In Living Commentary

Strangers from the same house.

Touring your childhood home unlatches many memories

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As a lifelong Milwaukeean, I have the luxury of driving by the many places I lived as a kid. And although I resided in a half dozen or more flats and apartments on the East Side, I consider a bungalow in Shorewood to be my "childhood home." I lived there longer than anywhere, from the age of 11 to 18, and I have many, many memories – both positive and painful – of the time I spent there.

In the past, I often considered stopping and knocking on the door, simply out of curiosity. Was the rainbow wallpaper still in my room? Was the glass, herb-themed cutting board still embedded in the kitchen counter? But with my parents long divorced and my father deceased, I never pulled the car over. I wasn't sure I wanted to mingle with all those ghosts and memories.

But then one day after an unexpected conversation with a woman who came to Milwaukee to visit the home she grew up in, I decided I wanted to do it. So last weekend, with my friend and co-worker Carolynn along for moral support, I did.

My childhood house is a small, white bungalow on Morris Boulevard. My parents bought it in the early '80s for $63,000 and through research I learned it's currently worth just over $300,000.

I first noticed the driveway. It was poured in the mid-80s, and I remember it being bright white. Although it's still in good-enough shape, it's certainly not the flawless stretch of ice-rink-like concrete I remembered. I also noticed the addition of raised-bed gardens in the front yard, similar to the raised beds I have in the front of my current home.

Walking up to the house, I felt nervous, but not afraid. It was just another journey outside my comfort zone. And I had Carolynn with me.

We went to the door and rang the bell and a man in his 50s answered, seemingly gentle and friendly. I told him who I was, what we were doing and he smiled. He said the owner, who was his girlfriend, was not home, but she would be back within a half hour or so and encouraged us to return.

He then mentioned that he hoped I wouldn't be disappointed by the disarray of the place. "We have a 16-year-old, incontinent dog and it's 'carpet city' around here," he said.

We assured him that wasn't a problem, but walking away I thought of my father, the epitome of a "neat freak" who vacuumed leaves off the front lawn and waited for me to finish my food so he could wash the plate, and what he would think about that. (Turns out it was fine. Not a single pile or pee stain in sight.)

So we ate at Benji's and when we returned, the owner was home and she graciously let us inside. She seemed a little skeptical at first, but a lot less than some might be about letting strangers into her home. I would have totally understood if she didn't want us to come inside or wanted us to come back at another time when she was prepared, but instead she walked us through the entire home and basement.

My first thought was that the house seemed so much smaller than I remembered. Most likely because I was smaller when I lived in there.

I soaked up the architectural details: the built-ins, the leaded glass, the cove ceilings. These were adornments that as a kid I didn't appreciate. My house was just my house. But as a grown up and a homeowner, I was impressed.

The kitchen underwent a major remodel, from orange-and-yellow-and-brown, floral wallpaper to more-contemporary white tile. "Someone who lived here really liked wallpaper," the new owner said. "That would be my mother," I said.

I showed them where the avocado green phone with the long, curly cord had hung on the wall and told them how excited I was when my parents bought our first microwave and moved it into the pantry. I remembered where my dog Emma's food and water dishes were located and told them a little about the sweetest dog I've ever cared for.

We went into the basement and I told them about rollerskating in the basement with my sister while listening to '80s records by the likes of Devo and Blondie and pointing out exactly where my father's tools had been stored. (He wasn't the handiest of men, so when I told my sister this part she said, "You mean all three of dad's tools?")

Exploring the second floor was probably the strangest because it's where my bedroom was located and where I had spent the most time. The new owners had remodeled the communal space from a dark-paneled playroom to a lighter, more open space with three skylights.

My old room also looked smaller to me than I remembered, but what struck me the most was the view from the two windows overlooking the street below. It wasn't an incredible view – just a vision of more Shorewood bungalows like the one I was standing in – but it was such a familiar sight.

I remembered sending flashlight messages to my friend who lived across the street and later blowing cigarette smoke out those windows. I remembered old boyfriends and a massive cassette storage case and canopy bed with the white plastic poles and the cute but uncomfortable "ice cream parlor chair" I had for a decade at my desk.

The current owner and I realized her daughter lived in the room at almost the exact same age span I had. I wondered what her name was and where she was now, but didn't ask.

After we went back downstairs, I thanked her for the visit and I asked her to take a photo with me. She had asked me not to take any photos or video indoors, so when she obliged, I was happy and a bit surprised.

I was also a bit surprised I only cried once during the tour. (Talking about that sweet, damn dog, of course. Gets me every time.)

Later that day, I posted about this experience on Facebook, and received so many wonderful responses. Dozens of people said they, too, stopped by their childhood homes unannounced or had former tenants show up on their doorsteps. I was also reminded that it's not always a warm-fuzzy experience. For some who responded, returning to their family home unearthed painful memories from the past and emotional baggage they were not ready to bear. But for others, especially nostalgic saps like myself, it's a chance to revel in memories, confirm history and trip-out on what it feels like to be a grown up roaming the halls of your childhood.

Here are some of my favorite responses posted about childhood homes:

"I remember when I was a kid, three grown siblings showed up at our door who had grown up in our house and they too did a walk-through. Since then, I've stealthily sneaked up that same driveway to see if my handprint is still in the cement driveway. Last I checked, it was." Shea Schachameyer

"My sisters and mother did that at our old house in Shorewood. The current owners were so welcoming. My mom wanted to do it before she died. She died of cancer two months later." Sarah Acker

"I slow-rolled past my childhood home this summer and was 'busted' by the new owner who was walking to the lake with his little guy, fishing poles in hand. He enthusiastically invited me in, though I deferred at the time. Met his wife and young daughter when they came down the hill to see what was going on. They were all so warm and friendly and very interested in hearing my memories of growing up in their house. When we got done chatting, they left an open invitation to return for an inside tour anytime. I'll definitely go back, and think my brothers would enjoy it, too." – Jenni Buehler

"A woman who lived in our house 42 years and bought it from the original owners came through one 4th of July. She told us so many stories. Then we had her over for dinner another time and not only did she bring all of the skeleton keys (which she had held on to since the '80s), but also a cutting of a Christmas cactus that was left by the original owner when her parents bought the house in the '40s." Julie Krawczyk

"Yeah, I made the huge mistake of doing that once. I went to the house I lived in from second until fourth or fifth grade. It brought back so many horrific and traumatic memories, I started getting a panic attack and had to do a very quick and extremely awkward. 'OK, well thanks. I gotta go now.' Never went back." – Marilynn Mee

"A guy showed up to my home in Cedarburg one day and told me his parents built the house. He asked if he could check it out since it has been so many years. He was crushed because of all the gutting and remodeling I did. It just wasn't 'his home' any more." Jon Stangel

"Some people came to my house and said they lived here in the '60s. There is a sort of strange molding on my living room ceiling that runs all the way around with very intricate flowers and fruits. They explained that they built a sort of scaffolding and laid up there under the ceiling for weeks, painting it by hand, just for the hell of it. They were so happy to see that it was still there and it still looks great." Eric Griswold

"I did that once when I went to Lincoln (Nebraska) for a visit. The strange thing was that as an adult the house seemed so much smaller than I remember living there as a kid." Jill Engel-Miller

"I did that about 15 years ago. We were driving through Iowa City and I wanted to see my childhood neighborhood. As we drove past my old house, there were some folks on the porch, so we stopped and talk to them. They had just bought the home a few weeks earlier and were taking a break from painting. What's odd is I was the second person to stop by that had previously lived in that house." – Julie Ragland

"A couple years ago, my twin and I were pointing out to our sons the house we lived in during the '60s and '70s up in Horicon. The current owner saw us out front, and when we chatted, she invited us in for a tour. The family room was still decorated with the awful '70s wallpaper my parents had chosen." Becky Wheeler

"I have thought about that many times, but was always afraid that the people who live in my house are ax murderers and would kill me. That is the only thing that has stopped me." Joan Boudro

"Two years ago some of my sisters, my mom and myself were driving past our childhood home in Delavan and saw the people there moving out. We went and asked if we could walk through and they said sure. It was a little depressing to see the state it was in – they said it was in foreclosure – but the cool thing was that our built-in chalkboard in the kitchen was still there." Teresa Kocs

"When I met with my brother and sister camping two weeks ago, we drove past our childhood home. Some people were just moving in and hadn't put anything inside yet. I got up my courage and asked if we could walk through before they started. So emotional. We checked under the basement stairs and our childhood drawings were still there. So grateful to them for letting us walk through." Anna Spankowski

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