Not long ago, I drove past the first house we bought together. A Victorian row house at the top of an inclined street, in a neighborhood more inclined to wrong than right. Two blocks in any direction and the neighborhood was completely different, far better or far worse. Baltimore is a funny city that way. It’s an old city, lovely in all the ways old places are lovely. With grand national history and not-so-grand personal stories behind every centuries-old brick wall and cobblestone paver. It sometimes felt like such a sad place, with more loss and hurt than feels possible for a place so small.
Still, I love that city and miss its markets, and row houses, painted screens and Old Bay scented air. I miss our friends. And I miss that house. I miss the way it sounded.
It’s been almost 10 years since we left, but it felt like home when I drove by. The current owners have done little to keep it up in the last decade. The once bright white, lavender and green paint is peeling and the front stairs are rotting. The window treatments appear to be the same ones we left–the ones I made with a sewing machine and fabric my mother helped me pick because it was a more desirable way to spend time than studying for the bar.
The house was too big for us and it needed too much work, but we loved it. We made it our home, aided by the paintbrushes and elbow grease of friends and family. I knew every creaky floor board and crack in the plaster in the same way I now know every dimple and freckle on the skin of my children.
The sounds of that house were those of the neighbors on either side of our shared walls, fighting and singing and laughing. They were the sounds of car alarms, firetrucks and police cars, drunken college students, and a new puppy whining in a crate and yapping for food. The whining didn’t last long as I broke the cardinal rules of puppy training by bringing her into our bed on the second night and feeding her from my plate. There was the sound of her little paws clicking along the old wooden floors and there was the creak of those floor boards as we walked throughout the house.
I don’t know that I’d lived in a house with old wooden floors before. I don’t remember a home that talked back with each step the way that the Baltimore house did. But since that house, it has been a defining feature of each place we’ve lived. A short term Chicago rental, a couple hundred yards away from Wrigley–its floors prattled on as we walked across them. Our Uptown flat, with its original 1900 floors, had a lot to say.
And the sounds of the second-floor Uptown place are the ones I miss most. The walls, ceilings and floors were thin and we could hear the neighbors as well as they could hear us. That neighborhood had its sadness too, street corner arguments and gunshots. But, like the Baltimore house, there were plenty of happy sounds too. Lots of laughter. Heavy and heady conversation while cooking even heavier meals in its small kitchen. An engagement party for my sister and brother-in-law that tested the limits of the floors–those very creaky floors.
We brought two babies home to that apartment. We knew which floor boards to avoid when we were trying to be as quiet as possible as they napped. My daughters took their first steps on those floors. And my mom rocked the girls to sleep in a chair that caused the floor to exhale with a quiet groan with each rock.
Our new house creaks too. There are no shared walls, floors or ceilings and fewer siren sounds than any of our previous homes. It’s newer and safe, but still old enough for the floors to talk. The hallway outside my son’s room has a few loud boards we avoid as he naps. I can hear our old dog, no longer that spoiled Charm City puppy, walk the floors at night and make frequent adjustments to her sleeping spot so that she can keep an ear to each of the kids’ bedrooms. I know that soon we won’t hear her anymore. That we are likely going to be saying goodbye before Christmas, as she struggles to move more and more and looks less and less like she recognizes us.
One of my girls wants a new house. She told me she wants “more stairs” and her own room. The other still pines for that Uptown place even though she was only 3 when we left. She describes its features to me all the time. “Remember what the playroom was like, mommy? It was all windows and sunshine.” Of course I remember, I tell her. I remember it all. For such a small place, it held a big story of loss and even of more love.
My son only knows this new place. My mother never knew this place. My son never knew my mother. My puppy won’t know the next place. But sometimes, somehow, when I hear our floors creak, when our old pup–our long ago first baby in our first home–moves at night, when I hear the footsteps of the kids as they play marching band in the living room all too early on a Sunday morning, when I hear the sound of the floors talking back to me, I feel like we are all together. All the places and the sounds and the people I miss, in one place. A place that is old beneath our feet, and that tells our own sometimes sad and mostly wonderful stories.
I could never live in a place without creaky floors.