The house was a vivid reminder that the seventies were real, and that hippies once existed. Its classic red-brick, white-plaster exterior belied a ceiling lined with mirror tiles and a shag carpet that might have once been electric green. Decades of dust had darkened the furry fabric into a puke color, and the hardwood flooring of one bathroom had grown soft, like carpet. The termite inspector later took out a chunk of the ground, creating a hole that connected the house with the crawl space beneath the bathroom, so that the toilet rose like an island in the midst of a drained pond, from a pit as wide as a kiddy pool and as deep as my waist.
My parents bought the foreclosure anyway. My father said that he and my mother would fix the house themselves. I thought they’d gone insane.
For as long as I could remember, my parents had worked in sterile hospitals and high-rise offices, in Beijing and Louisville. The extent of their engagement with rural America had involved my mother giving me a copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm that she didn’t even buy—one of our family friends had known I liked to read, and had given her the novel as a gift to me. As someone born and raised in cities, I had built up an idea of the American South from pastoral novels like this one.
While Indiana wasn’t quite the South, the Midwest seemed close enough to me, and I came to anticipate our family’s move to the farm. The first time we visited the foreclosure, my parents needed only to point me towards acres of open fields and forests in the attached backyard, and I was off, picking mulberries, staining my hands and clothing in their purple juice as I circled the catfish pond, spooking frogs and chasing dragonflies.
Meanwhile, my mother remained beside the hole in the ground where the termite inspector had removed the flooring. She contemplated the challenge of a potential move. Even if my father could fix up the house with his tinkering skills, she would have to manage everything: the logistics of deciding what to keep and throw away, the finances of selling or renting our current home, the practicalities of grocery shopping when the stores were away by an hour instead of a few minutes’ drive. Though my father had lived in rural regions before college took him away from home, the move south was an even further jump for my mother, who had been a bona-fide city girl since birth. I’m still not sure exactly how my father convinced her to not only buy the foreclosure, but also repair the home.
Growing up in the city had created distance between my parents and me. They worked six days a week, and sometimes seemed mere visitors in our apartment. My father’s work had him traveling for weeks or months at a time, and my mother habitually left for the hospital before I rose from bed and returned only after I’d gone to sleep. I saw them so rarely that my first awareness of my parents approximated a child’s impression of an adoring aunt or uncle. My father was the man who bought me gifts on his trips, took me fishing, and told me stories. My mother was the woman who often brought me to the park, sometimes agreed to pay for carnival games there, and always caved when I asked her to carry me.
Despite such a vague impression of them both, my mother’s personality has always seemed more opaque to me because she is less defined by any particular characteristic and more by their absence. I remember asking once about her hobbies, and her answer, after a pause: “I liked to jump rope, when I was in primary school.”
While my father’s interest in the country house can be explained by his own childhood growing up as the son of a farmer in the south, I suspect my mother’s general ambivalence led her to agree to move from one of the largest cities in the world to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, despite having spent all her life in cities. With her lack of interests came a detachment from the place we lived. My father and my cheery optimism about Indiana won out because every location was more or less the same to her, I suppose. My parents bought the house.
The foreclosure was uninhabitable, at first. My parents got jobs and I started high school across the river, in Kentucky, where we lived in the suburbs of Louisville. Every weekend, we drove across the Ohio River to the farm in rural Indiana. As my parents worked on the house, I occasionally meddled, but spent most of my time outside. When the mulberry season ended, I lathered myself in sunscreen and mosquito repellant before staking out a spot by the pond for fishing. When autumn arrived, my friend Mumu and I found fallen walnut fruits and smashed them on the ground with all the force of our teenage angst, liberating the nuts from their fleshy prisons. The next spring, we helped my parents plant seedlings and weed the vegetable garden.
Through these shared activities, I got to know my parents as people. I learned that my father spent his childhood scavenging scrapyards, disassembling everything from radios to car horns. My mother shared that she had chosen to study medicine because she had lived in an apartment by the hospital and had seen my grandmother working as a nurse. As I handed them tools, helped with the heavy lifting, and ran the odd errand, my parents told me how my father met my mother in medical school, because despite his passion for engineering, his family already had an engineer in my eldest uncle. My grandmother signed him up for the military, where he trained to be a medic, and he was eventually called to serve in the nation’s capital. By the time I was born, a decade later, they had settled into an apartment in the city, where he worked as a bureaucrat, and she practiced as a physician, until the Southern accents faded from their voices, and the soft, rolling sounds were replaced by sharp Northern consonants and hard vowels. They moved back south because, despite how they had adapted to city life, they never became particularly attached to the north. Living in Kentucky meant they could take on less intensive jobs, spend more time with me, and, in my father’s case, return to his passion for engineering by fixing up the Indiana house.
The renovations took nearly a decade and spanned three different presidents, but neither the first black president nor the rise of Trumpism seemed to have much of an impact on our daily lives. My parents were more concerned about the building of a bridge between Kentucky and Indiana, which would shorten their weekly commute by a half hour. The bridge would give Indiana residents access to the shopping centers in Kentucky and allow Kentucky residents to buy cheaper property in Indiana. Nearly everyone in the region wanted the bridge, except for one rich neighborhood on the Kentucky side, because they were worried that being connected to the poorer Indiana regions across the river would lower their property value. Through a powerful homeowner’s association, they delayed bridge construction via “community discussions” that lasted more than thirty years. The bridge was finally completed in 2016, by which time I had already followed my mother’s example and moved north for college.
I heard about these developments on our weekly phone calls, and the occasional photo or video my parents posted when I glanced at the family group chat. After my graduation, my parents effectively entered the first stage of retirement, because my absence freed up so many hours in their daily schedule. Despite this newfound freedom, decades of city living had ingrained a perpetual restlessness into my parents, so they spent the time making home improvements. Their trips to Indiana became even more frequent with the construction of the new bridge, so they were fixing up the farm two or three times every week instead of going on weekends. At some point, the house became habitable. My parents would stay overnight instead of returning to Kentucky, until they had effectively moved to Indiana.
Since I left for college, my father has been using one of the terrible Microsoft phones that come for free with the data plan, so I learned about the fruits of their efforts in the lowest picture quality imaginable. The content of the photographs also didn’t help—my father is much more of a ‘DIYer’ than a photographer, so instead of sending pictures of the house as a whole, he would point the phone camera towards the newly installed carpets, the wooden floors he and my mother just laid down, or the sofa they bought on sale from Costco, still in its shiny cardboard box. Through these images and my mother’s verbal updates, I grew aware of the home improvements as though I were gathering pieces of a puzzle that I never realized I had to assemble. I came to know that the house had been massively renovated without ever losing my first impression of the dilapidated foreclosure. It was as if new floors, carpeting, and furniture had been superimposed on the rotting woodwork.
Then, I returned home from study abroad in China. In the year of my absence, my parents had replaced the garish 70’s interior with modern style. The bamboo flooring I had helped my father choose before my departure now filled the home with natural wood colors, and the thick matting under the warm beige carpet felt plush rather than soft beneath my feet. The smell of new paint still occasionally wafted through the house, though the next breeze from the open windows chased away this smell with the scent of freshly mown grass and dewy mornings. It was nearly miraculous what my parents had managed to accomplish through chatting with friends and neighbors, perusing home improvement guidebooks, and watching YouTube videos.
The kitchen lighting looked a tad too industrial and the range hood vent had been installed slightly crooked, but these imperfections detracted little from the overall effect of the renovations. If anything, they gave the house personality. My mother can explain how she talked Home Depot into giving her the LED’s above the countertop for free, installation and all. My father can tell the story of how he and the carpenter tried to install the range hood without finding the instructions in the box.
I can tell you about the skylight that tunnels up to our roof from the middle of the family room, which looks perfectly normal except for a perfect rectangle of light that covers the ground like a carpet during daytime. Where most houses would have a lamp for central lighting, we have a skylight, because I considered natural lighting absolutely essential for my short-lived painting career during my high school artsy phase. The tunnel to the roof remains, though, because my father obligingly created the concept sketches, bought the equipment, and sawed away a section of the house from the ceiling to the roof. He installed the skylight at the top and built a tunnel around it, so the attic did not open into the ceiling, and the ceiling now jumps almost three feet in a tunnel to the sky roof. Though the gap does look odd, the sky roof also provides brighter and more natural light than any ceiling lamp could.
Knowing these stories behind the fixtures of our home makes me reconsider the settings of our lives. Upon returning to the Kentucky house to help move the last of my things to Indiana, I found myself wondering about the contractors who built our Kentucky home: how they chose the blonde wood stain on the kitchen cabinets, why the designer matched these with a black laminate countertop. In contrast to the character of the Indiana home, every fixture in the Kentucky home appeared exactly how one imagines a house and its furniture should look. Combined with the lack of familiar furniture and sentimental objects, this cookie-cutter appearance and the absence of story made my former home seemed sterile and impersonal in comparison to the Indiana farm, with my parents’ labor etched into every line and angle.
Unlike the apartments of the cities and the houses of the suburbs, homes in rural America become portraits of the decades that passed through and the people who inhabited their halls. When developers cannot profit from buying out farmland and filling it with a standardized array of housing units, families must choose to build their lives in out of an attachment to the land or its people. The resulting homes, rising from open fields, come to reflect the spirit of an era, whether it’s the electric green shag carpet of the seventies or my parents’ current infatuation with wooden floors in all stains and grains. The house becomes a memory palace.
Jingjing is a writer who splits her time between Indiana and Bejing. She can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.