Susan Gladin: The essence of place instilled in our memories

Apr. 04, 2013 @ 09:07 PM

We live in our houses like eggs in a carton. They shelter us and contain us, but we also carry a part of them. When we have lived in a house for a long time we take some of it with us when we leave. What we carry resides in muscle fibers and deep memory - a psychic space that holds rooms and features. 

Such features come to me unbidden at times. I am here, but suddenly a part of me is back in the house I grew up in, seeing a certain room or touching a particular feature. That house had tall ceilings, carved woodwork, and etched brass doorknobs. Over the years I have realized that it lives in me as much as I ever lived in it.

I can sit still here for a moment and feel that house. In my legs I sense the cadence with which I took the long stairway upstairs … two steps at a time in a hurry, or the choppy step-step-step when I trotted them one-by-one. I am not sure I ever just walked up. But descending I usually slid down the long smooth banister which made a hairpin turn before a straight run to the first floor.

The house had papered walls that my parents maintained. Every few years the ladders and saw horses came out, and a room was transformed with a new color and some elaborate scene. Repair projects were a constant theme of my childhood.

Last night the house came to me in dreams. Scenes involved sorting through costumes in a front room. I have no memory of this, but interestingly, the huge front room of that house became confused, in my dream, with the small entry room of this house … the one that sits on a piece of farmland outside of Hillsborough.

It rattles my concept of time to realize I have lived in this house nearly twice as long as I lived in the Arkansas one. That house was likely built by former slave owners just after the close of the Civil War. This house was built a few decades later, possibly by the descendants of slaves.

That house sat high on a terraced hill with a deep foundation of 18” brick walls. This house sits at the bottom of a long downhill driveway, and was perched on rock pilings on top of the ground, not in it. We added a banister when our children were little, but it is too short for much of a slide. 

Like my parents and their mansion, Peter and I have spent much of our time and energy maintaining this old house. Before I came along, Peter had added plumbing, a woodstove, and two windows on the east wall. Now every morning I sit in the sunshine of one of those windows and drink my coffee. We dug a foundation beneath the original pilings.  We added rooms for the children, a small basement, and bathrooms.

But in many ways, the house has not changed, and I wonder what pieces of it reside in the people who lived here before us. What parts of it dwell in our daughters, and perhaps unrecognized in me? If I leave this place, will it come to me in imagination and dreams? Sometimes scenes of the Arkansas house click through my memory like a slideshow. What do I carry of this place in my muscles and memory?

Most likely I carry that morning sunshine and the steep stairs with their unique cadence beneath my feet. Warmth from the behemoth wood stove must permeate the deep recesses of memory, as well as the lovely curve of dark wood over our heads as we sleep. The scene of the rolling land beyond the big front window will be in my slideshow, along with the wide boards of our kitchen floor. But for now I am still the egg in the carton of this house. I am sheltered while the essence of this place seeps into my muscles and memory so that I’ll never be fully gone.


Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.