Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Stories untold and burned-down houses

by John Halverson

November 08, 2012

When I see abandoned houses, I always wonder about the last moment they were occupied.

What was the last thing that was said?

And did the last occupants take memories with them or did the memories of a place they once called home die when the door shut behind them?

Some places have no stories to tell. Others hold volumes.

We once took a cross country family trip when the kids were young. When we got tired of trying to spot license plates from every state, we started talking about where we might want to live someday. When we passed a falling-down house, my son yelled: "We could fix up that place."

We all laughed, and from then on every time we passed a similar scene, someone would say: "We could fix up that place."

And we'd all laugh like we did the first time.

That place, in some state no one remembers, with a history none of us could possibly know, lives on.

It was family lore, a story we carried with us that no one else did.

There was also a house in our neighorhood so nondescript we barely noticed — until it burned to the ground.

Then, in the throes of death, it created a history for itself. For years, the kids called it the burned-down house even after a new one replaced it. So like the falling-down house of our vacation, the burned-down house became part of our history, a history only we can own.

I thought about houses that outlived themselves when I passed an empty lot the other day. When I first moved to town, there'd been a house there. I drove past it every day.

It was on its last legs. The paint was peeling and it had lost its complexion. And it was starting to tilt. Each week it seemed to tilt a little more.

It was falling down one shingle, one board, one window at a time.

The little house that couldn't.

Then, one day, it was gone.

All that was left were boards and windows strewn like a mess of cards after a hand has been played.

I hadn't thought of that house in a long time. But the other day I was talking about story ideas. I acted all sage and said: "They're everywhere."

"Like where?" someone asked.

And the little house that I hadn't thought of in years, floated from my memory.

So the other night I decided to visit the empty lot in search of some remnants of the house that couldn't.

I figured there must be something left — some scar that hadn't healed. I found a stack of broken concrete and beyond that, a partially hidden cellar.

There were fields, reflecting the blush of fall, and the Lake Geneva water tower was in the distance.

I was facing east and imagined someone standing in that backyard, watching the sun rise, sipping from a cup of morning coffee.

A few days later, I returned to shoot the photo that accompanies this story.

I crawled on a pile of rubble to get a better angle. As I stepped back down, I stumbled.

My camera flew and I cut my hand breaking the fall.

Some places, even places that once were and are no longer, have ghosts that no one else can see, and stories no one else can tell.

And I had just added another one.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Lake Geneva Regional News.