After two years of marriage and two years of paying rent in an apartment, Mrs. Pincus and I bought a house in the small Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park. The house, a three-story, six-bedroom twin, was just a few blocks from Mrs. P's parents' house, the sprawling residence where Mr.s P grew up.
|Ripped from the headlines
My mother-in-law had been scanning local newspapers ever since my wife casually expressed an interest in purchasing a house. She spotted a small ad in the Classified Real Estate section of the Montgomery County Times-Chronicle offering a "Spacious stone Twin. Elegantly refurbished. 1 block to train, shopping, school." There was a phone number, but no address. My mother-in-law (with, obviously, a lot of free time), scanned each and every page of the modest Elkins Park phone book until she located an address to match the published phone number. My wife covertly drove past the house-in-question like a former girlfriend stalking the cause of a bad break-up. She eyed the place up and concluded that it was a good fit for us... at least from the outside.
Then, my wife called the number. There was no answer. She called again and again at regular intervals, but there was still no answer, no matter what the time of day. Finally, the next day, her eleven billionth phone call was answered. Her inquiry about the house was met with a bit of hesitancy. The man on the phone – the house's owner – informed us that the home would not be officially shown until Saturday. We made sure that we would be the first ones there on Saturday morning. And indeed we were. The house was perfect – filled with charm and character and fortified with apparent solid construction. We offered the asking price and it was accepted. A few nights later, we found ourselves sitting in our future dining room, signing an Agreement of Sale with the current owners. We packed up our little Northeast Philadelphia apartment and moved into our new home on Labor Day weekend 1986.
Over the course of 33 years, my family seemed to have accumulated a load of stuff. And while we do have a spacious home (as the original newspaper offering promised and delivered), we managed to fill it up to near-capacity. As my wife and I approach our 60s, we decided that it is time to purge. We enjoyed our various collections displayed throughout our house. But, as they say: "You can't take it with you." Last year, when I unceremoniously lost my job, the incentive to "clean house," as it were, became more imminent. Plus, I was determined not to leave a houseful of shit for my son to sort through, as my parents so thoughtfully left for me. We have always sold the occasional household item that we no longer needed or that certain collectible that had been replaced by one in better condition. But, in the immediately desperation of not knowing what the uncertain employment future held for a 57-year old artist, we began to seriously concentrate on thinning out our accrual. We started with our massive Disney collection and never looked back. For months and months, my wife and I sat side-by-side and listed the thousands of items that comprised our 30+ year collection in her eBay store. Soon, we were reassessing everything in our house, trying to determine whether or not we really needed it. Things that were deemed "eBay-worthy" went that route. Items that didn't make the cut were stored on our back porch for inclusion in our yearly yard sale... one of which we staged just this past Saturday.
Early on Saturday (and I do mean "early'), we filled our humble front lawn with, what we hoped to be, someone's new treasures. Happily, many folks came and perused the items strewn across our grass, obviously enticed by the 100 or so signs we tacked to utility poles throughout our neighborhood.
Around noon, an older woman ascended the two cement steps that lead from the sidewalk to our front walkway. She was accompanied by a woman about my own age. The older woman approached me, ignoring the plethora of items lining her path. She was focused on me and not interested in any of our household cast-offs. She stood before me, gestured towards my front porch and asked, "Do you live here?"
"Yes, I do." I answered.
She smiled and maybe even choked back a tear as she continued. "I used to live here. I grew up here and I was married right in the living room." She pointed to the younger woman and said, "My niece grew up here, too." She went on to explain that she got excited when she saw our yard sale ad on Craig's List and recognized the address immediately. She continued on, saying that she grew up in my house in the 1940s, eventually getting married in a small ceremony held in my living room. She implied that her husband was no longer in the picture (either a break-up or death – this was not made clear) and when her sister passed away, her sister's young daughter came to live in the house with her aunt and grandmother. They sold the house in 1980 when the niece (the younger woman by her side) graduated from high school. The house was sold to the couple that Mrs. Pincus and I bought it from. The woman cheerfully related many anecdotes about her childhood in my house, punctuating her stories with questions about accouterments and amenities of the house and if we still kept them in tact. I was treated to a lengthy session of reminisces, including a very cool tale of the woman who lived next door in the 1950s – a mother of three – who jumped to her death from a second story window. I noted that a story like that is usually a deterrent to a potential buyer, but for me, that would be a selling point. After a while, I uncharacteristically offered the inevitable. I welcomed the pair into my house as a trip down the Pincus version of "Memory Lane."
Leaving my wife to tend to customers on her own (which, with my meager level of help, was a fairly simple task), I took the two women on a tour of their childhood in the current guise of Chez Pincus. Curiously, as we entered my house, the older woman mentioned that she was glad to see that we had not changed anything in the dining room. Puzzled, I ask how she knew that. She sheepishly admitted to reviewing my wife's Facebook photos, using the yard sale post as her entrance. She saw pictures from the phenomenal spread my wife puts out at our annual Thanksgiving Dessert Party.
The two women grew huge smiles as they looked around my living room, examining the fireplace mantel, the locks on the windows, the original cast-iron radiators. If I didn't know otherwise, I would have thought they were casing the place for a planned burglary. As we moved into the dining room, they caressed the tiny crystal pulls on the louver-doors to our built-in china closet and gazed misty-eyed out the windows that reveal our backyard. In the kitchen, they marveled at the rearranged appliances. The couple from whom we purchased had done extensive remodeling in the six short years they occupied the house. The older woman pointed out that the small attached extension behind the kitchen was referred to, by her family, as "the outside kitchen." We just call it "the back porch." The basement was the biggest shocker to the two women. In the early 1990s, we remodeled our basement as an alternative to moving, transforming a cement-floored, purely utilitarian storage space into a close approximation to a 50s-era diner, complete with a vintage Formica table, black & white checkered floor, vinyl booth seating and a working pinball machine and Q-Bert video cabinet. They remembered a confusing (and somewhat spooky) series of doors and closets making up the dark basement, the younger woman confessing her fright at the thought of going down there alone. It was in stark contrast to the now brightly-lit space, the faux-tiled walls decorated with numerous autographed and framed photos of various levels of celebrities. In the laundry room, I was told that the closet where we currently keep detergent and the small collection of basic household tools we own, was used by the older woman's family as a food pantry.
We headed back upstairs so my charges could see the second and third floors. The older woman stopped to examine a small crevice alongside the banister where she hid small objects as a child. I assured her that nothing would be there anymore, as the mother-daughter team who clean our house probably made off with any trinkets they discovered – that weren't long-forgotten cat toys. Once on the second floor, my guests jogged their collective memories as they scrutinized the moldings at the base of the walls, the fixtures in the bathroom and the unique push-button and turn-knob light switches. They waved off my apologies of not having the made the bed or the state of disarray in the room that previously housed our Disney collection. They were excited to see that we had preserved the beautiful linoleum floor. I told them that we loved that floor, inlaid with muted color nursery rhyme scenes and game boards, from the moment we saw it on our initial tour of the house. Also, it would be impossible to move and would probably crumble if the attempt was made. Moving into the top-floor bathroom, our claw-foot bathtub brought smiles to their faces as did the red-velvet upholstered chair perched under the window (my own addition to the retro "theming" in our house), a prize rescued piece from my grandparents' Philadelphia antique store by way of my parents' living room. And against my better judgement (with Mrs. P's mortified voice in my head), I even opened the door to a walk-in closet that's filled with a jumbled assortment of eBay items, our luggage, a surplus of all-occasion wrapping paper and stuff for the next yard sale.
Our tour completed, we made our way back downstairs and outside to join the yard sale festivities once again. The two women were grateful and appreciative of my hospitality. I was actually surprised that I was so accommodating. It was so unlike me. The older woman told me that she enticed her niece, who was visiting from her current New York City home, with the promise of a mystery trip to a mystery location. I never imagined or even considered that my home would feature in someone's fond memories – other than those with the last name of Pincus, of course.