house history: life on an unlanterned street

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


My work on HANDLING THE TRUTH continues to take me back through time, toward essays written then set aside. Here is one I discovered the other day, a never-published reflection on the house where I live now.


It's been nearly twenty years since we drove down an unlanterned street, peered up toward the single lit window of a hunched house, and decided that that house would be ours.  We had been living forty-five minutes away in what seemed another world; it was time to make a change.  There were big trees here and skimpy trees where we had come from.  There was history—the ghosted ruins of an old hotel, the milky blue fence of the nearby horse show grounds, a certain unevenness of domicile quality and size that suggested that the people who lived here had made their own choices and secured their own fates; that they would welcome an artist, a writer, and a little boy whose eyes shone bright with interior light.

Of course, most everything about the house itself was broken.  The walls were thin.  The floors were mere veneers.  Some of the radiators hissed and some were stony, stingy, silent.  The overhead ceiling fans rattled when they churned the heavy summer air, and in the kitchen a barnyard full of maroon roosters was peeling off the walls.  Termites had had their say, though we wouldn’t discover, until much later, just what a vocal force they’d been.  Things creaked and furniture slid.  The mantel hung at a suspicious angle.  There were fissures, like bursts of sun, inside the heavy window panes.

It took a carpenter to tell us that the downstairs toilet was teetering on the edge—a few hundred flushes away from smashing through the chipped, checkerboard floor and awakening the webby contents of the basement.  It took an electrician to save us from the shorts.  It took a father and a son to demolish the termite-gnawed wood and give us a front porch that would not sink.  We’d bought six slanting rooms (and two quite useless bathrooms), a circa-1920 Tudor, and all of it was in desperate need of imagining.

Through all these years, we have imagined:  Banging away at the walls until they made room for a small upstairs closet, say, or for a pantry that no former resident must have needed (but how not?).  Steaming the roosters from their perch. Smoothing the rough plaster of the walls.  Retrofitting both bathrooms.  Squaring the kitchen, re-tiling the roof, saving the heat-less rooms, in frigid winters, with the portable heaters brought as a gift by my worried father.  We have walked with care on the veneer floors, or danced on them in enduring socks, rubbing them up to a sheen.  We have welcomed the sun into the largest room.  We have painted every room a different color, and then color washed it all again.  We have snuck up on the ghosts of former families—buttons hidden within the crevices of closets, a deck of cards behind the old oven, two shiny jacks in the laundry room—and claimed them as our own. 

Today the gravel strip that once lay between our neighbors and ourselves is a garden so tall and absolute with growth that it is only at night, when the insomniac lights blaze through, that we can see the neighbors’ lives illuminated.  Today I work in an extra room that those carpenters—that father and son—built for me.  Today my spinning wheels sit among the treasures from our travels, and the books that I write convey the shape of this house in both fiction and nonfiction.  It is the tenacity of this house that I love—its tenacity, its quiet.  The multiple and gracious ways in which it has made room for us.

Yesterday, between client calls and mad frustrations, I went outside in the rain, walked to the street, and looked back at this house, now so skirted in with red bud limbs, blooming viburnum, royal dogwood, mighty columbine, the daggers of rising irises, and a lacy miniature maple. I don't understand how things grow—not really. I don't know how we all became such rich inheritors of bloom. But I am grateful for the small beauties of a small life remade. For pink in rain. For purple on the fringe.

4 comments:

Amy said...

This is so beautiful, Beth. What a treat for us to have you find and share these things as you work on your book!

Melissa Sarno said...

I love this. That's all I can think to say :)

Lilian Nattel said...

You're such a beautiful writer, Beth.

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