Home Invasion

Come in? Sure!
Sure, if you insist!

A few years ago, when Alex was four, he and I both found ourselves standing on our front porch staring at a locked door. Neither of us liked this situation, but we both recognized it as a Best Case Scenario. I had gotten on Ellen’s last nerve. Had we stayed in that house much longer, my wife might have been forced to murder me.

So I turned to Alex and said, “Why don’t you and I do something, eh?” as if this eviction was all my idea.

“What are we gonna do?” he asked.

“I have a plan!” I replied. I only say this when I don’t have a plan.

As we drove around aimlessly I racked my brain. It was mid-afternoon so a nice place that charged admission, Like Liberty Science Center, wouldn’t be worth it. The movies? Nothing was playing. A park? It was about 95 degrees.

I drove around looking for a sign. Then – quite literally – I found one. A sign! With balloons on it!

“Hey, Alex! How would you like to nose around other people’s stuff?” I asked.

Alex was intrigued, so I pulled up next to the Open House sign ready to explore.

“Hi, where are you gents from?” The chipper realtor asked. He had a smile suitable for toothpaste commercials.

“Six blocks away,” I said, responding with a toothpaste commercial smile of my own. Then, so my nosiness didn’t seem quite so obvious, I replaced my smile with the solemn face of a gen-u-wine serious homebuyer.

“You see, we’re looking to trade up,” I said. “Right, Alex?”

But Alex had discovered the candy dish Mr. Realtor had set out and was not interested in playing pretend with Daddy.

We puttered about, exploring the rooms one by one. As per my instructions, Alex and I could only say nice things about the house in a normal voice. When the comments weren’t so nice, they had to be whispery. This is good parenting.

Once we were done nosing around (and boy-oh-boy did we nose; we even checked out the crawl space), we hopped into the car to find another house to scrutinize. It turns out Open Houses were everywhere.

When Alex and I explored the first house, I asked the realtor a lot of questions about the people who lived there. By the time we reached the second house, I let the houses do the talking. It was fun to discover how much they revealed. Just by scanning my surroundings I could, with little trouble, imagine a family dynamic.

There was the house that contained over-indulged children, who were allowed to litter every room with their toys.

There were the ambitious social climbers, who lived in a tiny, tiny house that was stuffed full with Ethan Allen Furniture, home theatre systems, and his-and-hers jet skis in the overstuffed garage. (I also came across the other kind of social climber who owned a huge, expensive house but didn’t have enough cash left over to furnish it.)

There was the museum house run by, I assumed, a woman with control issues.

There was the man who still displayed his high school trophies who, I also assumed, peaked at 17.

With every new discovery, I marveled at just how many secrets a person’s stuff can reveal.

It was a kind of epiphany for me. From that day forward, whenever I create a character for a story, I always consider the types of things he or she might own. I have found that a well-placed tchotchke can speak volumes about a character – even before the character has an opportunity to say or do anything.

The day Alex and I wandered through those open houses also made me wonder a bit about what my own stuff says about me. Do my things reveal embarrassing parts of my personality? My fears? My regrets? My sins?

Is there some seemingly innocent item resting on my shelf that telegraphs to the world that I’m the kind of person who inadvertently pesters his wife to the point where she contemplates murder? That I’m that kind of person who goes to open houses with a child in tow because I’m too cheap to go to Liberty Science Center after 2 p.m.? That I’m the kind of person who wastes realtors’ time and passes judgment on complete strangers?

I sure hope not. Because, well, that would be very embarrassing.

48 Replies to “Home Invasion”

  1. Sounds like you made some fun from a difficult situation to me, and for sure loads of material for writing and character revelations. Certainly an original choice for an afternoon spent with your then four year old son.I definitely agree you can tell a lot about a person from their house, that’s why only very VERY good friends, and family, get to visit me at home:-) Hugs, H xxxxx

  2. Great post! It reminded me of when we were looking at weekend houses with our then 2 year old. We dragged him to a ton of open houses, and he loved it. He’d run around the yard, test out the pool, and play with the toys. It was really great when they had cats! On a complete random aside, I remember this one house that I loved (still love and drive by it from time to time, but my husband kept using those awful “B” words, budget and bankruptcy.). It was right on the beach and needed a bit of work (alright maybe a lot of work), and when we climbed the stairs, the realtor told us to watch out for the shaky railing. What he neglected to mention, however, was that there was no railing at all on the second floor and that our 2 year old could plummet down to the first floor. . . Anyway, to this day, my son still loves visiting houses, and still asks if he can visit some.

    1. p.s. My husband just reminded me that our son also thought that you could just go into any house that you liked and visit it.

      1. Kids have a wonderful, natural curiosity that, I think, many people lose with age.

        Here’s hoping, however, that you emphasize to your child that there is a big difference between an “Open House” and “Breaking & Entering.”

  3. For the record, your T-square, way-too-neat desk, and carefully sorted rag bin all predicted your getting locked out at some point. 😉 Glad to have you back though!

  4. What a great way to get inspired for a story, one I don’t think I’d have thought of. Now you’ve got me thinking about what my house says about me and my family! Since I’m generally the one who does the ‘decorating’, I suppose my eclectic book collection would label me a bibliophile, my puzzle collection (both flat & 3D) would reveal that I still cling to my childhood, and my antiques whisper secrets about my family’s past. 🙂

  5. First I laughed hysterically. Then I went through my house trying to determine what you might think of me the next time you are locked out and wandering the streets. I’m not sure it would be good. 🙂

  6. I guess that living in a home largely “infested” with rodents wearing white gloves and big smiles just might give away the nature of the person leaving this comment……………..
    I think the things in your house speak volumes about you and I love every chapter!!

  7. Good thing you weren’t looking at houses in San Francisco. Here, every house we have ever seen has been “staged” by the realtor. You get no sense of personality or how the family used the space. It’s like going to a designer showroom and wandering through a bunch of false nondescript rooms. Nosy me is wondering just what you did to get yourself locked out. What a great story!

    1. That’s a shame, real estate-wise — but that’s also probably why SF homes sell for insane amounts of money; all of those sometimes-unsettling personal mementos are hidden away.

      As for why I was locked out, I really don’t remember. But it is safe to assume I deserved it.

  8. Is there some seemingly innocent item resting on my shelf that telegraphs to the world that I’m the kind of person who inadvertently pesters his wife to the point where she contemplates murder? That I’m that kind of person who goes to open houses with a child in tow because I’m too cheap to go to Liberty Science Center after 2 p.m.? That I’m the kind of person who wastes realtors’ time and passes judgment on complete strangers?

    No, that’s what blogs are for. 🙂

    I’m so doing this with my kids next weekend!

  9. Really enjoyed this post! It reminded me of my early teen years as an in-demand babysitter. You learned A LOT about families immediately from their houses. Then, what you didn’t pick up from the environment, you learned directly from their kids! Babysitters should probably be asked to sign confidentiality agreements 🙂 Thanks!

  10. Just imagine what the cleaning lady sees…not only does she peek into your home…she sees it week to week. Oh the characters she could come up with.

  11. I’m in the same real estate boat with Jiliane – the houses have been “staged” and stripped of all personality!
    Now estate sales – those speak volumes about people!

    1. Oh, I love estate sales. I rarely buy anything (my perpetual goal in life is to get crap out of my house rather than bring new crap in) but they are marvelous sources of inspiration.

      It’s funny that you bring this up because next weekend is our community’s town-wide garage sale. Needless to say, I shall be perusing the many, many tables with great interest.

    1. No worries. Writing is a tad more important that cleaning.

      It is not, however, more important that putting everything in its proper place. Every item in a home must have a proper place. Every item must remain in its proper place. Nothing is more important than that. Nothing, I tell you, NOTHING!

      Um. Ahem. Please ignore OCD Mike, OK?

  12. I recently had that adventure. But we were actually looking for a house. I kept whispering to my husband all about the people who lived there at the different houses. He tried to ignore me as best as he could until the house I was sure belonged to a man who murdered his wife. I ended up in the car with my mouth scotch taped and hands and feet tied with a skipping rope. Can you believe the kids leaving scotch tape and a skipping rope in the car? You’d think they would learn to put their things away by now. My house is spotless, organized and well decorated. I am not a control freak who talks too much.

  13. Man, I would have loved going to open houses when I was a kid. It’s still fun but only when you aren’t actually house hunting, because house hunting sucks the life and soul out of a person. I don’t know what my house says about me, other than I have over-indulged cats with way too many toys scattered around the floor, and that I tend not to be the most fastidious housekeeper ever. My house is pretty boring.

    1. Your house might be boring to you, perhaps, but it could be a treasure trove to a devoted snooper.

      You should go to a couple of open houses, Madame. There are far worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. And then you can blog about it!

      See how inspirational I am?

  14. Yikes! I’m so glad you and Alex weren’t around when I put our house on the market. Fortunately, we were states apart; otherwise, I would have called your Ellen and begged her to not throw you out. At least not until our house was sold.

    But if she lost her last nerve and you had no place to go except my open house, I’d like to think you’d walk into our house (that had no dish of candy but did have, um yes, a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies) and say OUT LOUD “wow, a woman of great taste, intelligence, and amazing writing talent lives here.” The whispers between you and Alex would be “Not sure I’d have put flowery wallpaper in the guest bedroom, but at least the colors are tolerable.”

    Whatever my insecurities might be about what my house says about me, this post is FABULOUS and a great reminder to us writers to show a character through his/her ‘things.’ Thank you.

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