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Between Us by Sean Mitchell

Ghosts trapped in stucco

Why's there no dishwasher? Who planted the vinca? Homes are indelibly imprinted by their prior occupants -- and it's enough to keep new owners up at night.

August 26, 2004|Sean Mitchell

When we bought our 1931 Spanish Colonial Revival house four years ago, we never met the owner. He and his family were away every time we looked at the property. The only evidence of him I ever saw, apart from furniture and a caged boa constrictor (pet?) in the dining room, was his signature on various escrow documents. He was a phantom. Yet we knew he had owned and lived in the house for 20 years. In the shorter time that we have inhabited it, I have created an enduring picture of him in my head.

Why did he have two microwaves and a Sub-Zero refrigerator but no dishwasher? How did he live for 20 years with barely functional bedroom closets? With windows that didn't open? Why hadn't he put up a fence to block the view into an elderly neighbor's refuse-covered yard? Why had he allowed the front of the house (northern exposure) to become an obscuring forest of trees and shrubs but planted nothing on the back side (southern exposure), where trees were really needed to protect the house and patio from the punishing L.A. sun?

Now, these might seem like selfish and impertinent questions, and of course they are. That is the nature of obsession with a house and one's attempt to make it your home. Like many home buyers, we had stretched our finances to get the house in Eagle Rock, so during the first couple of years we could only stare at its imperfections and dream of the money to fix them. And, yes, wonder at the aesthetic and psychic profile of the previous owner.

"The more interesting the house, the more interested people are in who lived there," says a real estate agent I know who specializes in older homes. "And it can be affected by the buying experience." In other words, if negotiations are difficult (as ours were), there's additional curiosity about the seller's personality.

My own brooding often led to the reassuring thought that if the house had been in any better shape we wouldn't have been able to afford it. Someday it would be a great house. Yet no sooner would I come around to this conclusion than my eyes would fall on the trash museum in the neighboring yard or the sliding garage doors that had long ago come off their rails and were frozen in place, and I would be back at it. Who had allowed this to happen?

"Who planted the vinca?" is the question a friend in Glendale is still asking after more than 10 years of trying to rid her 75-year-old house of the persistent and invasive ground cover. "You lie awake at night and you wonder."

You do. And you lie awake in the space once inhabited by the people you are wondering about. For most of us, there is nothing more personal or costly than the place where we live, and it's hard to ignore completely the bond, however invisible and desultory, that connects you to the previous owners. Well, it's not really invisible when you're looking at the Saharan backyard and thinking, Why didn't someone plant trees?

Maybe they had dreams of a pool that never got built. Maybe they farmed strawberries. Maybe they just didn't like the color green.

Property records showed that our house had had five previous owners, including a junior high school principal and an attorney. I asked the neighbors about our boa constrictor guy and gleaned gossip and conflicting stories. I discovered that he was a documentary filmmaker who specialized in outdoor adventure and had won an Academy Award early in his career for a short film he made about mountain climbing. He had worked in television and in the 1980s had gone to Afghanistan to cover the war between the moujahedeen and the Russians. I imagined a tall, raw-boned explorer who had little time for gardening or home improvement. What did he need with a dishwasher or bedroom closets? He was probably more comfortable living in a tent.

Accurate or not, this sketch provided a partial narrative for the house's yawning 70-year back story. I'm not sure why any of it should have mattered to our family of four, living in the present as we refurbished it. The influence of feng shui aside, a house, after all, was an inanimate object, was it not? Nothing more, nothing less.

It would be simpler to say so, but as we enjoy our house's beauty and contend with its problems, I cannot escape the notion that a house does have a personality shaped and tweaked and maybe even challenged by the people who live in it. And because it cannot speak, it keeps secrets.

There are wall-to-wall built-in bookcases in our living room that someone, maybe even the previous owner, decorated with dozens of tarnished metal library label slots that are filled with such carefully typed subject headings as "Philosophy," "Birds," "USSR" and "Travel." When we moved in, I fully intended to remove them because they seemed superfluous and didn't match our books. But I didn't get around to it, forgot about them and then began noticing how often visitors were intrigued by them and the fact that the books and labels didn't match up.

Where did they come from? They came with the house, we always explained. At some point I think we decided that the house liked them, and so we have left them in place. Chances are they will be here when we leave. And someone else will have to wonder about our reading habits and organizational skills. And perhaps by then the trees we have planted in back will be shading the southern exposure.

Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times. He can be reached at home@latimes.com.

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