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The Restoration

Wells Tower
Contributing Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; 1:00 PM

The childhood home of writer Wells Tower, a place of many unhappy memories, was falling into ruin. Could he redeem it? Should he?

Tower, whose article about the house his father let deteriorate appears in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, will be online Monday, March 14, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

Tower is a contributing writer to The Magazine.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Wells Tower: Greetings, all, and thanks for joining our conversation.


Greenbelt, Md.: Just a compliment, actually.

Too often when I begin to read a Washington Post Magazine article, I get about half way through and start to get bored. So I look ahead to see how long the rest of the piece is, and invariably decide it isn't worth the investment of my attention. Not so with The Restoration; it was too short.

Wells Tower is a name I'll continue to look for, be it in The Post or elsewhere. Thanks.

Wells Tower: Much appreciated. This was an unusual piece for me, my first effort at something resembling memoir. The challenge with this sort of personal narrative is that while it's always interesting to tell stories about oneself, it's difficult to know whether the result will be the least bit interesting to outside readers. I'm glad to know you found the piece worthwhile.


Alexandria, Va.: I enjoyed the article. It reads like the beginning of a book, in that the house's story hasn't ended yet. Have you decided what to do with the house and property? Do you have a book in the works?

Wells Tower: Thanks for writing in. I am working on a few longer fiction projects--a novel and short stories--that I hope ultimately to publish, and while it hasn't been my intention to write specifically about my childhood, or my fraught relationship with my brother and our father's house, those sorts of themes seem to crop up again and again in things I'm writing. It's sometimes said that every writer has only one story to tell, and each story or novel he or she writes is a refraction or retelling of the writer's sole core narrative. Not sure how true I think that is, though I suppose the emotions and conflicts I tried to get at in this piece are ineradicably part of the narrative DNA I'll continue to make stories from.

The fate of the house, by the way, is still uncertain, though my father is responding well to his cancer treatment, and with any luck he'll be back home in time for an exhaustive spring cleaning.


Falls Church, Va.: How is your new house? Still enjoying it?

Wells Tower: I'm enjoying it very much; thanks for asking.


Virginia: I have to wonder . . . your dad sounds like a really interesting character, but does seem to have had problems dealing with the reality of keeping up a house . . . the image of the pile of logs (complete with live bugs) in the living room was really well done.

But to get back to the wondering . . . do you think your father suffered from depression? I think I would have to be pretty depressed to let things go to the level you describe in the story.

This wasn't really addressed in the story--the "why" things got to this point.

Wells Tower: Great question. I've attempted to bring up the issue of depression with my father on many occasions over the years. As you point out, why would anyone allow his house to fall into such shocking disrepair? I was even thinking of doing some nonfiction writing about people with pathological problems with clutter. Though having discussed it pretty exhaustively with my dad, I don't think it was depression that lead him to neglect the place. It's more that he's deeply committed to his work as an academic, to a pretty eccentric degree, and as he puts it, "There isn't any point in my working on the house when I could be writing an article instead." Strange, but true.


Burke, Va.: I was wondering: What happened to your father, and what happened with the house/property?

Enjoyed the article a lot. - Rob Paxton

Wells Tower: Dad's still around, and responding well to his recent bone marrow transplant. I'm still trying to do some work on the house, though I'm very glad to be in my own digs now. With any luck, we'll be teaming up on some renovations this spring.


Washington, D.C.: Wells -- great story. I found myself identifying with being both drawn to and repelled by a former home. What became of the house? Is it still there? Was it torn down to make way for development?

Wells Tower: Thanks for joining the chat. I think most of us harbor complicated, painful feelings about the homes where we grew up, though I'd guess that the average person would be wiser than I was in trying to move home and set right the things that had long troubled me about the place. The house is still standing (the final scene of the piece took place in early January), and I'm hoping that at some point someone will see fit to attempt the massive renovations I'd been considering. Though I'm glad to be out of there, it would still pain me to see the place destroyed.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: I really enjoyed your story, and like another "chatter," hope it becomes a book-length catharsis. Do you feel that you have released at least a portion of your childhood's pain?

Wells Tower: Thanks for the encouragement. Writing the piece was certainly cathartic, though I think I've actually carried very little of the pain of my childhood into adult life. We've actually got a very loving, healthy family--my parents, siblings and step-relations, which I'm grateful for. Though delving back into those old, darker memories, it surprises me things have turned out as well as they have.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: Wells, what a wonderful piece about your house and your family. Jimmy is very pleased to have his photographs included. I am sharing the piece with a lot of friends!
Mimi Fountain

Wells Tower: (A comment from Mimi Fountain, mother of Jimmy Fountain, a childhood friend of mine whose photos appeared with the piece. )

Glad you liked the story, Mimi. Thanks for writing in.


Darnestown, Md.: Hello -- Just wanted to say, as a 45 year old with parents who still live in a house much like you describe, if not worse, I empathize greatly with the emotions you grapple with in dealing with your Dad's house and its memories. Every time I visit my parents, I cringe at the advanced decay and ongoing neglect of their house. And each time I bring it up to my Dad, I get the same response . . . "Oh yeah, I'll get around to it, don't want to rush into anything . . ." It's so extraordinarily frustrating on so many levels, but there's so little I can actually do. After all, it's their house, not mine.

So in an odd way, your article was comforting, just knowing that I'm not the only one with a childhood home that could use either a complete remodeling, or a complete demolition, depending on your frame of mind.

Maybe we can start a support group: Children of Collapsing Houses.

Wells Tower: What a wonderful comment. I, too, am glad I'm not the only one. Keep me posted on the support group. I'd join eagerly.


University Park, Md.: Thank you for an insightful and beautiful piece of writing. As I read it, it occurred to me that what your brother wanted to do with the property--level and subdivide, thereby making some serious money--was possibly a metaphor for turning a painful past to profit, while your desire to restore and improve the house represented your desire to create a happier boyhood. In any case, best wishes for your father's recovery.

Wells Tower: And thank you for your insightful remark. I think you've squarely pinpointed my brother's feelings about the house. He, in fact, had tried for a decade or so to persuade my father to improve the place in one manner or another, and became frustrated with it to the point of hysteria. He came to the conclusion that the problems there are pretty much insoluble and that a fleet of bulldozers would be the most effective therapy for his anxieties about the house. I can hardly fault him for feeling that way.


Burke, Va.: I usually don't have time to read the Sunday paper, but could not put your article down. I am curious about the comment ". . . a writer only has one story to tell." What about Hemingway, Faulkner . . .?

Wells Tower: Glad you liked the piece, and yes, the "one story" aphorism is a bit facile, point taken, though I think with even Hemingway and Faulkner one could make a case that the same themes, the same preoccupations, and the same narrative threads crop up in their work again and again. But, of course, you see a great range of ideas, stories, and characters in their work, and in the work of most enduring writers.


Elkridge, Md.: Your article was great. When you started talking about how you had talked to your father on the phone, and that you had gotten more out of your relationship than those who live to be 100 . . . it made me cry. Are you going to do a follow up to your story? It ended leaving me wanting to know more! Also, how is the relationship with your brother going?

Wells Tower: I'm so glad the story moved you. It was odd for me to write about those sorts of sentiments such the one you mentioned as baldly as I did in the piece. The story is full of emotional declarations writers generally get punished for by critics and colleagues in writing workshops, but I'm gratified that you found it successful. All's well with my brother, thanks for asking. And I'm sure I will do more writing about my family, and the house in one form or another.


Elkridge, Md.: You really delved into the feelings you had for the house in the short paragraph about the phone call with your girlfriend. Very moving and effective, in such a succinct way. Are you still with said girlfriend?

Wells Tower: Thanks for writing in. I am still with said girlfriend, who was actually sort of dismayed that she didn't get full credit for all the pitching in she did on my father's house. She was attacked by silverfish and centipedes on several occasions and kept a good attitude throughout. I owe her one.


Boston, Ma.: A very moving article. I grew up in Cohasset, so I was astonished when I came to that part in the article. I assume your Dad has his place in the cemetery as was his final request. It is a very lovely and peaceful place right on Little Harbor. I used to jog by it. Do you still have relatives there? My family or half of it still lives there.

Wells Tower: I believe we do still have a few relatives up there, though I haven't been to Cohasset in years. It's a beautiful place, though, and hope to see it again soon. My father, I'm pleased to report, is not yet in the cemetery there, and, if his health holds, will not be for many years to come.


Munich, Germany: I enjoyed the article; thanks very much.

I was left hoping that you'd finish the restoration. Perhaps this is a European mentality, where houses and dynasties were meant to last hundreds of years, and where there's no wisteria to constantly smite. An American mentality is more like, "down with the old, up with the new."

While cleaning up your childhood home, have you reencountered your adolescent self lurking through your thoughts?

Wells Tower: You make an interesting point, and I think you're absolutely right that few Americans, as members of a highly mobile, career-driven culture, have much interest in sticking around their childhood homes and handing them along through the generations. I was on Cyprus a year ago, and I was struck by the way generations of families would live together in adjacent houses and spend time with one another every day. One sees the same sort of thing across Europe, as you've said. Leaving the nest and not looking back is, I'd agree, a regrettable American convention, as are disposable houses that won't stand up for 200 years.

And, yes, I did feel elements of my former adolescent self cropping up as I was cleaning up my father's place. The narrative voice in the story is pretty petulant and angry in places, feelings I associate much more with the teenager I was than the person I am now.


Oakton, Va.: Hi Wells--loved your article. Yesterday, my husband was chopping off a very large branch from a Bradford Pear tree in our yard and the branch "ate" his chain saw. His technique was just like that of your brother. I told him that he really should have read your article first! Thanks for a great article!

Wells Tower: Ah, yes. The wedge technique is crucial. Thanks for writing in, and tell your husband to mind his fingers.


Washington, D.C.: My hats off to you for such a well written, detailed piece. Unfortunately, my childhood home was similar. I've always been too ashamed to tell anyone. It was the "family secret." I hoped to clean it up, was unsuccessful, and wound up feeling, more like your brother, an impulse to have it bulldozed.

Wells Tower: Funny how shame is part of it. I remember feeling the same thing, wondering why my house wasn't more like the tidy, well looked after homes my friends lived in. Sorry it didn't work out for you, but many thanks for sharing.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Great article, thank you so much for sharing with us!

Is "Wells Tower" really your birth name? I find the juxtaposition of "wells," bringing to mind a deep quiet hole for drawing water, with "tower," a tall fortified structure, very intriguing, and almost too good to be true. Were your parents really so poetic?

Wells Tower: Yes, it is in fact my real name. It's sometimes difficult cashing checks. The bank tellers think "Wells Tower" must be a law firm or something. And yes, the high-low juxtaposition is almost a bit much.


Warrenton, Va.: I thoroughly enjoyed your piece also and echo the "write more" sentiments of others in attendance online today. I was wondering if your father was in any way disappointed by the progress you made in cleaning things up? I have relatives who I am certain I will be charged with cleaning up and out of their properties in the future, but this prospect would definitely not be allowed while they are still living. Not necessarily in reclaiming their property due to neglect but facing the daunting chore of going through rooms, closets and monstrous piles of stuff to try to somehow determine what to keep and what to trash. Why do we all seem to cling to so much stuff? Thanks for making our Sunday reading so pleasurable.

Wells Tower: Thanks for your comments, and your encouragement. I know it's pleased my father that I've made some improvements out there, though the moment of truth will come when he returns from his therapy and sees what I've done. I wouldn't be surprised if he's not all that crazy about it. At a certain point, though, I decided I would go ahead and take the heat and clean the place up, no matter how he felt. If it had gone much longer, I think it would have been pretty close to hopeless.

Well, it looks as though we're just about out of time. Thanks to all of you for writing in and sharing your stories and remarks. It's been a great pleasure.


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