The Big House
July 14th, 2011

This whole housing bubble thing would never have happened if only homeowners nowadays were more like the homeowners of yesteryear. In particular, I’m thinking of homeowners like my parents, and all my neighbors in all the houses all up and down the street where I grew up. Pretty much all of them settled in following the end of the Second World War, and not a one of them ever moved away.

Why? Well, there was the matter of the thirty-year mortgage, by which you were legally obligated to stay put for thirty years. And people in those days honored that commitment, same as they honored the marital commitment. In fact, I’m pretty sure there was, buried somewhere deep in the fine print of my father’s mortgage, the phrase, “until death do us part.”


My mother called it The Big House, and not because she felt like a prisoner there—no matter that she basically was. The Big House was big only in comparison to The Little House, which I barely remember since I was just two years of age when we moved from there in 1945. What I remember is that The Little House had just a single bedroom with one bed for my parents and a three-tiered bunk bed for their three sons.

The Big House had two bedrooms and an unfinished basement, in which Dad built a bedroom for us boys shortly after our kid sister came along. (In Utah, when Mom starts knitting, Dad starts digging.) From then on I was a cellar dweller, constantly dreaming of the day when I might have a room to myself, preferably above ground level, with a view that resembled something other than an ant farm.

For the six of us, there was just one bathroom. So going to the toilet was a lot like going to the post office. You learned to be patient, and then when finally it was your turn, you didn’t dawdle. Almost always, there was someone banging on the door, demanding to know, “Have you fallen in?”

If you were lucky, your mother had a next-door neighbor like Trixie Norton with whom she got along famously. If you weren’t so lucky, you had a next-door neighbor like Mrs. Warren, with whom my mother carried on a feud that lasted for half a century. I have no idea what the big issue was, although I suspect it had something to do with the fact Mrs. Warren, a devout Catholic, could not conceive while my mother’s problem was quite the opposite. So I suppose it could be that living next door to a bunch of boisterous children was not Mrs. Warren’s cup of tea. The result was that whenever a baseball or a football or a tennis ball or even a shuttlecock went over the fence, that was the last we ever saw of it.

I used to wonder what would be the result should my father and Mr. Warren ever get into a fistfight, the way grown men always did in the movies. Of course, it never came to pass. Both were mature, peace-loving gentlemen who, I’m sure, dreaded coming home from a hard day’s work only to get an earful regarding the ongoing feud between their squabbling wives.

No matter how dysfunctional their relationships, couples remained couples, neighbors remained neighbors, and everyone stayed put. You stayed until the mortgage was paid off, you stayed until the kids had all grown up and moved away, you stayed until the last pet died. You stayed until the deputy sheriff came bearing the bad news about your husband, and then you stayed on still longer—until the day you fell and broke your hip or lost your mind, what little was left of it.

Fifty years down the road, my mother had no memory of ever having lived in the Big House. Nor, for that matter, did she remember me. So in desperation I went looking for Mrs. Warren, who had broken a hip and was now sharing a room with Mom’s demented older sister at the local nursing home. Aunt Inez didn’t recognize me, but Mrs. Warren did. In fact, she was glad to see me—and to my surprise, I was equally glad to see her. I sat by her bedside and the two of us had a long, pleasant conversation. It was as close to home as I’d been in quite awhile.

-Richard Menzies