n the film Amelie, the titular character finds a box of trinkets a previous owner left behind a wall tile. She makes it her mission to find who it belonged to and return the box to them. Though I never found physical evidence like this I sometimes feel the memories of previous tenants. The wallpaper stacked up behind paint and the scratches in the floor, the untouchable fascinations I couldn’t return to their owners.
In Kingston, New York, where I spent the first nine years of my life, I saw a shadow standing outside my bedroom door in the middle of the night. Supposedly, an old couple lived there before my parents moved in. I tried to tell my parents but they thought I was just having bad dreams. I wanted to know who the shadow was and why they were there. My mom finally believed me when she felt a presence as she was packing to move out after the divorce. She never went back in the house for the rest of her things.
My father moved into a cabin. It was the first time I learned that natural light made everything look beautiful and how much I loved fireplaces. The flickering light, falling asleep in front of them, waking up to see the remainder in the ashes, and the smell of wood and smoke that stuck to my clothes days after. I never thought about who was there before he lived in the cabin. It was a place where only I existed without past or future. It was the only time I felt like a child. The past held what was unchangeable while the future held the anxious unknown. But I didn’t think about that in the cabin. I bundled up in my bed in front of the fire on Christmas night and played on my new clear purple Gameboy until I fell asleep. I woke in the morning and watched the coals in the ashes.
In my mother’s boyfriend’s house, I didn’t know myself. When her boyfriend was angry, he slammed doors so hard the picture frames on my bedroom wall would fall. But this was the home I remember the most. The stairwell paneling and the unused pet door in the kitchen, the imagination I had when I went far into the woods and pretended I was all on my own. In the snow, I’d listen to the silence in the forest and think about being lost.
My mom and I eventually moved out into her own house. I didn’t forget her ex-boyfriend’s house which was just down the road from ours. I drove past it often and could see his truck through the trees. I wondered what he did with my old bedroom or if he had kept up with the garden my mom had helped him plant.
He eventually died and the house sat empty for only a little while. Someone moved in and possibly felt the emotions of my past life. They will wonder who lived in the house before. They will sit on the vines in the woods and look up at the trees in the snow, everything a little taller than when I last saw them.
The houses I spent fractions of my childhood in will be made new. Strangers will move in and never know who lived there before. We move on and live in new places and new spaces, not knowing about all the love that was there before we stepped inside. We might reflect on the randomness and chaos of this world when we’re alone in these houses, as strangers to others, in the middle of the night.