Living in Your Childhood Home

Living in Your Childhood Home

Five Bethesda residents discuss moving back to the house where they grew up

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Reshma Memon Yaqub in the doorway of the house where she grew up and now lives. Photo by Deborah Jaffe

I walk into the kitchen with my eyelids flipped inside out. “Look, Mom!” I exclaim, as kindergartners must a hundred times each day. My mom shakes her head slowly, turns back to the stove, and tells me to wash my hands for dinner.  

Thirty years later, my own kindergartner walks into that same kitchen with his arms grotesquely twisted around his face. “Look, Mom!” he announces. “I can lick my elbow.” I turn from the stove and ask him to please use the faucet, not his tongue, to wash his hands for dinner.

The tables have indeed turned, but not very far. Half a dozen years ago, I moved with my two boys into my old childhood home in Bethesda’s Wood Acres neighborhood. My parents, who rent the home to us, have retired to Gaithersburg. It’s a fascinating experience to live, as an adult, in the same house where you lived as a child. To watch your children grow up on your old stomping grounds. To do the things in your 30s and 40s that your parents did in theirs—in the same 2,000 square feet.

Often when I walk through this house I feel like I’m retracing my own footsteps. I am, really. I’m walking in bare feet up and down the same set of stairs where I once used the handrail to balance myself. I’m opening the sliding glass door to the same backyard where I played Red Rover with the neighborhood posse. I’m gazing through the kitchen window at the same view of the church where I went to preschool to finger paint and count.

Some things have changed, of course. Now, instead of holding the stair rail, I’m balancing three loads of laundry. Now, instead of using the kids’ bathroom, I get to use the grown-up one. Now, instead of abandoning toys on the playroom floor for the magic fairy that will surely pick them up later, I am that magic fairy.

Your childhood home is a time machine that connects you to your younger self. Most of us only enter that portal when we occasionally return home to visit our parents. Amid the holidays and the hubbub and the familiar familial dysfunction, our old environs return us to our teen habits and dynamics. But it’s a different beast altogether to have domain over your old home, to be able to spend every day wrapped in that familiar, comfortable cloak, to be the presiding adult, without interference, in the same space where you first unfolded into a person.

Getting to spend every day in your old house is like living inside one of those Family Circus comic strips, with shadows of your ancestral selves lingering happily in the background.

There’s me at 3, in my pageboy haircut, wearing matching turquoise pants and shirt, straight out of a catalog for 1975. There’s me at 5, hula-hooping in the driveway, watching my big brother arbitrate a dispute among his legions of green plastic army men. There’s me walking to Wood Acres Elementary School, listening carefully to the safety patrols, with their official orange belts, who help me cross the streets until, eventually, I became one of them myself. A beautiful part of raising my own two kids here has been reliving that daily walk to school—a distance of four blocks and three decades.

* * *

I first moved into this house when I was 3. When I was born, my family lived in an apartment across the street from the National Zoo—where, my brother likes to say, they found me on one of their daily walks. When I was 6 months old, we moved to Nigeria for what would be one of three international assignments that our World Bank family took while I was growing up; when I was 6, we left Maryland for two years in Saudi Arabia and a year in Somalia. But we kept coming back home. Though we eventually moved to Potomac, my parents never sold the Bethesda house. They always told me it would be mine one day.

It was seven years ago, when I was in my mid-30s, that I brought my two little boys to live in our Bethesda home. We’d been living in Gaithersburg, across the street from both sets of their grandparents. We’d all moved to the same block when my kids were born, to create that village it takes. But eventually, the lure of Bethesda schools was too much to resist, so we took over from tenants that had occupied the Wood Acres home for the past decade.

My first night back in the new old house was an interesting exercise in time travel. I walked through my house, still full of moving boxes, touching a light switch here and a handrail there. I noticed things that I hadn’t noticed as a child, because I hadn’t needed to. I admired the sturdiness of the house; it had strong bones, and more than enough windows to fill our home with sunshine. I noticed that it was the only one in the neighborhood that had a set of double front doors, rather than just a single front door. Both doors and the shutters were painted bright red, which looked surprisingly lovely against the red brick backdrop. There was carpeting in the bedrooms, but I knew that I would eventually pull it up to reveal the beautiful—if somewhat banged up—hardwood flooring underneath.

Eventually, I settled into an overstuffed chair in what I had decided would be my home office; it used to be our dining room. This, I thought, is where I will sit and write. In the same room where I learned to read.  

Cokie Roberts in her childhood bedroom, which she now uses as a guest room. Photo by Deborah Jaffe.

Cokie Roberts, another Bethesda resident, lives not too far from me, in the home where she first resided at age 8, and then later returned to raise her own family. Everywhere she looks, Roberts sees the years rolling over each other: “When I come up the stairs, the first room I see at the top of my steps is my old room, with the canopy bed. There’s my whole childhood right there. And layered over it is my daughter’s childhood, too. And it really doesn’t look any different.”

“We all have triggers that jolt our memories, but it’s so much more when you’re actually living among them,” Roberts says. “There’ll be a smell, a sound, a sight that catches you, and it all comes flooding back. There’s the kitchen where we cooked together and giggled together. Where we put fake candles on my brother’s birthday cake and he couldn’t blow them out.

In 1959, when Roberts was 15, she was photographed in her room for Ingenue magazine.

There’s the den, where my father read to me. There’s the azaleas all in bloom, just like they were when my parents had that big party.”

Sue Rufe loves giving her three kids the same happy childhood that she and her four siblings enjoyed in the Rock Creek Highlands neighborhood of Kensington, where she was raised.

“We do a lot of the same things I did with my family,” Rufe says. “We eat dinner together in the same place. We spend a lot of time cuddling on the couch, watching movies, and it gives me flashbacks. We recently showed the kids E.T., and I remember watching that with my parents. I watch my kids run around and play, and I feel all the same feelings that I know my parents felt, watching me run around and play. I especially love watching my kids climb the tree that my mother planted.”

Along with your old house comes your old yard, the place many of us spent our childhoods planting memories. For Roberts, it’s a place where her past and present often collide: “I played in that yard when I was little. Then my kids played there. And now, not just my grandchildren, but my siblings’ grandchildren, play there together. I got married in that yard. And then my daughter got married in that yard.”

Sue Rufe with her children, Charlie, Abby (seated left) and Regan, next to the fireplace where she has often posed for family photos, including a snapshot (below) with her brother, Michael Genecki, in 1989. Rufe kept the chair (shown in both pictures) and had it reupholstered. Photo by Deborah Jaffe.

Every time I walk out my own back door, I find myself at the top of the hill that my big brother and I rolled and sledded down a thousand times. The hill where we attached makeshift parachutes to our superhero action figures, then threw them down, to survive against all odds. The hill that we raced up with all our might when we heard that our mom was finally home from the hospital with our new baby brother. (It’s one of my life’s greatest regrets that my big brother laid eyes on him first; but my 5-year-old legs were no match for his 8-year-old ones.)

A few yards away, at the end of my court, is a hidden entrance to a creek, where we played with all the neighborhood kids. There were a lot of us then, many more than there are now, because so many of these homes are still occupied by their original buyers, my parents’ peers. Back then, the community was new and brimming with young families. We roamed in a pack, the herd thickening and thinning, depending on who was allowed to cross which streets. Together, we waded through the creek, stalked the ice cream truck, and valiantly upheld neighborhood justice in our makeshift clubhouse—an empty shed behind a neighbor’s house. I remember an entire summer of trials about whether to allow Jimmy into the clubhouse, because he was the prime suspect behind our missing action figures.

My own kids, now 12 and 16, have never actually been in that creek, which has been swallowed behind overgrown trees at the end of our block. In our modern lives, dominated by organized sports and playdates arranged by text, I’m not sure they even know that a creek is a thing kids play in.

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