of the musky curtains in the afternoon, the cobwebs and jewelry boxes hidden behind rows of paperbacks. Nothing seems capable of conveying or giving meaning to my attachment. Virginia Woolf describes the empty summer house in To the Lighthouse, after the Ramsay family has been absent for years–
So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted; solitary like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen, loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and amongst the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—‘Will you fade? Will you perish?”— scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer —we remain.
The oneiric house lives a life of its own, holding onto and germinating the parts of ourselves that we supplanted there. The emotions remain attached to the place even after we have abandoned it, or been forced by chance or circumstance to move on, they grow like untended ivy, engulfing the house in webs of memory, visible only to the keen observer.
A week into my stay, I find a photo album wrapped in yellowing plastic, hidden in the back of a coat closet. It contains a collection of nude portraits of my grandmother spanning twenty years, from her teens, through her first marriage and into life with my grandfather and her pregnancy with my father, after which they abruptly end. The images range from studio lit studies by a professional photographer, to intimate amateur snapshots.
My favorite photograph, framed through a door ajar, catches her stepping into a claw foot tub, barely pregnant. The image would be voyeuristic were it not obvious that my grandmother was fully engaged in it’s creation. These photographs were more for her than for the men that took them. An intimate scrapbook kept to remember her own youthful body by, much as I would later seek to memorize the corners of her house with my camera. I wish she had not stopped at pregnancy with her first child, but this was not her style or her intention. She wanted to remember what she feared she would forget, a version of her physical self that would inevitably disappear, a pragmatic vanity. We can, when we need to, write our own creation myths, to remember ourselves by, to remember as we wish to be remembered.
Also found, a green shoebox labeled in spidery but emphatic block lettering, “LOVE LETTERS, PLEASE BURN”. Inside, tens of blue airmail pages inked in Danish. Why didn’t she do it herself? When I discover them I think of doing it for her, but am met with a strong reaction from my family. I think of faking it, for the camera. Instead I photograph them on the flat modern roof, at risk of falling off the edge, blowing away. Then put them safely back, to fade in a language I can’t read. Do we really want to know the family secrets if they are not offered willingly?
The story of the house could be framed as a ghost story, but that would be too easy and not wholly true. It is true that one can be jarred beyond belief by really looking at a place, looking at what it provokes in you.
My grandmother left home to live with my grandfather. Left Denmark, and Europe, and what she considered “civilized.” She took with her memories of the war and the blissful times preceding it. America she cared for, but it was something else. I think she made the adopted house home with what she put in it. I identify my grandmother with ethereally antiquated but wise characters like Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, and E.M Forster’s Ruth Wilcox. All the memories she transposed onto objects from her past, the letters to burn and treasures to hide beneath the cushions and behind the books, to build a new fortress out of pieces of the old. Showing me a thimble collection, so that I would remember the great-grandmother I had never met, the lead soldiers that her brother cherished, her notebooks from the German occupation. As Forster’s Ruth Wilcox in Howards End, she sought to make of me a spiritual heir,
To them Howards End was a house: they could not have known that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir…Is it credible that the possessions of the spirit can be bequeathed at all? Has the soul offspring? A wych-elm, a vine, a wisp of hay with dew on it—can passion for such things be transmitted…?
In this indoctrination she succeeded, later I would mourn her through the imprint she left behind in that place.
Over time the walls and their contents bled into each other. We forgot that one exists without the other. The magic of a home is that there exists within it a sense of placelessness. You are home only.
My grandmother loved the house for the way it blends into the woods. Upon a hill encased in trees, the house is austere, striking, without imposing on its surroundings. At night the floor to ceiling windows reflect a terrifying pure darkness, broken only by your own reflection and the branches waving outside. The house is not cozy, yet feels embraced by the elements that surround it.
My uncle describes a childhood dream in which a manic gorilla is loose outside the house. He can see the animal in all his imposing full length glory staring at him from the other side of the plate glass windows as he struggles frantically to lock the glass door. I do and do not want to interpret my family’s dreams, entrenched enough in my own.
One day my father shows me the darkroom he constructed in the basement. He tells me he used to make out with his girlfriends in there, “An excellent secondary function to the darkroom,” he chuckles. I think of the darkroom itself as another type of dream space, where we develop images of reality with a new slant, first my father and now me. He tells me that before the darkroom he used to hide in the same corner by the boiler and read all day after slamming the front door shut and pretending to leave for school. My father’s favorite parts of the house are the rooms where the windows are small and there are more books and objects than light playing on bare walls. He tells me he was always aware as a child that living in the house, “was living in an idea,” he resented it, –all– the form, the function, the modernist philosophy that built it-, he longed for Victorian nooks and garrets.
The house was designed as a blank slate, unsentimental, functional, and yet inevitably becomes an approximation of those Victorian houses anyway, containing so much clutter and nostalgic bric-a-brac. Ultimately a house cannot become that oneiric home without loosening at the aesthetic seams to contain the memories that fill it up.
During my months in the house I sleep restlessly, my head to the plate glass windows revealing treetops and darkness. In my waking I catalogue the details of the place, while in my dreams I uncover imagined annexes and family secrets. I mourn the real house as I live in it, and construct my dream house as I sleep. When I finally move out, exhausted, I bring few objects from it with me. Instead I carry vividly the house I build and remodel in my mind, that space between waking and dreaming where my memories wander, where I continue to revise and resolve what may be foreclosed on in waking. This dark room illuminated by memories and inventions, here I will return again and again.