Monday, July 25, 2005
The Empty House
EMILY: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama! Wally's dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it - don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's really look at one another!...I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
EMILY: I'm ready to go back.
[From the play OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder]
The first time I suppose I ever saw a house emptied was when we moved from 2024 Ayres Avenue in Akron, Ohio in June 1974 and left for my grandparents' farm in Jaffrey. It is odd but I don't remember walking through those rooms and seeing them void of any life. I just remember the large North American moving van, the bustle of boxes, and my dear Grandpa Sei coming over to see us off before we set off in our green Plymouth station wagon for the long voyage east [see blog posted on May 14, 2005 "Everything Old is New Again"].
My memories of that house, which return mostly in dreams, are like those of all the houses I have known well in my life. They are full of furniture and family items, floor layouts and architectural detail, special nooks, and people. Most importantly, these places are infused with "people memory" and I can always return to them in my mind. I am fortunate to be able to recall many events and places with an eerie photographic and sometimes auditory perception. Like Emily in the play OUR TOWN, who chooses to relive her 12th birthday when she is allowed to revisit Earth, I can go back in my memories, too--but I tend to dwell too often in the past. It is a family affliction, I'm afraid, at least on one side of my family--or maybe it is just a nostalgic bent fused with a love of history and the past. Regardless, it can be a crippling thing and I struggle always to be more in the present.
Today my son Henry and I stopped by my grandparents' farmhouse that my mother has been moving out of for several months. The grass had just been freshly mowed, the large whiskey barrels of nasturtiums that my mother and I planted in early June--a last rite it now seems--were spilling over with their bright and colorful abundance. Apart from no cars in the drive, the place still looked inhabited. We decided to check. Henry came back and said, "It's empty! The house is empty!" We found the key and walked in, feeling like trespassers, even though we now own the place (for some time I have felt like a trespasser in the home where I grew up). Each room was in a different state: most were clean and empty, some had a few remnants of furniture in them left for us, the old "Toy Room" had boxes of books to be looked at by a dealer. The most intact room of all was Addie's old room, once mine before her and my mother's before that. The bed is still made, as if waiting for her visit to "Bamma's" and my doll collection still stares out at the world from inside the old glass display cabinet.
Almost everything is gone or has been dispersed: the six Grummon family portraits that had been together for over sixty years, various layers of family things from five or more generations (most never before divided until now, even twenty years after my grandmother's death), the things and chaff of almost sixty years in one residence. Of course there has been much fluidity and change over that time but the core things--like the Rabbit Hole bathroom, the Toy Room wallpaper and rows of books, the location of family portraits, the placement of my grandmother's rocking chair in her old room, these things were the same.
Until a few years ago when one of my brother's carpeted the back stairs, you could walk up them and still smell that warm wood smell so common in old houses. But this one was unique to the farm--every summer upon arrival I would notice it and say, "there is that smell again!" A happy, warm, welcoming smell.
Several weeks ago I was standing in the barn with my daughter Addie (who spent her first three years of life at the farm). She said "I think I'm going to miss the barn swallows most--their comings and goings and return each year." "Me too," I said, in awe of a rare moment of teenage sensitivity from my daughter. Before we locked up today Henry said "I'm going to miss this place." He was wistful and somewhat poignant for a boy all of seven and a half years. "Me too, Henry," I said. I was glad they were both with me on my past few visits.
No matter what comes next for the farm--and we have some heavy decisions to make based on cost estimates for very basic work--it will never be the same. It is as if the vacuum left by a passing tornado has sucked the life out of the place along with its contents. I'm not sure that I could ever replace the life and energy and soul in it if I tried. Perhaps it is indeed time that we all just let go and move on and let another family have a try.
We gave it almost sixty years of four generations of family living under its roof. My mother said once "this house has many ghosts"--not of the dead necessarily but from different phases of her life--some are good, some are bad, I expect, but nevertheless they are always around a place of memory. She gave the farm thirty-one years of her adult life, including two marriages (after her divorce with my father in 1974) and ten years of endless devotion and inherhent difficulties with a mother afflicted with Alzheimer's. Before that my grandparents struggled to live a life off the land and in a small community after growing up in privileged suburban backgrounds. Growing crops and raising six children on a small New Hampshire farm was not always an easy proposition. But they seemed to manage and were always a team.
By the summer of 1974 we had moved back from Akron and almost immediately my grandfather died, too young it seems at the age of 63, from heart complications. Soonafter Grandmother seemed different--at first we thought it was depression but there was also forgetfulness and anger. We stayed on the place instead of finding our own spot. It seemed the right thing to do for everyone. Now I think my mother deserves a place to call her own--easy to maintain, no ghosts. She has a little house right up the road about a mile and just down the hill from where her parents and two of her siblings are buried (at the Cathedral of the Pines). I hope she will be happy there.