I grew up in a small house in Hammonton. My father was superintendent of schools, and made a great living, but with four kids, he never believed that a big fancy house was important. Food, clothing, education - those were the important things.
I don't ever remember thinking my house wasn't good enough. I had a front yard with a climbing tree, a backyard with a swing set and a tree that doubled as a space station. I hit tennis balls off the roof, shot hoops with my brothers and played hopscotch and Chinese jump rope in the driveway. I had my own room with my own stuff, and my brothers shared a spacious attic bedroom. Life was good. Very, very good.
Ocean City is filled with beautiful houses. But when my sons ooh and aah at a house big enough to land a plane in, I ask them if they think the house has character.
"Character? How can a house have character?" they say.
Character is the stuff inside that makes a person who he or she is, I tell them. The stuff inside oozes to the outside. It's the same with houses.
My house has character. It is a little brick house that sits perkily on a corner lot, with an ample yard and great neighbors who are like family. It's at an intersection, so people are always waving, beeping or stopping on their way into town or out. It gives us company in the summer, and quiet in the winter.
Over the years we have knocked out walls and updated appliances, but we have succeeded in maintaining its character. It's a house that breathes and sighs, that smiles when we come home. At Christmas it looks great lit up, and in the summer, proudly displays its flower beds. I can't think of a time when I will ever want to move.
There are a few other houses on the island, however, that have found their way into my heart. I love these houses not for their size, or their location to the beach, but for their character.
There's the white house with cheerful blue shutters with the tennis court in the back. I drooled my way past it this morning, and caught a vision of myself on the deck drinking a mint julep.
There's the one near the Coast Guard base, with the rolling lawn and great climbing trees. It whispers to me when I go by.
There's the decrepit one at the end of a one-way street, a block from the amusement rides. It's gated and looks very mysterious, like a house Miss Havisham would live in. It went up for sale once, and I called to find out the asking price.
Yikes. A king's ransom. I guess the price was for the house, the demolition costs, the lot that would appear after demolition, and the view of the Ferris wheel. I dread the day that house gets knocked down. If I had $4 million dollars, I would have bought it.
Then there's the house down my street that I can see from my patio. I love that house. But not for the reason you would think.
It's beautiful, yes. I once wrote an article for Shape magazine, and a photographer came to take my picture. As I posed on my lawn, this other house caught his eye, and he asked if we could take the picture there. My house was insulted, but understood - it's all about aesthetics.
I know nothing about architecture, so it's hard to describe it other than in laymen's terms. It's a big white house with a green slated roof, with unusually undulating lawns encircling it. But again, it's not the beauty of the house that makes me love it.
No one lives there. We have lived in our house for 12 years and in that time, I can't remember ever seeing anyone sit on the lawn or pull into the driveway.
And the neighborhood kids have figured that out. They play ball on that lawn, have races on that lawn, and play hide-and-seek on that lawn. In the winter, they use the rolling lawn as a mini sledding hill, and build entire nations of snowmen to greet passersby.
And every day when I come home from work, the same sight greets me at about 3:15. Since this house is at a school bus stop, all the kids in the neighborhood disembark here.
My husband lets my dog off his leash, and the neighborhood kids chase him all over the yard. He usually has a ball in his mouth, and the sight of 12 laughing children chasing a big black dog around a yard never loses its ability to amuse.
I am sad, because there are "For Sale" signs on the lawn now. Everyone in the neighborhood knew it was happening, but now it's a reality: the play spot will soon be no more. Some developer is going to tear down that beautiful house, tear up the lot and junk up our Garden neighborhood with three ugly condos. The people who will rent these ugly houses will never know what they took from our neighborhood.