Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Stories That Houses Tell

Did you ever have a book tap you on the shoulder while you tried to ignore it like a knock on the door you did not want to answer? That has happened to me a few times, and one such book was The Big House by George Howe Colt. I am a chump for coming of age stories, family sagas, and memoirs. I never wanted Michener’s narratives of place to end; I followed the Walton’s like it was my own family, even bawling like a baby at Mary Ellen’s wedding. I thought The Big House would be a good read when I first saw it, but I put it back on the shelf thinking it probably would wait, that I had better reads ahead, that maybe I would read it for free at the library someday. I continued to bump into the title until last month when I was in Barnes and Noble using some of my Christmas gift card I decided to splurge for the paperback.

Colt's book was definitely a good read. I have about as much in common with Cape Cod and Boston Brahmins as a Boston terrier has with a Shetland pony, but I liked reading the history of the house which was also the history of our country in many ways. This house originated in a time most of us only read about like no electricity, outhouses, lush forests, loads of free ranging game, family board games, tight morals and stiff standards for personal conduct. Colt writes honestly about his family flaws such as alcoholism and mental illness while describing each generation as it grows up in this house and takes the reins from the previous one. While the Big House sits on Buzzards Bay in a very specific Cape Cod space, the family saga could happen on the plains and prairie, in the mountains, or in the humid South.

The branches of my family tree are from many trunks, and my people were not wealthy, had no estates. Some of them had money at one time I heard or the potential for money, but it evaporated through waste, drink, stupidity or the markets. But like Colt and his massive home on Cape Cod, what I had was what I knew and clung to as my history. Seeing my paternal grandparents' old two story house torn down, watching my maternal grandparents' country acres fall into disrepair at someone else’s hands, and standing among the ashes of my parents' WWII era bungalow after fire destroyed it a couple of years ago was no less hurtful to me than his loss of the family mansion. These places were my home, my history, my stories and now physical evidence of them are gone.

I can go home again where a new house stands, but I will never hear that wooden screen door slam again, smell the damp basement where I played on cold winter days or napped on hot summer ones. I won’t see the little shed that I made into a doll house when I wanted to play tea party or pretend to save my dolls from a Kansas tornado. (Many children play house, play school, play church even, but how many play Tornado?) The fan my dad built in the pre-air conditioning era still worked before the fire. On spring nights you could still sleep with the soft thump-thump-thump of the motor purring you to sleep like a giant contented tabby. I can walk across the ground, but the Dutch elms are gone, as are the low places that made little ponds for paper boats in the spring rains.

My DH has fared better in that department. His parents have lived longer and held land an extended time, although that history too is on the threshold of change. The near one hundred year old farm house shaped stories for children now pushing 70 years old themselves. The stories tell about mice standing in the taffy cooling on the side porch, snakes in the kitchen cabinet near the sugar canister, bedrooms where water froze in the glass during winter, summers so hot they took refugee at the creek down the road.

This ranch style home we live in now is ours, and we made the memories here. I stand on the deck and look out at green lawn bordered by Stella lilies, and I see the shop DH added a couple of years ago. But in my mind, I hear the squeak of swing as the chain cries for fresh oil with each pump of my son’s spindly legs; I see the once new puppy chase a toddler; I think of the tree house DH built for our “soldier boys" in army fatigues and helmets bought at the Army surplus store; I remember the garden we grew so our boys would know how to pick green beans, water zucchini, see okra pods grow. When these boys, now men come home, I hear their versions of stories I “thought” I knew. One son went through a spell during grad school of coming home and first thing opening all the cabinet doors in the kitchen and few drawers in the bedroom. He never had any reason for doing so, but I think he was looking to make sure nothing had changed, been moved, that his stories were still around even if he wasn’t telling them.

Nothing stays the same; homes and land are quickly taken back by the earth when not tended. A house is not a home without love and legend, but the walls of a house do seem to absorb the stories created inside them. Even if walls are torn down or burn, the stories continue to live inside the people that lived there once. I think we all have stories about places we lived, and when we share them, we see how many of ours stories are similar--even if from a different time and place.


Linda O'Connell said...

Claudia, I love this essay. As I read about your playhouse, I visited mine, a back porch where I could do things MY way. A very nostalgic and moving piece. I can still see my little 'soldier'
too. My kids' fondest memories are of our first residence where they lived until they were seven and ten. Thanks for the memories.

irishoma said...

Your essay is absolutely beautiful! You should send it to an anthology or a magazine like Good Old Days and have it published.

Bookie said...

Thanks, gals! The St. Louis trio keeps me going!

Anonymous said...

Claudia, this is lovely.I enjoyed hearing how you played tornedos with your dolls in particular. That childhood memory matches one I have in its innocence. As a toddler, I and my elder sisters played 'bombs' using an umbrella as a bomb shelter and hiding from the Germans. I was born eleven years after WW11 so the memories were not my own but the game was born from the stories we heard I suppose. You are so right when you say that 'a house is not a home without love and legend,' I do hope mine creates both.