My childhood home is up for sale. Having become too much for either a Presbyterian minister or a small town congregation to care for, the Manse in Moorefield, West Virginia is on the market as a “fixer-upper.” It’s a beautiful house, built in 1858 and sitting on almost an acre of land right in town. When we lived there my parents were always very careful to remind their children that it was not actually our house—it belonged to the church—but the church seemed like home too, so the technicalities of legal ownership were of no concern to me.
When I found the realtor’s page online I couldn’t believe the house was for sale. For some irrational reason I had assumed the church would keep the Manse forever. I clicked through the photos and tried to remember what the house looked like with our furniture in it. I had not seen the inside since we moved right after I finished third grade. The hardwood floors, the staircases, the fireplaces were like old friends I had encountered by chance on the internet.
The ceilings in the Manse were 11 feet high. The bedroom I shared with my sister was the blue one with the view out into the hallway and the stairs leading up to the walk-in attic. I remember sliding down the banisters of the matching staircases that met at the landing, and running my fingers over the carving on the steps. I remember the texture and shape of the steam radiators that heated the house. I remember my dad shoveling coal into the furnace down in the basement.
Most of my memories are of how it felt to be in that space. Almost all the rooms had two doors so you could walk in a circle throughout an entire floor—there were no hotel-like hallways with rooms on the side. Everything was connected unless you closed the doors. It was a house where a small child could meander and explore.
In the back yard there was a big tree that I could climb, a sandbox made out of a tractor tire, and a sturdy swing set with bars that were perfect for turning flips or hanging upside down by your knees. While I usually stayed in the back, the huge lot was surrounded by a hedge and a cast iron fence so I could run and play at will and no one worried that I would step out into the street. One day, however, I did decide to ride my tricycle around the block. I got as far as the firehouse before they found me and turned me around from my jolly outing.
We also had a large garden behind the house where we grew beans and sweet corn and carrots and lettuce and tomatoes and wonderful peas. We tilled and weeded and watered and waited. Then we picked. It was so exciting when I was finally allowed to pick the things we’d planted. They say that growing things will teach you patience, and though I cannot actually claim to be a patient person, I can at least wait tenaciously, knowing from experience that something will come up and ripen—if the birds don’t get it first.
So much of what we consider normal in our adult life is based on what we experienced in our childhood: family relationships, ways of learning, the taste of food, the feeling of home. We learn to adapt as we get older, but our expectations, for good or for ill, are often grounded in first memories.
I’ve lived in a lot of places since Moorefield. My family left that small town and moved to a subdivision in Northern Virginia. The ceilings dropped from 11 feet to 8 feet, and the trees were no longer big enough to climb. High school was followed by college and marriage, and I lived in dorm rooms and apartments, a townhome and three very different houses. But nothing has ever replaced the Manse in my memory. When I imagine home, I think of hardwoods and open space. It was a wonderful place to grow up and spoiled me forever. Sometimes I still dream that I am in that house.