A House Haunted by History

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When we were looking to buy our first house, my husband and I had a short list of deal-breakers. He didn't want to be on a bus line. I didn't want it to be haunted, a reasonable request.

A haunted house may sound absurd if you don't believe in ghosts, but what I really meant was I didn't want creepy rooms, mysterious cold spots, creaky doors that open and shut on their own. Mostly, though, I didn't want a place that held the immense sadness of lives lived there before. I wanted a cheerful place, a place with optimism and humble dreams.

We found that place, a modest pink 1939 bungalow with striped awnings. The owner had bought the house from a family who'd owned it since 1949. And they'd purchased it at auction and moved it away from a soon-to-be-built freeway to an empty lot a few blocks away.

But we wondered about the original owners. Who lived in our house when it was where the freeway now stands?

After we moved here, I learned the history of our city. I went to historical talks. I read everything I could find and I talked to long-time residents. What I pieced together was heartbreaking.


Our neighborhood had a very high Japanese population before the war. When the United States imprisoned Japanese Americans in internment camps, most of them lost their livelihoods, and then their homes, which the banks later auctioned off to new owners, who may or may not have known their sad history.

The man we bought our house from sent us a very sweet letter after we moved in, wishing us well and telling us a few things about the house. Amid the anecdotes, he said that when he remodeled the bathroom in the 90s -- stripping it down to the studs - he found a beautiful Japanese mural hand painted on the original bathroom wall. He guessed the original owners had been one of the many Japanese American families who lost everything, including our home, during the war.

I have pieced together what probably happened to the original owners and it breaks my heart every time I look at the bathroom wall, imagining the hand-painted mural that used to be there.

I didn't want a haunted house, but I got one. Not haunted by ghosts or demons, but haunted by history.

With a Perspective, I'm J. Moe.

J. Moe lives in a bungalow in El Cerrito.