Salena Zito / Dec. 1, 2020

Coming Home

My parents always taught me to leave a place better than you found it. They weren't really talking about a house, but the sentiment applies.

MT. LEBANON, Pa. — It was never supposed to be my forever home.

Last week, I took one last look at what has been home for most of my adult life and decided to say thank you instead of goodbye.

Thirty-one years ago, I crossed the threshold of 260 with a 6-day-old infant and a boisterous 3-year-old.

Home is never really a place as much as it is a kaleidoscope of experiences that range from soaring highs to heartbreaking lows, with plenty of ordinary in between. If you embrace those moments, they never go away, despite leaving the structure where you hung your hat every night.

My practical engineer father winced the first time he and my mother came to see the house, because I had dared to find a place to live outside the neighborhood in which they and my sisters lived. And because the house was old, with creaky windows, crooked floors and ancient plaster that dimpled the wallpaper the previous owner desperately used to cover flaws.

My father saw work; I saw potential. He saw endless trips with his toolbox; I saw a home ready to be loved. It took 31 years and a lot of elbow grease. The wall-to-wall carpeting was torn out, the floors sanded, the wallpaper ripped down and every room painted a vibrant color to bring out the character.

It was here my daughter, Shannon, hit her first baseball over the roof, kicked the soccer ball endlessly off the back of the foundation and fell asleep sitting straight up in her walk-in closet while listening to a yoga CD.

It’s where my son, Glenn, wore holes into two fence slats while practicing baseball pitches. He also overshot the basketball hoop, landing the ball on the bakery roof next door. And he used to open his bedroom window and crawl onto the sunroom roof to read a book.

All in all, a score of windows fell to the children playing a sport of some kind. My favorite moment was the roller hockey game in the driveway that led to a hockey puck sailing through the stained-glass front-door window and landing at my feet in the living room.

It was the home both children’s friends — sometimes their entire sports teams — came to to “carb up” with great big bowls of homemade pasta and sauce the night before the big game. It was here all the children’s friends came after a big win or loss to celebrate or commiserate the moment.

I always thought it was funny that, despite all the homes in Mt. Lebanon, the children came to ours. There was no game room, fancy television or sofa in our basement. It was literally a basement with a couple of used couches pushed together.

Things were tight in our home. We may have lived in one of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest suburbs, but we didn’t have much. Clothes shopping for them was not Abercrombie & Fitch at the mall; it was Goodwill. When they had soccer, baseball or football camps or tournaments, my father kept a ledger of the times I had to borrow money and pay him back so they could attend.

There were plenty of times I silently cried on the landing between the first and second floors after the children were asleep, wondering how we were going to get by on the little amount left in the checkbook.

The children never complained about their clothes. They never complained when we couldn’t eat out with the other families after every soccer or football game. And they kind of enjoyed looking for spare quarters to fill up the gas tank.

They never complained, because we had this place called home. It was a place where, for 31 years, we hosted the Feast of the Seven Fishes for the entire extended family. It meant an early-morning trip to the Strip District to get our fish from Wholey’s, our Italian delicacies from Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. and our great big cups of coffee from La Prima Espresso Co. to keep us going.

Constructed in 1929, 260 is a Dutch colonial. The first owners were the Sumters, who lived a soap opera life filled with infidelities, intrigue and a questionable suicide. It set the tone for scores of owners who never lasted longer than a few years.

The Bradfutes were some of the more extended owners. He was the local justice of the peace and served as an air-raid siren captain during World War II. In 2018, when I redid the attic, I found a portfolio of his daughter Carol’s charcoal drawings — hundreds of them — which she had done as a student at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), revealing a very rare view of the 1930s Pittsburgh landscape and fashion.

When I left, I knew the only appropriate thing to do was leave the drawings with the new owners. They belonged there in all their historic beauty. They were part of the house, not part of my home.

My father was right: 260 was a lot of work.

I was right, too. She lived up to her potential. So much love passed that threshold. So many dreams realized. So many struggles, heartbreaks and failures as well.

She gave shelter to the three of us for a very long time. She was a gracious host for proms, graduations, birthdays, and family gatherings with uncles and aunts who have long passed. She also served as the place for the annual Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newsroom Christmas party and even several Burns suppers.

My son-in-law, Michael, picked Shannon up for their first date there. And Glenn hugged me goodbye there when he left for Colorado to make his way in the world. The note he left me in the attic came to the new home, as did the memory.

My parents always taught me to leave a place better than you found it. They weren’t really talking about a house, but the sentiment applies.

They always taught me to be grateful and to show grace, no matter the situation. As I pulled away from 260 last week, I thanked her for letting us love her and for loving us back, and told her to take good care of her new owners.

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