Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: He Stepped Over the Threshold

He had vowed never to return to the house, and in fact, it appeared he had not. Looking right, left and behind his shoulder, Thomas assessed the circumference of the front yard and proliferation of colorful growth in it, then squinted hard at steps and door. This was not the yard he recalled, not the entry into a house he knew.

There were not six wonky brick steps, nor uninspired wooden door with peeling grey paint. These blue steps led to a porch that extended across the width of the charcoal grey bungalow. A proper one, somewhere you’d enjoy wasting time. He observed two white rocking chairs with fat floral cushions to entice a passerby. Well, he had come by and here he was staring at the lighter blue front door like he might see through it if he gazed hard enough. He wanted to discern whether he’d made a grave error. But no, the number–76–under one of two tasteful brushed metal porch lights confirmed his destination. No way could it be his childhood home.

But it was. He could hear her voice–high pitched, on the strident side–and rapid footsteps. He used to take one step to her three. And she never quite caught up. Now they were whole lives apart, not footsteps. And if this foreign-seeming house was any indication, he had little idea what he was getting into once he crossed into her domain.

He pressed the doorbell and there were those reverberating chimes. They hadn’t changed. He shivered in the July heat, but his neck was sweaty.

“Coming, coming!” Thudding feet.

Of course, the house had been more or less Keri’s for a year. Ever since their mother had gone into the nursing home and Keri took over her finances and property matters. And that meant the house was also Milo’s, that husband he didn’t like despite having “met” him only once via video chat with Mom and her. Didn’t they have a kid years back, his mother had said? Brent, Brandon? He knew zero about his half-sister’s life except that she had managed to inherit the house, and early–he hadn’t wanted it, he was set on the West coast. Thomas retained only watery memories of being there after 14, when Jim, her father– by default also his due to marrying his mother (who soon had Keri)–had passed.

It rained and stormed for two weeks after Jim was gone; the neighborhood creek swelled and overflowed. But Thomas didn’t cry. He hadn’t actively missed the man, just felt his absence like a deep cool spot in and near the cracked leather easy chair. But he did miss his mother, who disappeared into her room after long hours of work directing things at the shelter, even taking meals there.

Thomas stepped back and turned away, his long, sandaled right foot on the second step down. Toward freedom, away from the past.

“Tommy. I can’t believe you came. After eighteen years. About time.”

Her voice whizzed over his head. The nickname. He cringed. Took the next step down. She was going to start out complaining, as usual? But he had made it this far so turned and faced the whole situation.

Keri was tall like he was, like their mother (Jim was three inches shorter) had once been, and black palazzo pants made her legs seem unnaturally long, with matching black painted toenails pointed right at him, bare feet like when she was a kid. He raised his head, took in a sleeveless top of tiny red and white threads woven through more black. Her arms also seemed too thin and long–wasn’t she supposed to be heavier and look older?–and finally met her face. Bronzed sharp cheekbones, eyes shimmery at the edges. Thin lips stretched into a smile, revealing two crooked top teeth. No dental work and caps yet.

Her sharp brown eyes took in his length and emotional temperature. She looked like an exotic snake in good clothes. When she moved her bony hands, silver and gold bracelets jangled. He suspected those were Mom’s; she used to wear the same type, he suddenly recalled.

Something inside him sank.

“Keri,” he said, forcing a half-smile. “It was  a quick trip from the hotel, so I’m here.”

“Don’t just stand there, come in, Tommy. Please. You look decent, I have to say, but quite hot. We put A/C in awhile back, come on, cool off.”

Keri held open the door and he dodged past her. Talk, talk, talk that was Keri despite their rarely communicating all the years gone. As he entered the foyer it fairly gleamed. Polished wood floors reflected light that floated into the living room to the left, down the hallway on the right toward the kitchen and right up the stairwell on far right. The walls were no longer wallpapered, but beige or grey. He froze, tried to meld the old house with all that was before him, and the pieces didn’t wedge together. It was like a stage set or a rented retreat.

“Lots of changes, I know. Here, come through to the dining room and kitchen–that massive wall was taken down–and have a good drink. There’s time to talk, right?”

Why was she being courteous, not sharp-edged? Mean, really, was the word for her back then. Why did she ask for him to come insistently the last time and then demand it after he visited his mother this week? Their mother, right; not just his. And Keri  had looked after her the past many years, hadn’t she?

“Still like iced tea with a lemon slice, or something else? I’m out of booze.”

Thomas thanked her and sat. He could glimpse the back yard through the windows and averted his eyes. His one place of happiness, he realized, was right there all those years as his mother mourned, then let her anger seep out as she dealt with Jim’s gambling debts that left them living hand to mouth. Keri knew that was true, but she’d always left the room if the topic came up,  hand slicing the air, a refusal to accept.

He didn’t care to gamble; he saw it wreck so much. He wondered if she did. Likely not; the house looked too stylish, clean.

The dining table was made of heavy glass and rich wood. He flattened warm hands on the surface as she got the tea; his palms left damp outlines so he put them in his lap. He felt like a schoolboy, clumsy even as he waited, impatient for it all to be over.

The smells were different in recirculated, chilled air. Well, of course they would be. His mother had left the house years ago. She had taken her cheap but good violet perfume scent, and her baking scents and daily fresh orange juice scent and her used books and garden flower scent. Now there lingered random smells: fresh paint, scented candles, furniture polish and stark white lilies–a fragrance of funerals–that stood tall in a clear blue vase before him.

Keri returned with two water-beaded glasses clinking with ice cubes. They were round and small, like tiny golf balls. They had once enjoyed put-put golf, down the street, he mused and shook his head clear.

“I thought I’d never get you to stop by. All the years you might have…when Mom was feeling better, or to help when she was moved one place to another.”

“Well, I’m in California and you all are here in Massachusetts. Now I’m here, Keri. And why? Mom still has time to live, if not a great life, a decent life taken care of by us both. I knew she gave you money oversight and the house, basically. I’ve not argued about it, I don’t care about all that. I don’t come here to see you because it isn’t necessary. And I would rather not. I visit Mom a couple of days every four months–you know that–then I leave. “

“Mr. Big Shot, eh? So busy with hot music, your decadent partying  life, is that it? No real time for family even when they need you around…Okay, yes, there’s a reason I wanted you to come.” The words were spit at him.

She threw him a dagger look, those cheeks sucked in more, but he ducked internally, leaned back, legs sprawling out under the table. She leaned in with her glare, then swiftly looked away.

He wasn’t here for more drama so maybe it was time to go.

“Oh, stop. We aren’t kids now. This is why I didn’t see you, in case you forgot. Your blatant lack of acceptance, those well-placed words of derision. I don’t drink now, anyway. Though that isn’t relevant.”

“Well, huh.” She frowned, confused, as if this wasn’t part of the script, then almost smiled. “Nice, good for you. Me, neither. Not since Milo left.”

“He left you guys? When?”

“After Mom went into the nursing home. He’d had enough of everything, her illnesses, my bingeing, house needing too much work and the money of it all. The yard and foundation dug up due to a rat infestation and rebuilt, replanted. Can you picture that? It was the final straw; he’s lazy, self-centered by nature. So he moved out, filed for divorce. Also ,Brad isn’t so easy, he has issues like preteens do, I guess. Milo sees him every other week-end now.”

She turned sideways, looked to the yard so lush and green, then shrugged, and her eyes were unblinking as she fixed on him. “But that’s enough, more than I should have said. What about you? Now that you came, at last.”

Brad, her boy, how old was he? Thomas struggled to recall; Mom sent him a school picture a few times. “He’s almost ten?”

“Last fall. Will be eleven.” She twisted a dark wave around her finger, an old self-soothing motion. “He’s pretty musical.”

Thomas started, sat up. “What does he play?”

“Can’t decide. I am not yet encouraging him.”

“Of course not, you wouldn’t want him to be a good-for-nothing-musician like me.” He laughed despite himself. “What has he tried? What does he love?”

“A few things, trombone, drums, guitar. You should ask him.”

“Is he here?” He looked out the windows, over the rooms. Upstairs, waiting them out? He saw a baseball glove on a chair, a bat in a corner, and he felt a tinge of warmth for what he’d loved, too, long ago in this place.

“No. He might be later.” She sipped her tea, ice cubes tinkling as she swirled them. “I used to wish I could turn this into rum and Coke by swirling it enough. Like an idiot. It got bad, you know…”

“Mom said you had a few too many here and there and I knew there was more to it or she wouldn’t have said so. But I get it, no judgment. I was stumbling off-stage near the end, missing gigs. Got six years in.”

“One, with a daily counting.”

She held up her index finger and he wanted to give her a high five but sat quietly. He noted a crisscross of lines etching her dusky skin. She weighed too little, she looked too worn out but she wasn’t 15 anymore.

“I’m so sorry for it all,” Keri said, bottom lip a quiver, then covered her face with bony tapered fingers.

“Wait, Keri, just wait.” He shifted taller, held up his hands, palms facing her.

“Just let me say it, just this once, and that will be it!”

“Okay–but you have to know it was more than rough those years, what you said to me over and over. How worthless a brother and even a son I was, how stupid to not pass Algebra much less get on the honor roll like you, to not even make the football team. How horrible my trumpet playing was no matter how hard I practiced, how glad it made me. How insane I was to think I could make it out there ‘in any way shape or form, so do us all a favor and just give up!’ Remember that? That’s when I left, at 17. I never forgot that I left behind my mother and a sister. But I also bore wounds, had to move on.”

Keri stood up, started to pace about the room. “I know, I know! I was drinking already and Dad gambled so much and then died in the car accident and Mom was down the rabbit hole with grief and depression. And I was…I was…”

“Look, we all have pain to figure out. Get over. I don’t like to look back, anymore. Let’s talk about now, how Mom is doing today, the house, what you’ve done here–how good it looks.” His heart pounded; the room seemed to sway, he felt dizzy. He should not have come, had to get out or suffocate all over again.

She stopped by his chair, and placed her hands on his shoulders carefully and her pupils opened wide in circles of dark amber. He thought saw the start of tears so he closed his own eyes. He missed that her eyes cleared and were calm.

But she didn’t quit. She never did.

“I was lost, Thomas. Afraid, angry. I needed you. I didn’t know how to tell you so I pushed hard, and then away from you, from all. It was wrong but it happened.”

“Yeah, far away.” She let go of him and sauntered to the back door. “I left and traveled as far as I could go,” he called after her. But he got up and followed.

She was in the roses. Bushes and bushes of them, narrow paths in between–thick blooms of red, yellow, white, pink, peach. He knew their mother liked to garden, then less and less over time. And she hadn’t planted more roses, he didn’t think. Everywhere Thomas looked now there were pops of color and trees grown mammoth, bushes and flowering things new to him. And two wood benches, a small burbling fountain and a trellis with climbing red roses.

It was impeccable and beautiful. A haven. And it was Keri’s hand that fashioned it, gave it all that was needed to flourish.

“Amazing,” he said, “a heavenly place here, alive.”

And then she joined him.

“You appreciate the fruits of my labors? My pet project, a way of keeping Mom engaged for a few years though she mostly directed and scolded from a bench. But she loved the result. I’ve found it just the thing for me after draining work in the Emergency Room. So much blood and ruin traded for so much hearty life. Let me show you around.”

After the tour  they were silent and rested on a bench.

“So, why did you insist I visit now, Keri? Besides trying to make amends…which we both need to finish, I guess.”

She ruffled her dark bob. “I’m–we are–selling. I did all this renovation, with Milo’s help and Mom’s fiances, of course, in order to sell it. I don’t want to live here, anymore. Brad and I need a change, a home of our own. Mom is okay with it, and she can use the money.”

“Selling. Soon?’

“I’m about to put it on the market. I wanted you to see it, and also to ask you–would you care to buy it for investment purposes, maybe? Or maybe you’d like part of the profit since it has great value now, really top dollar for the area. I mean, even Milo may get a small cut. You should have something of what you’d like from here. Right?” 

He took a deep breath, released it in an admiring whistle. “You’re offering me our house or money? Wow. But I don’t need or want it, Keri. I left so long ago and come here to find so much changed and for the better. It’s yours and Mom’s to sell. I’m actually glad you’ve enjoyed it. It was not a great place to be for so long. Now it shines, Keri. The ghosts may have fled. Not toxic enough for them, anymore.”

She laughed. Not a considerate or restrained laugh, but as he remembered, from the belly, mouth wide open, head tossed back. Her hand grabbed his forearm and he laughed with her.

She smoothed her black pants, checked her finely lined palms and fingernails so short for gardening and her emergency nurse work. Both hands then collapsed into her lap, finally at ease.

“Well.”

“Yes,” Thomas said.

“So just sell?”

“Keep the money, you and Mom. Not so sure abut Milo…”

“I think you should accept some.”

“I don’t want any, Keri, you know I do well. If there’s something left over, you and Brad might fly out to my beach place for a visit.”

He heard himself and was shocked by his own words, as was she.

“A real vacation in California, at your house?”

“Mom! Who’s out there? Did he come?”

Thomas twisted around to see a young boy, lanky and dark haired and bright eyed, hands in pockets, and his cap with its bill backwards.

“Come and see.”

“Is it Tommy? I mean, Thomas Haines?”

He elbowed Keri.”Tommy, always that Tommy.”

He stood up and extended a hand to him and Brad who came right up to shake it hard, smiling.

“The famous musician from California!..My ole lost uncle! I have your music, too! Hey, I play trombone. Brass, like trumpet.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow at Keri; so that was it, then, for the kid. Like when the trumpet found him, love at first note.

They gathered at the outdoor table, swapping more history. Keri and he were agreed that Jim was a man with heart who went terribly wrong with addiction to gambling, and that their mother was a codependent who loved them the best she could. And she had suffered more than they knew. It was a lot to say and harder to accept. Though he was interested, Brad went inside, his interest waning, and the notes from his trombone sounded true as they wafted through his window.

The afternoon melted into evening so they cooked spaghetti, sausages and fresh green beans. Thomas couldn’t say it was all easy and natural. It was randomly awkward, at moments felt strange to be around her like regular family, as if they had not suffered and learned to sometimes hate or drink into stuporous states– and given up on each other.

And they did all that here, and now they were starting over within an altered house. And it was changing them, sitting at the table across from each other, talking of nothing much yet some of much else, sharing a simple meal, making plans for their visit to his spot on the Pacific Ocean. He’d make the time. Finally, he could make a little room for them. And he saw himself get right in the mix.

 

Saturday’s Passing Fancy: This Wintry House

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This sturdy house of seven,
how it gathered close snow and people,
the ice-light of winter a magic reveal;
how yellow circled thrumming life, a
collective heat of its dense center:
such music, affection, courage, prayer.

And she lept into the beauty of it,
dove into wide, steep snowbanks,
rode the glistening waves on her
Radio Flyer or creaky toboggan
which transported her to Alaska
or Antarctica, toward the edge of dreams.
On her tongue snow melted sweet-sharp,
water for the thirsty child
who could have been lost but was given
doorways to joy, exploratory powers to
forge freedom in December treks.

Oh, such dancing flakes sparked air, drifted
in tenderness to kiss her face,
wind sang out, trees waving bared arms;
her mittens and boots grew encrusted with snow,
feet were certain of their simple fate as she made her way.

This house with simple Christmas greetings
on door and porch goes blood deep,
felt like our hearts worn on our sleeves.

And I confess each year my spirit strengthens:

how the God of Love reaches to uphold us,
how the winters can rescue a woeful child
how wonders cannot be separated from the living
and those gone weave a music of their own

how Christmas still carries hope of peace,
a great promise of healing that cannot be undone,
a blessing of mercy folded ’round broken hearts,
how good will can reign when all else has fallen away

A Mighty Portal

That door at the bottom of the stairway. It was the secret to the kingdom of all adults and it kept me at bay. It was a major entryway that connected or separated most of our house’s two-story spaces from more public areas. The other nearby two doors joined kitchen and dining room, then stair landing (with small hallway) to a den. The main one in question opened into the living room. The areas were generally available to anyone not still a small child, which pretty much meant everyone in my family. And their ever-enlargening circles. As the youngest,  a “leftover” following two pairs of boy and girl born ahead of me, I wasn’t granted full access to all goings-on. But the primary barrier seemed that living room door. After all, I joined the others each day around our large mealtime table. No, it was the pale sage green door that stalled me out when skidding to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. It sometimes provide a harsh wall to any flying bodies, thus stymieing  decent progress into the main house.

I made it my mission to find ways around and through it. If I couldn’t manage that, I pressed ear to wood, listening hard, or spying through the sliver  of a view via a tiny crack created by a stealthy turn of beveled glass and brass doorknob. Voila, entry, of a sort.

It wasn’t always shut, certainly. There were times when we ran or jumped down the numerous steps (that included a halfway landing which served as a sort of springboard)–only to find it stunningly open despite the appearance of otherwise. In which case I, less practiced than the others, would ram into the substantial upholstered rocking chair that was just inside and to the left of said door. If someone was sitting there it would elicit a frown at least or an exclamation of disgruntlement and an admonition to be more careful. Or a punch to the shoulder. I never assumed any blame for this, however, since the door was either supposed to be clearly open or closed tightly. There could be a small sign that indicated my father was teaching his stringed instrument students, as if we couldn’t hear them sawing away: “Lessons in Progress”. Judging by the schoolbook perfect penmanship, it was my mother’s reminder. I must have been a bit noisier those days or my father–or mother–was more sound sensitive for an unknown reason. It was true that although she had great affection for music and much more for my father, she liked to close some doors at times to savor a moment or two of restful quiet.

The open or closed door: it was instrumental in defining much of my childhood and youth. The living room wasn’t overly big yet multi-purpose in a way that some may not understand these days. There was no vaulted family room with big screen TV or towering stone fireplace. (We didn’t own a TV until I was 13; even then it was not close to a top pick for entertainment.) No completely refinished basement; no wraparound, screened-in porch. With seven family members, all claimable space was at a premium. Closing that door meant well over a quarter of the first floor was forbidden for play, lounging, studying, reading, practicing my cello or noodling about on the baby grand piano pretending I was a famous singer and pianist.

I liked especially to play with my Barbie doll or two out there–to build her house with pillows and scarves, books, blocks and various decorative odds and ends– perhaps because she had more space, too. The area beneath the baby grand provided additional awesome real estate. She and I, after all, shared a bedroom with my two older, often bossy sisters until I was six, then with one other until I was 12. My older brothers harassed us from across the hall. Downstairs created an illusion of more equity, and there was an ease of a clan’s shared space. Access to greater parental mediation was a boon.

I wanted to come and go without restraint. For the most part, I roamed if  not engaged in study and other pursuits. I spent a great deal of time outside, too, in our tree-lined, very private, welcoming back yard. A neutral zone. Freedom reigned. But even then, the main room access seemed crucial, as it was comforting refuge from Michigan’s sharp cold of winter, autumnal blustery winds, dangerous spring storms and summer’s sweltering heat.

So to be even semi-trapped behind that door was a trial. Especially if the kitchen was off-limits as well, for purpose of undisturbed cooking or phone calls (it hung on the kitchen wall awhile) or private before-dinner updates with my father. What lay behind that living room door depended on the day of the week, the very time of day. The different occasions. Confronting its closure gave rise to the question of what was really going on this time. It could mean many things. A boyfriend visiting a sister; a girlfriend visiting a brother–always a curiosity to me. The music lessons–boring and a nuisance. My mother’s millinery or dress design or alterations business (on top of her school teaching) bringing in a customer. My father’s musical instrument appraisal, repair, buying and selling business, ditto. The business parts were fascinating to me and I watched from corners if at all possible. Thus, the living room–and dining room, to an extent, as they flowed into one another via an archway–received all people. Except the meter man and repairmen–“dirty shoes and you just never know,” my mother informed me. The shoes I got. We all had to enter and take off dirty shoes at the back door, but the you just never know part I wasn’t clear about.

Our household was not quiet, not at all isolated from the outside world. People frequently rang the door bell or knocked. Called out our names if the heavy, rounded wood front door was open to a screened door. People from church or my parents’ work came by for a consult. If friends saw the car in the driveway, they might just stop for a chat. If the living room door was shut it could mean there were  only full grown adults engaging with just others of their sort. Or something more mysterious.

My parents often invited to our home their friends and visiting artists who’d given concerts at the performing arts center. It might be a casual luncheon, dinner served on china or a later coffee and dessert affair, the cut glass dessert plates unearthed for just such an occasion. And we children were expected to be present, to converse if we had comments intelligent and respectful to offer. As a small child, I was not let off from this duty. But otherwise, gracious repose was the order of things, as well as a hand in the kitchen, with serving if requested. I knew how to handle and offer a tray of cookies or coffee service long before I entered adolescence. We all knew how to properly set a table, how and when to pass around each serving dish, when to ask something politely or keep our thoughts to ourselves. How to be mannerly, I suppose, or “civilized” as my parents might say. It seemed the natural behavior to me.

But when that door at the bottom of the stairs forbade entry, it meant it. It could be that this time no one other than my parents were allowed access. It indicated: 1) a significant importance of the visitors 2) there was a bridge party going on and a kid was not allowed to interrupt unless called forth for a task 3) aforementioned music students or customers or church people or perhaps the life insurance man were engaged 4) there was something serious, even bad, happening and we could not know about it until later, when summoned. The way one knew for sure there was a high level conversation going on was this: there were three doors at the bottom landing of the stairway, one to the kitchen on the left; one straight ahead to the living room; and one on the right to the parents’ room (later becoming den/office, at which time that door changed its meaning). If all three were shut it meant: No Admittance. Silence.

I had ways around this barrier, this being excluded, however.

I could feign sickness with a pitiful calling out and weak knock. That would always bring my mother to the door and when she opened it I got a decent view of who was there and what was happening. But it was too brief and thus unsatisfactory. If I was really sick the door was finally irrelevant, of course, and my mother would take me to bed, administer to me appropriately.

I could listen with ear pressed just so–it took some fine-tuning to hear well– against the door. If that didn’t work I could also eavesdrop through second floor heat registers. I might manage to sneak through the first floor room(s) on the pretext of needing  sustenance or to access a way outdoors to visit a friend or attend a figure skating or swim lesson, for example. But I had to knock first and then quietly plead my case. Or if a sibling got through, I could make like a shadow, slip in behind them.

But I became reasonably proficient at cracking open the main door, sneaking through a slight opening, then crouching, then crawling behind the big rocking chair and lamp table. Or even lying flat on the floor and slithering toward the baby grand, finally hiding, breathless, beneath the piano where no one noticed me if I was lucky. From there I could usually make out who the characters were and what the story line was. If I knew them and okay with the topics, I might stay without concern of reprisal. But I might need to reverse order of action fast if someone caught me. If all this was too risky, I would only huddle behind the rocking chair and quickly gather intelligence–at least until my breathing was detected or perhaps my feet and then sent brusquely back out. The trick seemed to lie in becoming as invisible as possible.

Of course, this worked only so long. I grew. Slithering unseen was not viable. The only thing I could do was wait on the bottom step of the stairs before the closed door. Or forget about it and hike back upstairs or leave by the back door. By the time I was an adolescent, I cared less about what others were up to–I had my own important activities, ideas, mischief-making, worries. My older siblings had all decamped to college; I was left to my own devices. I had my very own door to close tight against nosy inquiry.

But I will not forget that stairwell door. The power it had. The importance of its changing status. The meaning it gave to the day, the very moment. And there were many times when I–along with friends or siblings–burst through the door into the living area and then through the one leading to kitchen and from there to the stairway or what became the den. Endless circular tag. We were thundering wildebeest children, screeching, teasing, laughing, fighting. Doors slamming shut, being pressed open. Doors that meant nothing more than access points in a silly game, a way around the circuit. I can still see my mother in the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel, ordering but with a laugh, “Outside with all that!” Our smallish house, after all, was a place where things needed to get done in more manageable ways. We were many. We needed to cohabit with minimal disruption. A basic calm and order encouraged creativity, hard work, prayer and caring. We dwelled within a set of rules; we (hopefully) evolved and matured.

Another version of the closed doors, though, was when one of us became so angry after being told to go to our rooms for a while that we’d enter the stairwell area, slam all three doors shut and sit on a step to cry out loudly against the cruelty of our parents. But not for long. They’d issue further warnings and off we’d go to our punishment.

It was just that time of doors shutting and doors opening, those growing up years. There were twelve doors to, or within, that house–not including the basement’s three, the attic’s one and several closet doors. Which all held their own meanings.

The fruit cellar was cobwebby, dank and dark, stocked with canned fruits and vegetables arranged on shelves, but for some reason I liked it okay. I was appreciative of that actual door, cut low and small for littler people like me, with a latch that opened or closed the compact room. And it held good things. It could be a sheltering place when tornado warnings blared. The folding door to the recreation room and another narrow one to my father’s instrument repair workshop were rarely closed. They, thus, seemed invisible.

The attic door was a magic passage into a stuffy, low-ceilinged, treasure-laden expanse along the front of the house. It contained distractions as well as history: boxes of old books and photographs and records; colorful canisters of wonderful buttons salvaged over decades; pretty and worn packs of playing cards; stacked board games to pull out; woolens in zippered bags, protected concert dresses belonging to primarily my mother and oldest sister–also my father’s tuxedos; old cigar boxes my brother made into trick boxes (for hiding things) that were the devil to open. There was so much to dig into and enjoy. I easily spent an hour rooting about there, now and again.

But the door that informed me that I was well on my way to young adulthood was that door to the front of the house. The door at the landing, right across from the last step of the stairway we took up to bed each night and descended each morning. The one I spent untold moments staring at, willing it to open. With three doors that also closed on the small landing at the stairs, it was easy to feel excluded. When all were open, it was whole different house, one that allowed air to freshen passageways, one that encouraged roaming, that allowed many voices to be shared. That invited your very own presence. When I could confidently enter that main door no matter the event, even during a crisis, I knew I was on my way to being an adult. It no longer forbade me entry. But it also no longer protected me. I had crossed one threshold from childhood to beyond.

Such is the magnitude of doors in one’s youthful home.

I have fewer doors where I live now. The living and dining area flow into one another and the kitchen is open to both. There are bedroom and bathroom doors but that is about it, other than the  ones that open to the outside. There are many windows in every room. The pale gold light that streams in as I write is warm, gentle, and it encourages me to look away from the keyboard toward mature trees and dwellings that surround us here. My desk and computer are within reach of the dining table. I am alright with that; I like being a part of the whole space, not ever shut apart as a child. But, too, I write, the space widens and lengthens within until I about disappear. Doors are flung open to the greater universe and earth’s clock stops. Doors seem more important when viewed from here, looking back at that place I no longer live. Now all the varieties I encounter, pass by and move through simply entice me, tell me things, and whether or not they open to me is neither here nor there. I can appreciate a door’s existence for its own sake. There are more out there than once imagined. But valuable doorways exist here, deep within me. I will enter any of them or not, as I choose.

 

Searching for a Good and Livable Box

Source Wikipedia; Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution License. Photo by O. David Redwine
Alden B. Dow House. Source Wikipedia; Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution License; Photo by O. David Redwine

When tuning in to various televised real estate and interior design shows, I’ve noticed something curious. Prospective buyers seem more likely than not to seek a house much like–if not the same–the house in which they were raised. They envision a style or interior design (for which they are willing to pay mightily) that mimics their parents’ place, one whose touches and functionality made their childhood habitat what it was. It seems to be a nostalgia-informed housing hunt.

But I become engaged in their earnest search and what details make them gasp in delight: wainscoting, a claw-foot tub, a family room opening to a patio with fire pit, a lilac bush by the bedroom or a grand entry staircase. If the house they grew up in was a ranch style, then that is what draws them; if it was in the country, then they seek acreage set apart from the hustle-bustle.

I see that a woman cannot bear the most innocuous wallpaper as their mother would not have abided such patterned domination of space. Another person groans when he sees a separate, narrow formal dining room. It turns out he grew up eating meals in a tighter kitchen nook but wants that for his kids. I have felt perplexed when someone walked into a perfectly nice kitchen and states it is awful and has to go. And then explains that it must reflect more the feel of her great aunt’s kitchen where she baked cookies as a child. Another man had a big requirement. No separate bathroom (and it had to be more than one) for guests? Impossible. He could not imagine sharing the same bathroom; he grew up with three for three people and a half bath for visitors. I wondered if the guests had to come and go by the back door, too. Another interesting show involved a woman who had inherited her mother’s entryway light fixture. She based her interest in a house by the foyer, the effect that light would create. If it didn’t meet that specification, the rest of the house wasn’t seen.

One after another, house buyers appear to lean toward something much like what they knew growing up. Why, I wonder, don’t more people–most people–want to live in a house that reflects their own adult, unique aesthetic? Why wouldn’t they have long ago come to their separate conclusions about comfort and usefulness regarding current needs? It’s peculiar to me that someone would have a quarter to a half million dollars to spend (or more) and want to use that amount to occupy a house that resembles one they were in ten, twenty or thirty years ago.

“To each their own,” I know. And I am compatible with that saying. That’s part of the reason I watch those shows: I enjoy briefly learning about interesting strangers (of course, all are interesting)  and their tastes, going along on their search and trying to guess their choices. I freely admit I am a “home and garden” show nut.

My husband and I don’t now live in a house, nor do we live in a condo, duplex, houseboat, RV or mobile home. We lease a simple but spacious city apartment in an established neighborhood we have always admired and yet love. We may have to move after over many years, as developers are encroaching more each day. Grand old houses are coming down while places like our small building are being converted into far pricier abodes. Thus far we haven’t found anything better for what we want to pay so may stay put until we are dragged out weeping and kicking our feet. I was almost tempted by a floating home on the fabled Columbia River but decided it was too close to a busy interstate bridge.

The last detached house was a two-story with four bedrooms; the ones before, mostly the same. We had five children to raise up years ago; it was lucky four were girls so they could bunk together as needed. My son was the only one to snag his own room after age 6. So it’s been awhile since I went on a serious house hunt. That’s one reason I find pleasure in viewing other far-flung houses for sale–vicariously enjoying the sights and excitement.

I also have a passion for architecture–residential and commercial–of a wide, even adventuresome variety. (Frank Gehry, anyone? Gaudi?–and so many more.) So when I observe individuals strolling through real estate, disappointment drawn upon their faces because they’re not seeing enough that reminds them of “good old days”–well, I wonder over it. Why do they not want more variety, why haven’t they developed their own style without moldering prompts from a distant past?

Lest I am misunderstood, I have nothing against fondly recalling one’s family home. I liked my childhood house just fine. My parents bought their place in the Northern Midwest fast when Dad got a good new position, Music Education Coordinator for the public school system of a flourishing small city. I was one year old and my–coincidentally, four–siblings were quite a bit older. And more impacted by moving. The old house in another state had had a mini-orchard surrounding it as they told it, and the house had a sweet breezeway, plenty of room. And was on a big corner lot. It may have been a bit ramshackle from my parent’s more realistic account but I recalled very little of it but the breezeway, for some reason. I remember being held in one arm while the other one wielded an iron, the fresh scent of warm, smoothed cotton wafting up, mixing with green grass smells.

They found us a newer if smaller bungalow on a wide, busy street and painted it yellow with turquoise trim. It had three bedrooms, one bath but was shored up by pretty front and back yards and a smaller (wide enough) side yard in which to romp, handsome deciduous trees to climb and swing from and limbs one might long daydream. It had a wide front porch, uncovered, with a cement stool built into each corner. A sprawling tree nursery was right right behind us giving it a mildly country feel from the back.

Our Michigan place overlooked a huge lot that was an entire glorious garden belonging to the neighbor  just south of our house. I was warned that the owner, as fine a gardener as his wife, was akin to Mr. McGregor from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. That didn’t deter me from feeling I had part ownership by virtue of being only a single wire fence apart, his copious flowers and rhubarb hanging over it on our side, tantalizing me. I happily observed and trespassed from time to time, as did we all. I think I may have stolen strawberries. Though old Mr. Benfer kept a hawk eye on our rambunctious family (they had a grown daughter; we never saw her)–those basketballs and baseballs, the running about, the screeches!–he was never mean to me. His wife eventually if infrequently, shared some produce and flowers, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for my mother. Erroneously. I can say that ever-changing, bountiful scene was one of the best things about our house even though it wasn’t ours.

But ours was an unremarkable house in form. It had been built around 1930; the rooms were not overly large. There was a good if somewhat dank basement we did remodel into a partial recreation room for teen-aged parties. My father’s musical instrument repair workshop–where he also fixed small household appliances–was in one corner. On the second floor, three girls shared one bedroom, two boys another. We all shared a bathroom. My parents took over what would later become the main floor TV room/den. I had a room of my own by the time I was thirteen, as the other four had gone off to various colleges. It was paradise having so much space and relative quietness.

There was a dining room where a large, leafed table stood, often covered in tablecloths of various colors and according to occasion, topped by a vase of flowers or other attractive decor. It was one of my favorite rooms, not mainly because of meals. It housed a pretty blonde buffet with many drawers full of lovely things, a stereo system in a sturdy wood cabinet against a wall, and a china and crystal cabinet. The connecting living room was small for our family but nonetheless the corner was occupied by a baby grand piano. We packed in a lot of folks for music making or simply visits.

The rounded front door could have been a turnstile, as there never ceased the coming and going of people. Family, yes, but also music students and their parents, customers of Mom’s seamstress/millinery side-business (she was also a teacher), many friends of my parents, our own buddies. It seemed the doorbell was non-stop ringing amidst dramatic swells of a symphony and a chorus of chattering voices. And the one wall phone ringing. So many people called my father, alone, (not to mentions the rest of us) that I was the unofficial secretary by age twelve–messages being handwritten and tacked on the kitchen bulletin board for his later review. We had a lot going on those years, as busy families do. The lifestyle within the house was active, artistic and made orderly if strict with rules and etiquette. It overflowed with interests and ideas. Perhaps we were a tad squashed, though I didn’t miss privacy as a child. We would have benefited from even a half- bathroom more, though, particularly mornings as we clamored about, preparing for our day.

However, though good memories (and some not good) may take me back to those four walls, to street and yard, I have never longed for a house like it. I do find myself writing about it because the stories it generates hold some merit or interest–at least for myself. The last time I saw it, it was unrecognizable. My mother had passed away after my father. She hadn’t lived there for some years. The two-story bright bungalow was covered in boring taupe siding and the huge maple in front was gone; overgrown juniper bushes on either side of the wide front porch (where I’d liked to hide) were replaced by fussy little plants. I couldn’t see the towering irises alongside the house although it was spring when Mom died. It was no longer our house; someone had other ideas of what was acceptable, good.

I had a different vision altogether from my parents’. I began to draw houses as a youth, sketching different designs, depicting settings that called to me–usually nature’s acreage. I was not all that talented at drawing but no matter, I needed to provide ideas a visual form. My house visions have run more to higher ceilings, light-filled spaces, lots of windows, skylights. Airy. Stone, glass and redwood set among trees on a lake, if my greatest house dream was fulfilled. Modern or even more contemporary styles have been preferred. But also Craftsman homes, and perhaps a meticulously turned out Victorian. I wouldn’t turn down a snug cottage by a rushing creek or a minor Spanish or Italian villa by the sea, however.

I suspect I was influenced by many striking modern homes in my childhood city, the birthplace of Alden B. Dow. He was the son of the founder of Dow Chemical Company and an apprentice of the famed Frank Lloyd Wright. Dow gave his own personal acreage with awe-inspiring gardens to the city, such a joy to wander through. I loved studying such daring, stripped down, sleek buildings and seeing the interiors. A waterfall in a house! A tree trunk rising up in an entryway! Indeed, perhaps this was a strong imprint from my childhood, after all, as much an influence as the imprints left on the TV home buyers’ psyches.

A few times as an adult I’ve lived in homes I felt significant appreciation and affection for; others served their purpose well enough and for that I was grateful. A main requirement was that it have a safe, walkable neighborhood or accessible countryside. Another was that it included yard enough for sitting and grilling, also playing. A small vegetable garden space just in case. I have always liked seeing what is happening around me, so a good view is helpful even if from a balcony or a small porch. I was thankful for every habitat we had–we moved a lot due to my husband’s work–and feel perhaps four or five were winners in the best ways.

I feel appreciation for housing, always, because I have also been very “down on my luck”. I have experienced loss of security, had no money and at times could not ask for or receive family help. Some places I had to live were those which I did not previously imagine bearing, and was briefly on the street. You find out what essential needs are. Wants are irrelevant. You get by somehow. When I was offered a place after that rough time around age twenty and it had good walls and running water, I was thrilled. So relieved. It was a renovated chicken coop and I shared it with another. There was just room enough to breathe and get from  one spot to another; you had to bend down in most spots due to the low and slanting roof. It’s humbling to discover what you can get by with, how little can satisfy.

We all look for a place that fulfills basic criteria to call our own–with a heartfelt expectation of more. My parents had a house that met our needs enough. Still, my mother had her eye on a sprawling brick ranch-style house after I was the only child at home. The neighborhood was more upscale, yards elegant, streets wider. It was also quieter just three blocks away, the distance between what we had and what she longed for. But my father said it was not to be. They had low house payments and even though his career had taken off, he was very prudent with his money, even a penny-pincher. I know Mom was very disappointed, though I never heard them argue. Nor did she carry on about it. She had been raised on a farm and ended up in a finer place already. She had an unusual feel for eye-catching design and enduring function; she valued beauty so made our house much lovelier than it might have originally been. But I can imagine how happy she would have been in the other house. It seemed a manifestation of her unique dream–“no three flights of stairs!” she was overheard saying and “less dirt and dust from a noisy street!” She would have added her deft touch to all. She clearly did not miss living on a farm or in the country.

The house seekers on television have looked at dozens, even hundreds of houses by the time we see them. It naturally would be overwhelming at moments. They can appear close to disillusionment and compromise more as time goes by. They sometimes give up the old hope of what’s most familiar. Reassuring. Safer. The memory of childhood homes fade for many as they come down to the wire and must decide where to stake a new claim.

Who am I to say that someone may not be so risk taking? That they are stuck on repeat regarding the housing experience? What makes you happy is yours to acquire or invent, then share. Establishing a new base for one’s life takes trial and error, time and money–elbow grease with long days and nights. But eventually one morning you wake up, turn on kettle or coffee pot and rustle up loved ones. You move into the day and gather momentum. And then you realize the place you are is home because of  the people of treasures about you, because of inspiration brought to fruition–and also the experiences that await you. It’s making a life in one sort of box or another when it comes right down to it and the structure that surrounds you is made of sturdy, well-chosen chosen walls–in the best of times. The lives lived within it are always one of a kind. Wherever you end up, I hope you embrace its inherent hominess. Better yet, refashion things so the place you reside becomes your sanctuary, a good spot to grow more whole.

Gleaning Gifts of a Dream

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Last night I was a moody but confident, passionate but restrained, weary but adventurous sixteen year old again. I was talking to a roomful of people from high school. We had played together in each other’s yards and attended public schools together for many years. My mother was at my shoulder and noted one young man in particular and said something about an event that had occurred. I reminded her I had figure skated with him although he was a far better speed skater.  A sweet affinity was shared with the boy with the honeyed voice; we cozied up on the couch.

I stepped back and examined myself: auburn-brown hair touched with gold, bangs falling over one eyebrow, blue eyes peering out. The style was a modified style based on Twiggy’s, that famous beanpole model from the sixties. I had more curve and muscle. My skin was pale, smooth, softer than seemed reasonable. A smile swept over my face, light and breezy. It was good to be there that moment.

Then the scream of the alarm grabbed me from my dream with such force it felt like being pulled from deep waters–but I didn’t need or want to be rescued. I fell back. The dream arose once more, replete with familiar faces, voices entwined in easy conversation. The contours of living and dining rooms came alive; shadows shifted as bodies rearranged themselves. I sensed food being prepared in the kitchen: a party underway.

My childhood home, a sturdy yellow and turquoise bungalow. I crossed over the foyer, lingered by the baby grand piano, admired the dining table set with flowers. I glanced at the buffet which held a stack of mail, colored glassware, another vase with bright flowers. Music issued from the stereo, something I could not quite define. Was it classical? Did my gentle, dignified father put that on even though I wanted Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez? Then the den (a bedroom in earlier years), television room where a TV did not exist before 1963 because there was no time for it, no interest, really. There was always something else to do; my family got engaged in whatever required attention most. Usually music-making or studying.

Upstairs, two good-sized bedrooms and a bath. I paused on the landing, stared a long moment, then eased my way down. I sat on the third from bottom step. This was the best vantage point for many years, the place that was central to all first floor activities. I could hear most conversations, construct the scenes. It was the place from which I first discerned the fabulous, puzzling adult world. A spot where I used to cry without drawing attention, make a playground for a Barbie, and years later wait for the telephone to be free so I could talk with my best friend or maybe, surreptitiously, a boy. Where all five children waited for the door to be opened to Christmas wonders. I could nearly smell cinnamon rolls and sausage.

Out of some interior space floated my name, the nickname of my childhood. I entered the bright living room. My mother’s laughter became more quiet, then faded away. I glimpsed her fine-lined face haloed by the famous silvery white hair. The room remained filled with those I have known and nearly forgotten but no one is in a hurry. I wondered how long we would stay in this golden place.

Soon crows make a ruckus that punctuates city traffic. I sit up quickly, my eyes not yet seeing, my mind cloaked in secret things, unworldly things. Thin light is caught inside corners of the bedroom and so defines angles as I find my way back to this spot in time. I see the blue differently and realize for the first time it is the blue of my childhood room, before it was lavender. My heart is a cocoon of peace.

I can hear my youngest daughter’s voice. Laughter as she packs up to return to grad school. Her fiancé is washing up a few dishes as they talk.

After greetings and coffee, we pour over a bridal magazine and I know this is going to happen; she is getting married. And I want to tell her: “Grandma came to visit me. She misses you and longs to be at your wedding.”

Instead–there is not time for the tears that will find us–I tell her, “I had a dream of being sixteen. My face was open and so young, soft. There were many people at your grandparents’ house. It was lovely…”

I was married once in a chapel, the first time. I was more than a decade younger than this daughter and choices did not include quite finishing college. I was in love and unprepared, before much understanding was captured from life’s wily snares. I had ached to be wise, braver than brave as a youth, then as a young woman. But now I am a woman surrendering little by little to this ebb and flow of life, growing older. It is not arduous. Much like my mother was, I am filled with relentless curiosity, hope tinged with bittersweet yearnings and a reservoir of love that wants to transform discouragement and pain as well as celebrate triumph. All with a tale and an embrace, duly witnessing and making note of life in all its cantankerous and exceptional fullness.

I take a picture of my daughter and future son-in-law and there are my mother’s grey-blue eyes. Her crooked, sweet smile. Think: Well, here we are, Mom. This and much (you know how much) more to come.

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