A Letter to a House

lost creek 2

Photo by Caleb Savage. To view more of Caleb’s work, including a series titled “Hard Coal,” visit www.calebsavagephoto.com.

by Patrick O’Neill

My family lived in a lovely old house in Shenandoah many years ago. My mother inherited it from her parents. It was no mansion, but it was a large house, a three-story Greystone with five bedrooms, and a den which still smelled faintly of my grandfather’s pipe tobacco years after his passing, as if it were part of the room’s personality.

There were stained glass inserts over the windows, which always reminded me of being in a church. I also spent a lot of my childhood in Shamokin, where my father owned his family home that he inherited from his mother. When my mother married my father, she signed the house in Shenandoah over to her sister, who had married and wanted to stay in the family home there.

I really felt as if I grew up in both houses and loved both of them dearly. When my mother’s sister died, my uncle (her husband) wanted to move out of the Shenandoah house. There wasn’t enough money anymore to keep both houses, so we decided to sell my mother’s family home.

As a teenager, it really did break my heart to think about losing that house, but I realized there was really nothing I as a 17-year-old could do about it. I was ready to go off to college and as much as I loved the house, I wasn’t willing to skip college and get a job right after high school to keep the house, which I probably would not have been able to maintain anyway.

The night before we moved, I sat down in my grandfather’s den and wrote a “letter” to the house. I wrote about how much I loved it and about how much I would miss it. I also described for future owners what the house looked like when I was growing up in it.

The foyer was black walnut ¾ of the way up with a “church-style” lantern hanging from the ceiling. Strangely, my favorite room was the main bathroom upstairs. It was all pale green and silver, almost creating an underwater effect. The wallpaper had silver swans floating on a pale green background with water lilies. The lights on either side of the mirror were frosted glass with the images of swans and the handle of the sink and tub were miniature swan figurines. The tub was one of those big old monsters on claw feet, gilded in copper.

I wrote in the letter that if it were possible for a house to be haunted in a good sense, then it was – the memories of kind gracious people, wonderful parties, and good friends and neighbors always dropping in. Life, love, and laughter always filled that home.

At the end of my letter to the house, I wrote, “There will be other people who will live in you and hopefully care for you and be good to you, but there will never be anyone who ever lives in you who will love you and cherish you the way we did. I hope whoever lives here finds the joy and happiness that we did as a family.”

When I finished the letter, I sealed it and stuck it inside the woodwork in the second floor hallway. For me, it was my last “gift” to the house. I just wanted to say goodbye to it – pure and simple.

The house went through several owners after we left. The neighborhood changed. Old friends and neighbors died off or moved away.

I never forgot the house, but life does go on, especially at 17. There was college and graduate school, marriage and children. (I did get to keep my father’s family home, so that was a great consolation.)

Many more years later (like 35!) a former neighbor of ours called me and said: “I have a weird question for you! Did you ever stash a letter somewhere in your old family house?”

“Yes,” I said, “but it was buried in the woodwork. How did you come to know about it?”

As it turned out, the couple who owned our house at the time were debating about whether to spend a large amount of money to restore the house and bring it back to most of its former “glory,” or simply to give up on it.

They decided to compromise and do just enough renovation so that if they sold it, they could get a fair price. One of the things they decided was to replace the woodwork in the second floor back hallway, which was rotted. In ripping out the woodwork, they found my letter.

The lady who owned the house said that at first it rather spooked her, as if she were hearing a voice from the past (which in fact she was – it was 30-plus years after I wrote the letter).

She said that after reading it several times, it gave her a very good feeling to know that someone had written such a detailed description of it and its history.

She told our former neighbor that she and her husband had discussed it and came to the decision that a house that had inspired that kind of love and devotion was worth the investment. Instead of just putting enough money into it to sell it, they took out a considerable loan to stay in it and restore it. She said they would even try to follow my description of the rooms in the restoration, to make it look the way it did in its prime.

I’ve often thought how ironic it was that my “love letter” to that house was accidentally discovered and became its salvation decades later. I’ve always been grateful that this was the “gift” I could give the house – a second chance at being the lovely home it once was.

Oh, and from what I’ve heard, they even framed the letter and have it hanging above where they found it!

2 comments

  1. Anna Mary McHugh · ·

    This reminds me of our family homestead in Hazleton, a house full of cubby holes where we could hide when playing hide’n’seek. At one point there were nine children living there. To this day, the cousins rule, although not in the family homestead,

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  2. Patrick O'Neill · ·

    The house in the picture above is actually the original rectory of what had been St. Mary Magdalen parish in Lost Creek,, but it IS very close to Shenandoah where my family home was on Cherry st. That’s all I’ll say since I don’t want to violate the privacy of the people who now own the home and may not want it’s location made public. My gratitude to all who appreciated this story of my family home. Thank You , Patrick O’Neill

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