Across renovations and generations, a house remains home

A faded photo of three people—a mother, father, and child—standing in front of a yellow shingled house fades from left to right into a contemporary photo of a family of four seated on the steps of the same house many years later, now a different color.

Sam Mowe

I am eight years old and giddy with both fear and delight, because my dad is hurling snowballs at me. He is packing them tighter and throwing them harder than my mom likes, but I know that he’s just teaching me the joy of higher stakes. Huffing cold air I run, stiff in my snow gear along, a path through the front yard—terracotta clown faces smiling up at me, sunlight gleaming on the snow. Half-blinded, I manage to dodge Dad’s rapid-fire throws while side-arming a shot of my own. When it lands on his chest he is angry and proud, lifting his head back in squinty-eyed laughter.

“You little varmint!” he yells, winding up for the kill. I hit the ground, and the snowball sails over my head and shatters one of our living room windows. We both freeze.

“I told you to stop throwing them so hard,” Mom snaps. Dad falls silent, like he’s just now feeling the cold air. I don’t care about the window, except that it means we can’t keep playing.


The broken window is no longer part of the Monteith House, the house I grew up in. It was fixed shortly after the incident, removed entirely years later. After my parents got divorced—but before my wife and I married, had our first kid, bought the place, and moved in—Dad made major renovations to the house. 

The snowball battle was fought on different terrain than the one I now negotiate. The sloping front yard was elevated and made flat by a stone retaining wall. The winding path to the front door became concrete steps. The door itself was moved a few feet to the left. The second story was expanded with a dormer. The bathrooms and kitchen were remodeled. In the kitchen, Dad installed a polished pebble mosaic that he said reminded him of “the ol’ creek bed” from his childhood. 

“It’s a completely different house!” my mom says when she comes over. She means this in a generous way, but I resist her interpretation. For me, the Monteith House is a symbol of the continuity. I like raising our daughters in my childhood home. I imagine the house transcends time, divorce, and death. Maybe my mom needs it to be a different house, but I need it to be the same.


I am walking home from kindergarten wearing a purple paper crown with a number six in glitter. Expecting a birthday boy’s welcome, I am instead greeted by my grandma, who explains that Mom is at the hospital giving birth to my brother and sister. I feel both lucky and disappointed, because my day is no longer just mine. 

As compensation for all three of us sharing a birthday, my parents invent a tradition we called Happy Days. Each of us kids get our own special day on which receive small gifts, sit in the front seat of the car, eat whatever we want for dinner (my favorite: cookie dough and orange juice concentrate), and bask in an improvisational family performance of the gospel version of “Oh Happy Day” while everyone bangs on pots and pans. 


A few months after my parents broke up, I went to India to study Buddhist teachings on impermanence and suffering. This was the beginning of my Pilgrimage Years (from India to Nepal to New York City back to Portland), when, in the midst of school and work, I was also in search of holy places that would make me feel whole again. Some of my Pilgrimage Years were spent at real pilgrimage sites, like a college semester at the Burmese Vihar in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha reached enlightenment and where, for a few months, I contemplated how a sacred story could create a sacred place. The Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya is a descendant of the same tree that Siddhartha sat beneath on the night he woke up. After becoming enlightened, the Buddha remembered all of his past lives.

During those Pilgrimage Years, Dad and I exchanged letters. Sensing that I was sad about the broken family continuity, he tried to comfort me by writing, “I can go through the generations of cars I have driven + their familial connections just like a West African griot can recount centuries of his family history.” Becoming part of a story, he seemed to suggest, is a deeper kind of continuity—particularly so for beaters.

At the end of the semester, I traveled to Sikkim to study Buddhist termas, or Treasure teachings. According to the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, an abundance of Treasures have been hidden in the world by enlightened beings so that they can be discovered by tertons, or Treasure Revealers, at a predestined time for maximum spiritual benefit. Treasures can be found in rocks, mountains, lakes, and sky—or in the minds of highly realized tantric Buddhist masters. Anywhere that a Treasure is discovered is a sacred place. One definition of tantra is “unbroken continuity.”

The Tibetan Treasure tradition showed me how I might maintain a sense of continuity through time and space, where the past is present but not all-encompassing. Old objects can be discovered and provide new meaning right when you need it most. A tradition of continuous revelation, Treasures can create a sense of stability even amidst tremendous change. 

In Sikkim, I spoke with Yangthang Rinpoche, a revered Tibetan lama and Treasure Revealer living in Yuksom. Despite having spent twenty-two years in Chinese prisons in Tibet, he had bright eyes and a gentle smile. When I learned that he had traveled to Oregon, I asked him if enlightened beings might have hidden Treasures for me to find in my home state. He laughed and said that an important Treasure Revealer was named Orgyen, which sounds like Oregon, so there was definitely a chance. 


The Pilgrimage Years continued in Lumbini, Nepal, the Buddha’s birthplace. The location of Lumbini was lost, then rediscovered in 1896. United Nations Secretary General U Thant visited in 1967 and reportedly wept upon seeing the holy place in disrepair, which inspired an international effort to turn Lumbini into a major Buddhist pilgrimage site. Japanese architect Kenzo Tange was asked to create a “master plan” for Lumbini—in other words, to renovate a sacred place.

Tange’s master plan consisted of three zones: the Lumbini Village, the Monastic Zone, and the Sacred Garden. This design was meant to symbolize the path to enlightenment. In Lumbini, the pilgrim’s journey ends at the small brick Maya Devi Temple, which houses a stone—protected by bulletproof glass—marking the spot where the Buddha was born. After leaving home during his own Pilgrimage Years, Siddhartha promised to return once he had learned how to transcend birth and death.

The letters with Dad continued while I was at Lumbini. Questioning whether I could trust my memories of Happy Days, I asked, “Were you and mom in a bigger fight about the broken window than I realized?” He started to answer by regretting that the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Martell Webster instead of Chris Paul, moved on to lament that his car had recently been broken into, and recited some Delbert McClinton lyrics about a robbery gone awry. Then he recounted the day I was born.

I held you after in a hospital blanket while you squawled blind like a kitten, high pitched, and I kissed your forehead + blotchy cheek and I said that I will never ever let anything happen to you, and that you would be a great good man like your grandfather Sam, and that you would escort me out of this life just as I escorted you in. 

And so now the one thing I want you to know for sure is that you do not need to, you should not, reinterpret the broken window. The only concern your mom had was that I must have been throwing too hard at you. She never cared about the window. I only cared about the money and only a little. You should know better than me that the meaning of events doesn’t depend on teleology, ultimate outcomes. Your mom + I loved each other, period. All those innocent times, little Sam, were innocent. Perhaps when you are escorting me out I can tell you more, but it is the play, the moment that matters, not the end. You know that.

At the end of my time in Nepal, Dad and I had planned to meet in Calcutta and travel to Sikkim together, but he had to bail at the last minute. A CT scan had revealed a small tumor in his pancreas. He said he was looking forward to me coming home to the Monteith House, where he was living alone, so that I might fetch him his pain meds, teach him yoga, and try to repair his broken car.


During his brief time living alone at the Monteith House, Dad threw two parties. The first was a prerenovation party where he invited his friends to come over, drink wine, and take down walls with a sledgehammer. The second was a presurgery party before he went in for the Whipple procedure for pancreatic cancer, a major operation in which various organs are removed. He dubbed the party a “Pancreative Event” and invited his friends to come over, drink wine, and recite songs and poetry. He promised to sing “Oh Danny Boy” acapella if he was appropriately lubed.

Like the house renovations, the Whipple was a messy but necessary procedure. In a letter that I understood to be about both his divorce and his cancer, he wrote, “All I can say, Samuel Willson, is that I managed to reach a place where I had to choose whether to live or die, and I chose to live. I had to cut certain parts of me away, like a tumor. But it wasn’t microsurgery + I can’t say at all that I didn’t lose a whole bunch of healthy tissue mixed in with the malignancy. But I can’t think about that, I have to embrace what I have left.”


At the end of a pilgrimage, you return home. My wife and I have made our own renovations to the Monteith House. We made the basement a cozy playroom. The big windows create light and serve as an emergency escape. We had the house seismically retrofitted in case of the Big One, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that happens in the region every 300 years. We added sconces above the fireplace in the living room. My wife had the good sense to remove the “ol’ creek bed” wall in the kitchen. Is it the same house? A different house? Buddhists say that identity isn’t fixed but dependent on relationships between other changing identities.


When my daughter Ruth was born a couple years ago, it was my three-year-old Lila’s turn to be stuck at home with Grandma waiting for her new sibling to arrive. Now our family is creating origin stories and traditions of its own. Our days are filled with routines that function like rituals and keep us grounded in the present. School lunches are made in the morning (Lila’s sandwich on the left, Ruthie’s on the right), backyard chickens are herded into the coop at dusk, and at bedtime we play hide-and-seek and sing YouTube karaoke. 


At times I sense a mystical union between these two stints of Home Years at the Monteith House. Teaching Lila how to ride a bike, suddenly I’m in the same alley on my neon Huffy, a bike I haven’t remembered in over thirty years. These unearthed memories hit me like a Treasure. Arriving home again, I open the same front door (well, close enough) and see Lila running toward me from the same kitchen, across the same floor, and suddenly I am her, but this time I’m also Dad. I crouch down and throw my arms out wide ready to catch us.

While playing with Lila in the front yard on a recent snowy day, I remembered the broken window. I threw a snowball at her, and she was disinterested, even offended. Instead, she wanted to pretend the snow was ice cream and have us go on a tasting tour together. We sampled strawberry and chocolate flavors. “Follow me, Daddy!” she said, showing me new ways to play in this place. “Let’s eat it all before it melts!”

Are these her Happy Days? Will what she remembers change depending on what becomes of our family? She’s growing up so fast and is already so different than she was even a few weeks ago. For me, parenting has been a long heartbreak because I have to say goodbye to versions of my children over and over again. But it’s also like falling in love over and over again, meeting who they have become.

Lila and Ruth, the home you will ache for is a time, not a place, but in this impermanent world places hold memories, rituals, and traditions that are as close as we can get to continuity. This home is yours, but what renovations will you need to make? What treasures will you reveal?


Family, Place, Religion, Home, Faith and Spirituality


3 comments have been posted.

Sam this story is a precious terton in and of itself. Thank you.

Keelin | January 2024 | Seattle

Sam, you are wise beyond your years. Only now in my 7th decade is this continuity you speak of, being understood. It begins before birth and extends beyond death. The Pancreative Event is in my memory too. There was an entree your Dad was cooking for everyone at the party but in the excitement (and intoxication) of people arriving, no one was paying attention to the entree as the juices were boiling down and required adding more liquid and stirring. It was a welcome opportunity for me to be useful and not think about the reason for having a “pancreatic party” in the first place.

Carol | January 2024 | Yamhill, Oregon

What a sweet reflection of how we find meaning in our memories, time and special spaces. Thanks for sharing, Sam. 🫶

Céline | January 2024 | Oregon

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