I asked my mom once if she believed in ghosts. She never seemed afraid of much of anything, and so I figured if she wasn’t afraid of them, it probably wasn’t worth bothering working myself up over them, either.

“I don’t know about ghosts,” she replied. “But I do wish my mother could come visit every once in a while.” I never met the grandmother who died when my mother was only twelve years old. “I bet she’d put away these clean dishes and make the beds really nicely.”

Ever since then, I’ve thought about a friendly grandmother-ghost, tucking in the sheets just so, and leaving the house tidier than how she found it. I wish I had known her.

I wouldn’t say that I think much about ghosts or haunted houses, but in the last few houses where my family has lived, I’ve felt haunted by the stories of the people who lived there before us. I spent my entire childhood in a house that was built just a year before I was born, and so there was no mystery about past owners’ paint choices, or who picked the tile in the bathroom. It was only ever “ours.” The same hasn’t been true in my adult life.

We moved our family into a colonial-style house in the suburbs of Minneapolis several years ago, in an effort to get ourselves a larger yard and a smaller mortgage in the same transaction. My husband and I fell in love with the comfortable home, probably because it was built in the same decade that both of our childhood homes were built. Through our realtor and the neighbors, we found out that the woman who used to live in the house died of cancer, and her estate was selling the home. We met her daughter, a young adult now, who was happy that the house would be full of a young family’s energy again. There were hints of her illness before the family moved her belongings out of the house — a model form for her wigs, which she must have worn after chemotherapy treatments.

I loved that house, and I know she loved it, too. I don’t know if she died in the house or somewhere else, but one day shortly after we moved in, I found myself talking to her. “I know you loved your family here, and I’m going to love my family here, too, OK?” I probably sounded completely nuts, but I needed to talk out loud to the presence that seemed to hang in the air. If she were a ghost, she seemed like the same sort of ghost my mother imagined, fluffing pillows and dusting light fixtures. After my one-way conversation with her, I stopped worrying about whether I was intruding on “her” space.

We’ve lived in other houses, where I’ve known the history of the families who lived there before us, and some of them didn’t have happy or peaceful transitions away from the house. As I bathed my babies in the old, deep bathtub, I wondered about the parents who had also cleaned up their children there. Did those children also hide in the cabinet meant for the laundry basket? When the parents’ marriage fell apart, was it with loud shouting in the kitchen, or did it quietly slip away on the back porch? In which room, precisely, did the hurting happen, and would that same hurting happen to us? I was wary of a black hole of sadness that might be lingering in the house, ready to suck us into its darkness. If I wasn’t afraid of living in a home where someone very possibly died, why was I so skittish in a house where a marriage languished?

I tried to remind myself that it’s really none of my business. It would be more practical to want to know why the dishwasher made a weird noise, and where the air filters were stored. It wasn’t my responsibility to fix anything that had been broken in this house. The house is walls and floors and doors, and it didn’t have to be The Place Where Dreams Go To Die.

Houses have become so much of our identity, and so much more than the walls and floors and bathrooms and gutters. I went to Pier One last week, and was met with the words at the entrance: “Four walls don’t make a home. You do.” No pressure! Inside, I was reminded again of the identity of “home-making” and how we’re apparently telling the world who we are when we place (Pier One’s, presumably) objects around our dwelling space. There was a sign that said: “This is modern-rustic-pseudo-minimalist-equine-evangelist me.” Or maybe it’s just a room where you spend time?

I recently watched the last season of Casualin which Laura, a young adult, is moving out of the house where she lived with her mother and uncle for several years. She said, “It’s like when they change the locks and repaint, a part of me disappears forever.”

Her friend responds: “You wish.”

Like Laura, I apparently needed to be reminded that our home’s history doesn’t define me any more than the Pier One decorations would. Our houses have seen some things. These houses have seen families in all of their ups and downs, and they have seen hurricanes and floods, snowstorms and droughts. Like Farmers’ Insurance, our houses know a thing or two, because they’ve seen a thing or two.

We are bound to have our own ups and downs and floods and droughts, not because of the house we inhabit, but because of the world we live in. This world is broken, and so are we. We are not defined by the house we live in or by the people who lived in it before us. We are defined by the One who told us to build our house on a rock, so that when the rains fall and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat on our house, it will not fall.

Editor’s note: Carrie Willard—author of the wonderful essay above (and also known as “That Lady Who Always Brings Coffee to Church and Spills It Underneath the Pew”)—will be speaking at our upcoming conference in Oklahoma City! Come one, come all, from near and far: you won’t want to miss it. October 11-13. Find out more details here!