About the Feature
Who Lives in that House
Photo by Thomas Bennie
Can it fairly be called a game? We point toward any number of homes along a series of bayous as we navigate our urban core, repeating the same question over and over. There are no rules. There is no prize. Nor are there right or wrong answers. There’s no beginning and no end.
It started when she started childcare. She’d wake me up at five for two hours of feeding and entertaining before they even opened at seven, by which time I had nothing left but muscle memory, enough to lift her and strap her in, to operate the car. When I was anxious, when she was, as we often were about the upcoming separation, the game was a distraction during the short, slow ride those humid mornings, winding through the neighborhood. A last gasp of playfulness before I returned home and fell into the kind of deep, irresponsible sleep I hadn’t known since before my pregnancy. I was almost giddy with exhaustion. She was barely talking yet. I asked the questions and answered them myself.
Who lives in that house, that one with diamond mullions? Maybe Daniel Tiger. Maybe Curious George. Who lives in that house, the tall redbrick? Maybe the three bears. Who lives in the low-roofed ranch?
She listened at first, and as summer became fall and fall became winter, her words developing, she answered more often, then more quickly, establishing the rhythm. Who lives in that house? Daniel Tiger. Who lives in that house? Curious George. Who lives in that house? Goldilocks. Her l’s and r’s were w’s. She had a sweet lisp.
When she was two and a half, we transferred to the school on our side of the bayou, finding a new route. We weren’t anxious anymore. We just liked our game. We didn’t play every day. Sometimes we sang. Sometimes we argued.
When she was four, the hurricane came. Afterward, detritus piled up like barricades around the neighborhood. Rolls of wet carpet and pink insulation. Crumbling Sheetrock. Stuff that maybe you could have dried out and saved, but when you thought about the floodwaters, how they bubbled up from toilets and drains, how they smelled, it was easier to put it at the curb, in the cannot-be-cleaned-or-repaired category.
What loss. What waste.
I imagined houses filled with bayou, with bayou creatures—nutria and fire ants and possums clinging to surfaces. The murkiness. Strange facts floated to my surface. Who lives in that house? The fish with a transparent skull. Who lives in that house? The fish whose tongue is a parasite that crawled in through its gills and ate its first tongue.
That fall we renovated. She often wore a purple dress, taffeta-skirted, her now long and luscious hair topped with accessories ranging from leopard-print hairbands to crocheted stocking caps. She wore binoculars as a necklace. As we created spreadsheets for insurance companies and contractors, she rode her scooter around the living room of our rental and binged episodes of My Little Pony.
In the car, she asked the questions, and I had to remember all the names. I couldn’t just say, The pony who’s always playing practical jokes or The pony who loves to read. Pinkie Pie lived in that house. Twilight Sparkle lived in that house.
All you’re doing is saying names, my husband said. I don’t get it.
I agreed there were great gaps in the logic. A house—a character. Why were they connected? I wasn’t sure, but it seemed reasonable, as it seemed reasonable to play in the car but nowhere else. It seemed reasonable to ask who lived in that house but not reasonable to ask who was eating in that restaurant or shopping in that store. On road trips—the highway, the vast Texas landscape and Texas sky spreading infinitely around us—we never asked who owned those cattle or who planted those fields.
I suppose, after all, there were rules. We never played in San Antonio, which we visited often, where I grew up, where her cousins and grandmother lived. I showed her the houses I used to live in.
This was my second house, I said, driving past the English Tudor. It had a grand circular drive lined with live oaks and Sesame Street–style park lights.
Big, she said. If we had a second floor, that’s where I would keep my toys.
If we had a second floor, I said, we would be safer in a flood.
Taking a winding detour off I-10 on the way to my father’s rural home, I showed her my first house.
But see the neighbors? None of this was here then. There were no fences and no other people. Girl Scouts sold cookies on horseback. Do you know what a party line is? Of course you don’t. It’s a phone line you have to share with other families. That was the only kind we could get when I was born. This house has a tiny pond in the back. This house has its own well.
No, she said.
Grandma’s body was your first house.
From a certain perspective, my work, psychology, is the study of human interiors—who lives in that house. In Jung’s renowned interpretation, a dream of a house is a dream of the self, with each successive floor, from one or more stories above ground to the deepest chambers below, representing different levels of consciousness. The flattering narratives we wish to believe about ourselves live on the loftiest floors, whereas the most primitive versions of self occupy the home’s subterranean depths. Freud might describe the floors as mapping roughly onto superego, ego, and id; the goal of psychotherapy is to renovate for function (personality) rather than cosmetics (symptoms).
My father’s family dwelled too much in the underground, venturing to their polished top floors in public but believing themselves utterly incapable of actually inhabiting them. My mother’s family was the opposite, living in stubborn denial of their basements, as if by cramming more and more furniture and art and decorations into their upper stories, they could vanquish their depths entirely.
My mother was young when she housed me, not yet thirty, but already in possession of a not-yet-one-year-old daughter and a not-yet-six-month-old pediatrics practice on San Antonio’s northside. I took my time moving out of her body, an extra ten days. She returned to work almost immediately.
I don’t remember her first office. I remember her second, at the Canavan Center on Wurzbach Road, with a sculpture out front that she described as a landmark for new patients: Turn in when you see the rusty doughnut. A two-player Ms. Pac-Man arcade game lived in her waiting room. A steel box containing tokens that made the game work lived in the reception area.
My father worked in the office too, on the other side, with adult patients. In his exam rooms lived the world’s most spinnable stools. On top of his bookcase lived a taxidermy red-tailed hawk.
My parents were from New York and Baltimore. They had met in Philadelphia, in medical school, and moved to San Antonio when it was time to begin internship and residency. The medical school was new then, progressive, promising to coordinate the call schedules of married students. My parents liked the mild winters. My father, in particular, liked being able to live in a remote house with no visible neighbors, except for a multitude of wild birds.
Shortly before I was born, my parents’ parents and my uncles moved down too. Though we lived in the country, thirty minutes north of town, everyone else lived in a subdivision off Wurzbach Road or West Avenue. Grandma Mildred and Grandpa Maurice lived in that house. Grandma Frances and Grandpa Leonard lived in that house. Uncle Mike lived in that house. Uncle Howard and Aunt Toni lived in that house.
Such was the rhythm and structure of life. Home, school, the office, these grandparents, those grandparents. My grandmothers lived into their nineties. My daughter knew them, knew their houses, not as intimately as I had, but enough to remember between visits where to look for toys and cookies. That was comforting, that continuity. Long before my daughter was born, my own parents had divorced, and they lived in houses that were nice, fine houses. Nevertheless, they were not houses I could say I had lived in.
I dream of the houses I grew up in. Just this week I dreamed of visiting Frances and Leonard’s home. We were all there—my mother and father, my sister and brother-in-law, my cousin, my aunt and uncle, everyone’s children—sitting around the living room, watching the news, or maybe a basketball game. It was the same sofa—low-slung, overstuffed, blue-and-green floral—my grandmother had purchased in the sixties and refused ever to reupholster. In my dream, she held the remote in one hand, a bottle of light pink nail polish in the other, and my grandfather leaned against her shoulder, his eyes closed, asleep or dead.
I stood up on the middle cushion. Raise your hand if you return to this house in your dreams, I said. Everyone raised their hands.
When I dream of my first house—or, if you accept my daughter’s logic, my second—it is always very dark. I’m often in the bathroom I shared with my sister, showering, and the drain is clogged, and the tub is filling with dirty water, and I imagine, in the dream, what could be backing up the pipe—dead scorpions, stubborn roots of Hill Country flora, years’ worth of hair and the sloughing of skin.
My sister and I spent much of our time with Grandpa Leonard, our paternal grandfather. The move to Texas from his home in Maryland, where his few friends and siblings remained, had been emotionally taxing. He didn’t work. He rarely socialized. He painted, read, and gardened, while my grandmother managed my parents’ back office. For many years, he babysat my sister and me after school. In fact, we could attend that school, the one closest to my parents’ work, only because my parents pretended we lived in his house.
It made him anxious, the arrangement. Keeping track of mail from the school, having his phone number listed in the school directory, fielding calls from kids and teachers. On one memorable occasion, when I was in fourth grade and my sister in fifth, two of my sister’s classmates rode their bikes over after school and rang the doorbell. My grandfather, shooting us an I-told-you-so look, promptly disappeared into the garage to paint, leaving my sister and me to entertain her friends, pretending the green shag carpet and highly neurotic poodle were actually ours. We had never had friends over. When the dreaded moment came and they asked to see our room, I saw the terror on my sister’s face. She said, simply but firmly, No.
I was about nine, my daughter’s current age, the first time we visited my parents’ childhood homes and the remaining eastern relatives. It was not profound, was in fact a bore, to see the houses they grew up in. My mother was raised in Levittown, Long Island, one of America’s first post-war suburbs. Though it was interesting to hear stories about how it was built, assembly-line style, down to the trees lining the sidewalks, I don’t remember feeling anything when we drove past her house in real life, except that the trees were too tall—so tall they blocked out the sky, my most reliable companion in south Texas.
My father’s house, in a Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore, across the street from a golf course where he reportedly had many adventures with his collie, made me nervous. Mild-to-moderately depressed for much of my childhood, he had a penchant for sad stories, the material for which his childhood and early adulthood had given him ample supply.
His best friend from youth had died suddenly of an aneurysm while visiting Stonehenge in his early thirties. My father would tell the story of his death, how he shouted that he felt staggering, cosmic signals before his dramatic collapse, just as he emerged from the underground tunnel at dawn. Wary of what other dark tales this visit might churn up, I sensed his mood dipping, his nostalgia pricking, as he took a slow turn around his old block.
This is it, girls, he said, more to himself than to us. Where the magic happened.
A good psychologist is the equivalent of a reliable home inspector. You have to attend to both strong and weak features. You have to identify immediate safety hazards, describe the likely lifespan of certain crucial structures, the functionality of invisible systems.
I had been my daughter’s house for twenty-seven weeks when my husband and I had our first home inspection. Almost thirty-six, my private practice newly open, I felt distinctly old to be buying my first home, having my first child, and starting my, albeit third, career, after failing as a poet and burning out as a high school teacher. I was back in Texas after living elsewhere for over a decade, during which time I moved, on average, annually. We were hoping to purchase a small house in southwest Houston, a block off Braes Bayou.
You’re pregnant? the inspector said. You just look like maybe you had an extra enchilada for lunch.
Within thirty-six hours, we had decided we could not afford the repairs the home would need, nor were they likely to be done by the time the baby came.
Within forty-eight hours, I was hemorrhaging in a Gap at the Galleria.
For reasons never identified, my body had ceased cooperating as a dwelling for my daughter. The placenta had partially torn away from my uterus, which caused the bleeding, which caused the contractions, which were halted by the injection of magnesium sulfate, which made me feel as though my insides were on fire. Other injections—steroids—were given to help her lungs mature should she be born early. Somehow, throughout, her heartbeat remained strong.
From my hospital bed, I could see my first dorm at Rice University. Down Main Street in the opposite direction was the apartment I had lived in during my sophomore year, when I had a terrible case of mono and my parents got divorced. That was the year panic attacks first jolted me from sound sleep. I would gasp for air, overcome by a sense of profound displacement, as I clawed my way to the window to open the blinds and figure out where I was. It happened repeatedly, in all the cities I lived in—Seattle; Bethlehem, PA; Miami; Providence; Somerville and Norwood, MA—not often, but enough for me to know it must mean something, just as the dream of the shower and the clogged drain of the first house probably meant something too.
After a week in the hospital, they sent me home to our apartment on Buffalo Speedway—my tenth apartment after moving away from Houston thirteen years prior. I spent the rest of my pregnancy on the couch or in the bed, trying to decide if it would be better for my daughter to be born earlier but with immature lungs so she could at least be properly fed (she had stopped growing after the partial placental abruption) or severely malnourished but closer to her due date and therefore more likely to breathe on her own. I tried to move as absolutely little as possible, lest the remaining placenta abrupt as well, which could kill us both.
She split the difference, arriving six weeks early, on the morning of Good Friday, at less than the first percentile for weight and blue at birth, but able to breathe on her own by evening. If I was her first house, her second was an isolette in the NICU at Texas Children’s Hospital. My mother wrote my daughter’s name, Ella, in calligraphy, on a piece of purple paper and taped it to the outside of the isolette so everyone would know who lived there.
Nearly a month later, Ella returned with us to the Buffalo Speedway apartment. We continued our home search. You had to bid quickly to have a real shot. I was constantly checking updates and following leads on multiple apps. Ella had reflux, so she was almost always in my left arm, my iPhone in my right hand, whenever I wasn’t actively feeding or burping her. My husband and I texted the same listing to each other at almost the same moment. Our realtor, a grandfatherly man with an impressive array of sound effects he used for describing all manner of property features, met us there that day. On Jackwood Street.
Jackwood. Jackwood. A spondee, my favorite of all the poetic feet—two equally accented syllables. A bit farther off Braes Bayou than our first prospect had been, but in the same general area. Meyerland, the neighborhood was called. Developed in the 1950s, originally largely Jewish, home of the state’s best bagel bakery, to which we had made semi-annual pilgrimages while I was growing up, hauling back onion bagels by the dozen to our deli-deprived relatives.
When I told my father we were buying the house, he said, You have more crossed-out addresses in my address book than anyone else I’ve ever known. Let’s hope this one sticks.
Then he said, It’s close to the bagel place, right?
It has stuck, for better or worse, for nearly a decade. This neighborhood couldn’t be more different from the rural outpost of my youth, where stray cattle or wild dogs were more likely to appear in windows than a person, and if a person did appear, one would be wise to question their motives. I suspect our neighborhood is more like 1950s Levittown or the Forest Park area of Baltimore.
We’re on a corner. The kitchen window looks out onto the side street, which all the neighbors traverse as they walk their dogs or ride their bikes to the park. Herons and egrets stalk the bayous and large puddles left in intersections after storms. Blue jays and mockingbirds occupy the two front oaks.
Slowly, though, the original homes are being torn down to make way for more expansive, more expensive houses elevated several feet above the floodplain. The larger homes take up more space on their lots, leaving less absorbent ground throughout the neighborhood, which increasingly directs the current of floodwater toward the dwindling number of homes like ours. We get a little nervous with every big rain, whenever there’s a hurricane in the Gulf. I keep a list in my phone of all our belongings, for insurance claims. Ella has a lofted bed, so even if worse came to worst, she’d be unlikely to drown in her sleep.
Should we move to a house that’s not in a floodplain? To a city less susceptible to alternating cycles of flood and extreme drought? To a state that’s trending generally less medieval—where a woman is not considered to be, first and foremost, the dwelling of a fetus; where trans kids and their families are considered worthy of protection rather than vilification? On walks, I count the houses where Democrats likely live, based on yard signs—Beto or Abbott, pro-BLM or anti-mask.
What about the houses with no political signs? Who lives in those? I don’t consciously want to conjecture, but it seems to happen automatically—my original tongue consumed and replaced by a primitive, tribal parasite. I divide houses into categories based on school spirit signs—private or public, religious or secular. Based on flags hung for Memorial Day or rainbows during Pride Month. Based on the television news networks I glimpse through undraped windows at twilight.
I first read a used copy of Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life—purchased for practically nothing when I worked at Half Price Books—while living in Seattle in the summer of 2001. The author, John Conroy, an American journalist, lived in west Belfast in the 1980s in order to cover the troubles. He described how he felt when he first arrived:
When I first moved into Clonard, I didn’t know who or what should be feared. . . . In the beginning, a visit to any of the shops in the district was a challenge, and I could feel people acting differently when they realized a stranger was in their midst. It took me some time to figure out who was a threat and who was not.
After months residing there, he, like the locals, developed conscious and unconscious awareness of the myriad ways people signaled their allegiance in a violently sectarian community:
You can tell a man’s religion from the cemetery he buries his people in, from the newspaper he reads, from the bus he rides, from the football team he roots for. In some neighborhoods, you can guess a man’s faith quite accurately by noting which side of the street he walks on. If a kid plays cricket, he’s not Catholic. If he carries a hurley stick, he’s not Protestant. . . . Many Protestants and Catholics in the North say that they can often tell a person’s religion by his or her physical appearance. This seems a preposterous claim, but after spending some time in Northern Ireland, I can’t help but wonder if there is something to it.
West Belfast in the 1980s could not have felt more remote—even, perhaps, quaint—in comparison with Y2K Seattle, when Amazon was still a nascent empire, the city still the epicenter of grunge. Our grad student allegiances were to genre (poetry or fiction), coffee houses (Zoka or Honey Bear), and dive bars (the Green Lantern or the College Inn).
A few months after I finished Conroy’s book, September 11 happened. I was still asleep on the West Coast, having closed at the bookstore, when my father called.
Don’t go downtown today, he said. There’ve been terrorist attacks in major cities.
In this country? I asked.
In the ensuing days, even as the Bush administration rushed to war and my basic assumptions about what it meant to be American rapidly evolved, it was still far too early to have an inkling how Conroy’s words would return to me, twenty years hence—post–George Floyd, post–January 6, post–Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—as I walk the blocks of Meyerland, wondering if dog breeds correlate to tribal affiliation. Do I reveal something—do I make myself vulnerable—when I link myself to my golden retriever via her turquoise leash?
I still fall asleep to realtor.com most nights. I look at houses in Ann Arbor. In Burlington, Vermont. In Duluth, Minnesota. I silently repeat our search criteria, like a mantra: No fires, no flooding, close to Canada, pro-choice. Sometimes, indulgently, I search houses in my old cities instead, seeking sensations associated with my time there. The peculiar azure of Seattle’s winter dusk. A frozen Pennsylvania road. The sound of rain against palm leaves in Miami.
What are you doing? Ella asks.
Just looking at houses, I say, with a twinge.
For many years before we moved to San Antonio proper, my parents dragged the family on weekly sojourns to open houses all around the north side of town in search of the perfect house that would satisfy my sister’s and my increasing need to actually live in the school district, my father’s desire to interact with zero people, and my mother’s longing for an updated kitchen. My father liked homes with potential. My mother liked homes that were move-in ready. My father paid more attention to the yard and the views. My mother said you couldn’t live in a view. If either one of them knew somebody who lived on the street, forget it. Inevitably, we’d drive the thirty minutes to our upside-down house in the Hill Country wilderness, the kitchen and living room on the topmost level with outstanding sunset views, and my father would say, Let’s just declutter a little, and my mother would say, And maybe change some wallpaper. Though my sister and I longed to tell our friends where we really lived, we were also content to stay. We wanted to be somewhere familiar, and after all, it was the only home we’d ever known.
Why are you looking at houses? Ella asks. Are we moving?
I don’t want to move.
Veronica O’Keane’s wondrous memoir/neuroscientific manual, A Sense of Self: Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are, documents experiments beginning in the 1970s and ending in the early 2000s that led to the discovery of place cells, dendritically linked neurons that synaptically fire together in correspondence with a particular place. Startlingly, however, place cells do not reside in the visual cortex, which is responsible for processing how we visually experience a place; nor do they reside in the motor cortex, which coordinates navigation of a place with our bodies in real time.
Instead, place-cell networks wire and fire together in the hippocampus—as O’Keane calls it, the brain’s “memory factory”—which does its mysterious, complex work of memory consolidation during REM sleep. The process works similarly for rats navigating simple grids as for London’s cab drivers. In the mind, place exists exclusively as memory. She hypothesized about the genesis of this unexpected discovery, which won the scientists involved a 2014 Nobel Prize:
Places, places, places . . . Why is place so important in memory? Perhaps place memory is an evolutionary legacy from times when remembering a location—for example where food could be foraged successfully or where danger lurked—was critical to survival.
Who lives in that cave, in other words. There is evolutionary logic to this game. After finishing O’Keane’s book, I called my father.
You know how we get really nostalgic about places we used to live?
How we look up houses in our old neighborhoods?
Well, it’s not just a form of . . . of pathological melancholy. It’s an adaptation for surviving ancient environmental threats.
If we were still living in the environment of our evolutionary ancestors, maybe we would have been the ones whose job it was to remember important things as we migrated. The keepers of stories and the places they happened. You know?
When Ella was in first grade, we were driving home from a doctor’s appointment down the long residential boulevard linking Meyerland and Bellaire, the neighborhood just north. It was September, early evening. Suddenly a very hard rain began, with strong, thundering winds. Though I was driving cautiously, peering through the rain and the rapid movement of my windshield wipers, I had little time to react when I saw a tall cottonwood tree at the sidewalk tipping over. I swerved as much as possible before it landed on us, shattering the windshield, crushing the roof and the hood.
We were fine. Somehow. The people who lived in the house next to the tree rushed out, thanking Krishna for our lives.
Ella’s in fourth grade now. Still, when she and I drive along that boulevard, our place-cell networks often fire strongly, leading one of us to say, There’s where the tree fell on us.
There. That place. The place where it happened.
My father, Ella, and I are obviously not the only humans harboring genes that incline one toward storytelling, interiority, and a powerful sense of place. A 2018 Apartment Therapy article advised readers on the etiquette of visiting a dwelling that used to be yours:
[W]anting to return to your childhood stomping grounds is actually a pretty common desire—especially if Zillow is lacking updated pictures. Though you might feel a pang of conflict that you’re intruding on the current homeowner’s personal space, many etiquette experts actually say go for it. Remember: a fair number of homeowners have childhood homes they’d like to return to, too! You just have to be okay with the chance that they’ll say no.
I’ve never been brave enough to do as the author advises, but last summer Ella and I were on the receiving end of such a request. A woman about my mother’s age rang the doorbell and informed us that her grandmother had been the original owner of our house. She wanted to look around, if we didn’t mind.
OK, I said. First tell me: What color were the tiles in the original bathrooms?
Yellow and aqua, she promptly replied. Yellow in the hall, aqua in the main bedroom.
We invited her in. She exclaimed, her eyes welling up, over and over. She described the home’s original layout prior to a 1990s renovation and our post-Harvey remodel. Her grandmother hosted gin rummy parties in what is currently our dining room/playroom/music room. The pebbled patio was original to the house, she said. Her grandmother had cultivated the crepe myrtles and red tip photinia.
Is the laundry still in the garage? she asked.
Yes, I said. I’d like to maybe enclose this part of the patio between the garage and kitchen, make a laundry and mudroom, a place for my husband to do messy art projects.
That’d be nice.
I don’t know, though. With the flooding and everything, I don’t know if it would be a good investment.
Bloom where you’re planted, she said.
If you’re a psychologist who works with children, a dollhouse and its attendant miniatures compose the centerpiece of your playroom.
During my internship at a public hospital in the Boston area, when I lived in a 250-square-foot studio apartment, one of my child patients, age ten, had recently been removed from her parents’ home and placed in foster care. At her intake appointment, in an office that several other trainees and I took turns sharing, she went directly to the tall dollhouse. It was neither new and clean nor old and charming, but constructed of scruffy white plastic, containing a mishmash of furniture and accessories in different sizes, of different eras, thrown in hastily by the last person to have tidied up. She painstakingly arranged it all—creating order from chaos, down to the bedspreads and kitchen utensils—in silence.
At her second appointment, she did the same thing.
I finally said, at the end of her third session, I wonder who lives in this house.
She looked at me but didn’t answer, and by her fourth session I had been kicked out of the office to make way for another psychiatry resident. My patient—I’ll call her Felicia—and I were relegated to an adult room where we colored or played cards for several weeks until the department finally agreed to purchase more toys. I managed to fit into the budget a small wooden dollhouse that came with matching furniture. Not much. Just the basics.
I showed it to Felicia proudly. Would you like to play with this house? I asked.
She touched it with one finger, looked into its tidy, uncluttered rooms for a long time before saying, very quietly, No.
Ella (who now prefers black sweatshirts to purple taffeta) has not yet outgrown Who Lives in That House. We have played innumerable variations of the game centered around Beverly Cleary books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Nancy Drew (both the books and the TV reboot on the CW), Harry Potter. Recently, she strapped herself in after a music lesson and announced, as we started home, Who Lives in That House: The Stranger Things edition.
She’s already seen the whole series twice and is rewatching for a third time now that my husband and I have embarked on our first viewing. We’re more taken aback by the show’s darkness than she. We watch after dinner, all of us on the couch, sometimes two or three episodes in one sitting, and the show has given both my husband and me nightmares.
What haunts him are the tragic ruptures dividing Jim Hopper from his daughters, whereas I am haunted by the very concept of the Upside Down. By the fact that I’ve described my own childhood home as an upside-down house. My dream self, showering in my dream first home, in a filthy tub that won’t drain, relates to the Will Byers of season one, who finds himself inexplicably trapped in a lonely, cold, and terrifying version of his own backyard. His mother’s love was inadequate to protect him from landing there, nearly inadequate to rescue him from it.
What lives in the Upside Down is everything our parents couldn’t protect us from, and everything we can’t protect our children from. It is always there, even when the gate is closed. When the gate is open, the refrain from the Clash’s most recognized song, which serves as Will’s touchstone when he’s stuck in the Upside Down as well as season one’s brilliant anthem, gains even more resonance.
Upside down. Should I stay or should I go. It gets all mixed up when I compare the Texas I left as a young adult with the Texas I returned to, almost a mother. In the years between, the gate opened.
I told Ella, after the leak of Alito’s draft opinion, that we might have to leave.
We were driving to school. Eleven and Hopper lived in that house. Erica and Lucas lived in that house. Barb lived in that house. Murray lived in that house.
It wouldn’t be until you finish fifth grade, I said. I know it makes you sad to think about, but I don’t want you to hear us talking about it without telling you first.
The back seat was quiet. Because she already knew. She had already heard us talking about it. She had seen me looking at pictures of houses in other places practically since she was born.
Finally she said, I don’t want to leave my friends. Our house.
Your father and I have lived in a lot of different places. It can be kind of fun.
Maybe we could live in a house with a second floor.
Could we live in a place where it snows?
My child patients always ask, upon starting therapy, if I live in my office. I have a kitchenette, comfy furniture, unlike doctors they’re accustomed to. Ever since the statewide power grid failure of 2021, I have answered, Not usually. But remember that big freeze when almost everyone lost power? My family, even the dog, lived here for one night—ate dinner here, slept here, brushed our teeth here—because we had nowhere else warm to go. Then I ask where they slept those nights. Sometimes that’s how we begin a conversation about safety and fear.
One of Grandpa Leonard’s paintings hangs in my consultation room, directly to my right, across from the couch where patients sit and above the cabinet that holds the toys. It’s large—nearly four feet tall—depicting a view of our upside-down house as seen through an imaginary window at sunset. He not only presented the impressionistic painting to my parents as a gift when we moved into the grander second home, but also instructed my mother to hang it in the dining room.
But why would I want a painting of our old house in the dining room of the new house? she asked, too aggravated to feign gratitude.
What do you mean, why? Don’t you want to remember it?
I don’t need to see it in a painting to remember it.
He shook his head. She threw up her hands. The painting hung where he wanted it to. My father took it after the divorce. It lived in storage until I brought it to Meyerland.
Finally, the painting has found its place. It helps in my work to keep my childhood close, to feel my oldest home flaring inside me.
There’s a projective psychological task called House-Tree-Person. It can be administered a few different ways, but when I give it, I ask the patient to use only a pencil to draw one of each, on separate pieces of paper. Sometimes I ask questions after they’re done, but usually the drawings speak for themselves, illustrating personality features along a range of continua—restrictive vs. expansive, open vs. guarded, conventional vs. idiosyncratic, oriented to detail vs. oriented to the whole.
A house, a tree, and a person. Each assumes a narrative structure. Each is a displaced representation of self. Together they offer three rudimentary dots to connect as a patient begins the often painful task of expressing what they fear and what they long for, who they are and who they hope to become.
That’s the best explanation I’ve come up with for why my sleep-deprived mind—coping with the anxiety of separating from my baby, entrusting her care for the first time to non-family members, trusting her ability to form attachments—invented Who Lives in That House.
This is how we connect the dots, I was trying to say. This is where we live, and this is what lives in our minds.
First you live in a house, and then it lives in you.
First you live in a story, and then the story lives in you.
You’re always connecting dots, crisscrossing your city like a web of bayous, crisscrossing time. Migrating, as humans have always done. Weaving your place cells together in more and more intricate networks, reminding yourself and the people you love what happened, and where.
About the Author
Emily Winakur is a San Antonio–born psychologist and writer living in Houston. Her poetry most recently appeared in the Texas Observer, addressing the May 2022 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. She is currently at work completing her first young adult novel.