This is a woman on an unassuming balcony that has served her well for 23 years. It overlooks a peach-colored house and the glittering, rambunctious city. And the balcony will be missed and it will miss her, perhaps. They have kept each other company this long: part of a lifetime.
This is the place she has gathered family and friends, let stories step forward to speak, danced barefoot in a blue skirt to music resonant in belly and brain, risen in the softening wash of dawn, sung to herself. Lain face upwards, hands open, staring at nothing after heart disease got her early and was told she might have a few years more. Which did not undo her, even weighted with fears. Got busy, a kind of salvation for much of human living. Sought to cheer others, another act of mercy for the woman who offered, not only a few others.
She gathered stars as they breathed in the cave of the dark; when did they not see all and give their all, wasn’t it their destiny? Could she aspire to any less in the end? And so she faced matters as they came hand, gave hope more space. Let God keep her, whole or not.
This is where she has lathered and spun two thousand socks and kitchen towels, saved ruby red petals that fell from geraniums in the wake of streaming rain. Where the books have lived clandestine lives and language admitted her to its domain with beckoning phrase and whisper, where her own language circuits rattled her teeth with odd feats and loosened dreaming..and night welcomed her, made garlands around the moon and her shoulders.
This is a place the years have been plumped and embroidered with many hearts, children or grown ones, such hands opened and hands filled with spillage of love and barren with loss, an agitation of wants and needs, a palette of feeling and music that has risen from sky and the dense, sweetening earth.
The ache of being exposed to more love coupled with its miracle and the pleasure of more willingness: she was no longer a victim of anything. Two feet to stand on, two knees to kneel. This was what the place gave her: opportunity to transform, renew.
This was a place that was supposed to be just a change station, a slow, muscular crossing from one aspect of life to another, a temporary platform for ideas and goals to be challenged and completed. And then left behind on the serpentine trail.
But it was not.
It was a steady embrace, a safe abode for time shared–even time given away. A galaxy of small things that startled, the relentless unknowns surrounding what seemed often a small, leaky boat carrying such few tools alongside the rowing woman.
And a larger tale wrote itself from humility’s gentling hurt, then from stillness amid rushes of hope. A revelation, this wide spot in the powerful river upon whose banks she built a life in a long slow reveal. Ordinary weeping, laughing, watching and waiting, simplest doings; surprises of living make their marks, a deepening identity. She stirs and rises to greet more.
And more change so soon. Why resist when acquiescence, adjustment, reconstruction all underlay the physics of living things? Of women and men?
A new home will fit itself about her, a daily insistence of tasks, and faith and patience will illumine. She will reconfigure doubts, smooth out contention, just breathe. Place fresh geraniums and old on a new, bigger balcony. Where can this woman live that some unexpected folly or a plan of victory do not happen? What human cannot make a found patch into a home? Even the beetles, even the moss. The eagles and Arctic foxes. Even those all alone in their wandering do it. The brave young, the tempered old. It is managed each day by greater or smaller so she can do it; it will be completed again.
Every one sooner or later leaves for something or someone else, or migrates due to wanderlust or seeks out of desire. Rebuilds to survive. No being is static, even if they believe it so. Step, pause, leap, slide, turn, hang on, reach, thrive. Create.
Yes, another wayside, a still unknown beginning, but there are these that entice: giant fir trees atop a bluff, wind like a call and response, sleekness of coyotes slipping undercover. More liveliness aroused–two whole new beings from a daughter’s unstoppable faith and petite belly. The work and the play of it arriving with anticipation, unbridled energy. Goodness abounds. The woman will gather bird songs and new slant of light, sigh inside darkness and bring babies’ coos close. Open up that heart, something tells her, let it match more rhythms with this living.
The place will slowly become a home, another way to the center of things. Is not the way of the earth and those who dwell here for this short human span?
That woman: myself. Readying for more. Preparing to learn and adapt, allow these happenings as my soul hesitates and rises. I want to stoke a good fire and create another circle for the hearing and telling of this and that. There is forever another story. May I live it as a willing conduit.
I must remember: Love is the path that makes a way in the wilderness; I am another pilgrim who seeks, is sought; finds, is found. The home I best inhabit is the one I carry within and also beyond.
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.
I am, at last, considering the tentative possibility of moving and it brings on quaking deep inside. Is this normal, a frantic shove against a most reasonable idea? Is it a healthy response, the refusal to blithely embrace change that will likely soon barrel down the stony hillocks of my life?
I feel stubborn as a young girl, digging my heels in figuratively and literally, daring anyone to insist I just get on with it. Only as a younger person I would have surveyed the current abode, placed hands on hips, and said, “Good, I could do with a fresh infusion of places and people. Let’s get packing.” I was used to moving often to support my husband’s career in manufacturing. The children were used to starting over. We all pitched in, curious (and perhaps a bit anxious) about the next stop. We have been a lot of interesting, even captivating, places.
But now I cast my eye around the rooms in which Marc and I reside and ask as I have for fifteen years: “Where do I find a place this affordable, in such an attractive neighborhood, close to amenities and our delightful city center? A place I am happy to make a home once more?”
It has been a long time and many tales in this second floor, 1100 sq. ft. apartment with two generous bedrooms, great light, a spacious dining plus large living room. Twenty years, in fact. It shocks me to admit that I have lasted here so unexpectedly long.
I was in my early forties when my youngest daughter, Alexandra; my son, Joshua; and I moved to an older, spacious two-story house in our newly adopted city. It had a renovated basement, a deep back yard and a bonus sun porch I used for writing. But in two years we had to move. It was one of my sister’s investments and with her usual foresight (the neighborhood was being gentrified), she decided to sell. I have to admit two robberies at the corner store and ensuing gun battles in the alley behind us made the location much less attractive. My son was on his own by then. Alexandra hoarsely called out to me in the dark and I slipped off my bed, slithered on my belly down the hallway as more shots rang out. I grabbed her from her bed by long windows, terrified bullets would find us. We lay on the floor clutching each other. We had moved from a Detroit suburb; this was not the least expected. It was clear it was time to move on.
I was also divorcing and just getting by as a counselor in a residential treatment center for youth. I felt passionate about my new calling of providing services to gang-affected, abused and addicted teens. But my bank account was hurting. After a fast search, this place came to the fore. We loved it at the first glance. The neighborhood, historic, dominated by mature trees and flowering gardens, was perfect. The apartment had a balcony on which to sit and sip coffee or tea, read books, chat. I had thought it could suit us three or four years until she went to college, my last of five sent on her way. By then I imagined I’d be in better financial shape and she’d get scholarships and back I’d go to a small single family dwelling.
Except it didn’t turn out that way. My daughter did indeed get to college but then her father moved here from the Midwest. We resumed where we had left off six years prior. I thought: a good time to move!
It would have made sense, of course. But Marc liked it here, too; I had made it a comfortable home and on we stayed. Planned to move in a couple of years. Planned to buy something. He had taken a salary cut to join me in the Northwest so we both worked harder than ever to improve our circumstances. Yet as he climbed the corporate ladder again and I found better positions our housing seemed more irrelevant. Why change what you already like, overall? It was the first ever apartment we’d shared and we appreciated the benefits. We didn’t miss the cost of maintenance issues, the attention required of a place of our own. We could come and go, felt freer. Still, I longed for another house. I’d walk down our graceful streets and though I knew we wouldn’t ever dwell in those million dollar homes, my own memories of broad porches and back yards to play badminton and have BBQ gatherings came forth. And there was much more privacy. Still, it was okay. I had had those things and this was what we had now. The years rolled on. I wondered if and when and what next, felt restless, looked for new habitats online and in our area. Then I tucked away my longings, kept living and working, content for longer periods.
Then, about the time we had a good down payment for a house or condo, I became critically ill with heart disease. The real estate agent bluntly suggested I reconsider where the money was best used–as I might not ever work again. I had never considered that. What if she was right? I knew my prognosis wasn’t so good. Couldn’t I have a house even for a little while again? But my long-held hope and a nurtured dream was receding fast. Soon it was banished. I would make do. I enjoyed our ordinary but spacious, well-situated apartment enough that I had chosen to not move even when we might have. I didn’t need to buy a house at fifty-one, either. We’d put more in retirement, continue to take interesting vacations, help out family as needed. But in under three years I did return to work and only recently retired from my profession as a counselor. Did we ever re-think buying a home? Yes, but we had become habituated to compact spaces and a less complicated lifestyle.
Being adaptable is a talent shared with all other humans. Resilience and acceptance have often saved me. I learned to find contentment in a place not ever intended to be home for twenty years. Because it had felt so temporary in the beginning, the idea got stuck, as if I was certainly going to move on. We didn’t invest in more preferred furnishings, didn’t give much thought to its character except for comfort, changing color schemes and art and photos. A couple of attractive vases filled with flowers can do wonders. Plants on the balcony make it more inviting. I guess we most decorate with groupings of our books… and all is enlivened with music, our own and others’. I don’t require substantial or impressive. If taken by something unique but expensive I will first wait for a sale –or prowl a secondhand store. Or forget about it.
The truth is, I can adjust to a variety of living conditions, and have posted before about it. I have managed in a renovated chicken coop and lived without heat in winter. And lived on several pretty acres in the country, enjoying a new four brick bedroom home with full views of land and deer grazing upon it, a wood fire burning in the living room each night. As much as I appreciate architecture and the aesthetics of design my everyday life is knitted together by relationships, my spiritual practices and faith, creative engagement and being outdoors. I can write anywhere, after all. And my current corner is just fine.
I started with the proclamation that I am now considering moving. We are, in fact, planning on it without knowing just when or where but the urgency factor has emerged. I have resumed seeking information online and scrutinizing rental ads and keeping track of potential vacancies in the neighborhood. Portland has become a magnet for the young and better-heeled, the techies who have fast track careers. Or an older population who bring from other states more money than I can imagine. It is a dynamic city, a place for innovators and risk takers, where new businesses crop up often and even thrive. Where living closer to city center means closer to so much good action, the thrilling energy of fresh ideas and intoxicating possibilities of more money. The Pacific Northwest is a fabulously livable place, ticks off all the boxes for most. Many of those amenities are why I moved to Portland long ago.
Before it was so crowded. Before it cost so much.
I have watched our city change over the last five years so much that some neighborhoods are barely recognizable. Many renovations are eye-catching and smart, creating vibrant districts where maybe there seemed less appealing configurations. Many people have been pushed out, too–especially those of color and those who toil long but garner less than a decent wage or those who have retired on far less than they had hoped. Whereas in most large American cities people seek the suburbs, Portland has pulled more people closer-in. Our urban boundaries and zoning laws are such that expansion must reach upward, not outward. That means more demolition, regardless of historic or intrinsic value of keeping the old. You can make a lot more money by housing fifty people in a small high rise than a family of five in one rambling house–if you are a real estate developer.
We have been watching and waiting for the owner of our very small apartment building to sell. They know as do we that this place is a steal, that they could ask much more rent if they just spruced it up. But the better option is to sell and either demolish the building or gut it and make them into upscale condos. It has been an odd thing living within the perimeter of one of the most expensive districts. The surrounding area is begging for development and greater density and it has begun. It’s the perfect set up for our five-plex to be soon purchased, perhaps six townhouses, each worth $500,00, taking its place. That’s right–it is getting that costly to live here. This is a city where an apartment of 500 square feet can rent for $2,000 or more a month. Micro homes, they are called.
I don’t have the heart to wait for that day of reckoning. I have known my landlord and his mother, now in her nineties, for the duration of middle age and beyond. I care about them but I know they care most about their investments. I have heard allusions to offers already made them, to the desire to sell sooner than later. I don’t hold it against them. Like my own sister, they have their particular needs; I have mine. But at this point being forced to leave our home would be a terrible ending to a lovely couple of decades.
So I have to get over this, deny an impulse to hide my head in the sand and hope my spouse and I will be lucky enough to stay another year or two. I spend an hour or two a day searching for new habitats. So far none holds my attention more than a few seconds, though we have driven by a few places. Retirement communities are not yet an option when Marc is still working and I am not interested in being around those only over sixty-two. I want to hear kids playing, see a diversity of people walking their dogs. I am beginning to look across the mighty Columbia River, at Washing ton, where it might stay cheaper awhile. We could still visit Portland without much driving. Except for the mad, burgeoning traffic.
Somewhere there has to be a place for us. There always has been. We have made a life in exciting or trying circumstances, in both prosperous and lean times. Simplifying our lives more wouldn’t hurt a bit. I know that to even possess the choice, to consider yet another home are luxuries in many places in the world, including right here in my city. But all that said, there is a sadness loosening beneath the common sense that marches on in my thinking. It is never easy to let go of what is known, what has been a comfort.
As I become older I know that what is worthwhile often requires a true willingness to welcome ideas or directions not previously considered. To weather the ensuing discomfort of transition. To be open to the possibility of the most unexpected things–it might be what changes all in the best ways. I have always been pulled to a goodly adventure. So I am readying myself for one more place where I can take meandering walks with camera in hand, to arrange fresh bouquets and listen to a cello concerto or a jazz trio as I sketch or read. To find a decent spot to write more stories. I am building up the steam needed to move on. Bidding farewell to the pleasing past while the new present is becoming inhabited takes time, but I will be taking along the same person I have always been, as well as my husband. Maybe we’ll be even better suited to what’s ahead.
Back then I was always hungry but never could eat quite enough. My life felt this way, over-full of richness yet still ravenous. You might say I was piloted through days and nights by hunger, by the insistence of it, and the baffling measures needed to find the right amount of satiation. Some people know how to navigate all sorts of hungers without worry. They find their destination via set rules and plot a trajectory along stalwart lines and through a captivating geography of internal and external mapping. How reassuring that must be.
I have found my way by a fumbling instinct. I do at times wish for maps of all sorts.
My older brother, Stefan, and I traveled with our parents more than we had expected. We stayed in tiny or enchanting rooms, got confused in multiple countries and alleys, ate at places guidebooks wouldn’t note. But what did I know? I had trust still, at the first. My parents had the nerve to forge ahead and why wouldn’t an adolescent daughter expect things to go well enough? We had become globe trotters by default–we did it and we kept doing it.
Stefan thought he was an authority long before he actually understood much and boasted of his insights: our parents were rootless due to too much money; the kind of work that had left disgruntlement; the right DNA (which mystified me–was there DNA of rootlessness? of an intelligence peppered with rebellion?) but I knew better. It was simple: they had opted out of ordinary life. If one was deeply hungry for more, there was always something else to be discovered and absorbed. Travel was a good way to do that and they could teach us a few things we wouldn’t get in a regular school.
One of the nights when we sat under piercing white stars in Tuscany, during my seventeenth birthday, I told Mom, “Whatever room is left in me–and it’s a lot–needs occupying. I can’t think by just what, though. It’s like I am always needing the last bit of space taken up, like blank spots aren’t bearable. But there is also so much that I feel like I’m going to burst…”
She nodded, a goblet of wine cupped with her birdlike hands. “You really can find all good fruits along the road. Sample, move on, sample more, the right urge will guide you. Trust the road before you, Celia, my dear.”
My father chortled as if she had told an old joke, then smiled benignly at us, his tiny kingdom gathered about. I felt affection rise up. He wrote and published more now and he was happier than when he taught world history at the community college. He got to live his interests every day.
Mom’s eyes sparked when she talked like that, as if she was a poet with the fire of a mystic. There had been a shift from a literal to more figurative view. She was a very good chemist who had fled a dull lab job after a startling inheritance from a great-aunt. That was three years ago. No one had believed she would up and leave with family in tow.
My mother was someone I loved from a distance. I was busy trying to not to be like her. She was brainy, even inventive. Quick to note the wrongs of the world. She could be fun at times. I never thought she was impulsive. That was more like Dad, a born romantic despite his denial. A lover of antiquity and serendipity. Anyway, they made a quick decision, off we went, and our house became a rental property. No one looked back but me.
They had never liked life in Indiana and the memory of pretending to spurred them to travel longer and longer. Stefan thought he was the luckiest eighteen year old alive. I thought how home was supposed to be where your heart was, yet mine was a kite bouncing about in various parts of the sky. I reeled it in each stop we made for more than a couple of weeks. Then let it go, followed the tugs. I liked our weird bohemian life despite being confused by no clear directions for living it.
Today I looked at a picture from the summer of my seventeenth year. The occasion required it, a lecture I was going to attend. I held the picture close, studied Stefan in the print, snoring in the middle. Antonio at the end. Me huddled at the other side, trying to vanish. Mom took it. It was the summer of much less eating, more sun and water, more lingering. We had remained in Praiano on the Amalfi coast for three months.
That sunbathing day Stefan said out of the blue, “If we put down roots again we’d be boring. No one would know what to say to us and we’d lose our minds.”
I rolled over, stealing a look at Antonio. “Then why do you talk about returning to the States? Like you wish it would happen?”
His eyelids flickered and he scratched his chest. “I miss playing basketball and baseball at the park. Remember it? Hamburgers with white buns, dill pickles, onions and sloppy stuff. But not too badly.”
Antonio pushed himself up on an elbow. “Celia, what about you?”
“Sometimes I do miss having a real house of our own. And Lexie, our dog…she was given to our neighbor. And my blue and cream room.”
He smiled at me in a way that said he was glad I was at a house in Indiana. He, however, was going to my country. He was to enter Boston University the following year. His only uncle lived there, he owned some leather goods stores. Antonio would stay with him and study music and anthropology or international finance.
Antonio liked to sing, his voice melodious and loud. I could listen longer than Stefan. My eyes memorized the contours of his face and length and felt he would be important one day. He had a hunger he would find out how to fill and it would lodge his name in people’s minds. Antonio Marcello. Like it was in mine already.
I ached, head to stomach to feet all summer. I felt his presence like the balm of coastal light one day, the sting of a bee the next. Being near him made me lazy and empty while my skin gave off a fragrance of sea water and wildflowers. He told me that once as we sat on a stone fence above the town, watching the horizon. His shoulder contacted mine. Vertigo threatened but nothing else happened.
I nibbled on bread, olives, cheese when the three of us–sometimes others–gathered at a cafe and talked of nothing but happiness, how to capture it, keep it, live inside it. How to stay forever young. He laughed easily as breathing, fed me pieces of chocolate amaretti cake, his fingers grazing my lips. Antonio’s eyes were two moon shadows, the light glowing inside the deep brown, obscuring my own vision with wild images of love. It didn’t seem as though he knew, or if he did, it meant little that I was charmed. I began to avoid him, walking and swimming long and reading alone. Stefan left me to my ways. They played day and night, roamed like unfettered creatures along the shore and rocky headlands. I crept high along ancient rocks, dove deep, deeper into the wily sea. The chronic emptiness had been filled with Antonio’s smooth, tanned skin though I had not come too close to it; by his voice, resonant and lilting as he joked around or sang; by his eyes, which stayed the rocking of my anxious self with one warmly teasing glance.
I felt ruled by appetites both sensual and intellectual. How is hunger defined? A lack of satisfaction, the hollowness of want, a dull pain that is tamped down by something good or at least filling. A driving need of sustenance. Perhaps the real remedy is in the seeking of nourishment. The work of it settles matters. I slept sporadically at odd hours, ate but felt bottomless, wore myself out learning the land and sea, sought talk with townspeople to improve my understanding of many things. My senses were on high alert in wind, sun and moon, water and earth. The salt clung to me as if I was meant to be there. It was a dream life, one any girl my age would love to live. How could I leave a place so exceptional? But I was pulled by other needs.
Had we found the place to stop or were we heading out soon? My family had tramped across continents as if in search of the last outpost, the one true home. I finally asked my parents when we would return to the States. To Indiana.
“Why? Why now?” My father had just gotten news of a short essay published in a good newspaper.
My mother was darning a hole in her pale blue sweater but looked at me sideways.
I breathed in the scents of oranges and deep ruby wine. Through the living area windows the enormous ocean winked at all. Fishing boats were specks on its undulating surface.
I came back to her eyes. “I am starting to wonder what it is to see only dry land. To watch oak and maple trees turn color, lose their leaves and grow new greenery. To sit in a classroom again, learn with friends rather than being home schooled.”
“We can go inland; we were just talking about moving on. Maybe Germany for awhile again…” Dad sought me with his laser look.
Mother put the sweater down. “It’s something more. You’re restless for something. Ah…is it that boy?”
I turned away from them both. Would they never want to go back, then? Would I stay caught between stupid love and other longings? Here and there? Up and down like a yo-yo?
“Of course, that Antonio, he’s darling, Celia. He’ll do well at Boston University, he’ll be there in two months, not here…does he like you?”
Dad shook his head as if this was territory he could not reckon with and took up his book.
“Dad, don’t you ever miss teaching?”
He put the book down, surprised, forehead wrinkling. There were so many lines there, a graph of life lived with pondering as a main activity, and the beating sun setting darkened furrows.
“Of course I do. Just…not in Indianapolis, Indiana.” But he looked almost doubtful. “Do you really want to go back? Everything would be… too different. We are now so different, don’t you agree?”
“Thank goodness,” Mother murmured and continued with her darning. “Celia, give the boy a reason to pay more attention. Talk to him; I know you’re being shy. And you could eat better, they all love to eat here.”
I left the villa and climbed a long, grueling half hour, up the winding path to the top of a hill. Stretching my arms out I felt as well as saw the panorama. It held an alien gorgeousness. The vastness might look conquerable from that rocky perch but I was only passing through. It was too much, the world at large, a smorgasbord where you never knew how much to take of what, your plate towering with things, your mouth watering but your eyes bigger than your stomach. I was tired of all the options, the endless wonders. I wanted to feel more ordinary, think less of the riddles of life.
Before long my father started to speak of leaving for the States. My mother blamed me for rousing his memory of only the good points, as if I was conspiring against her with my homesickness. She got moody, cried some as they debated the merits of being wayfarers versus being homebodies. Dad won out; it was time for us kids to settle again, and for them to stop. Regroup.
Stefan was amenable either way, it turned out. He had thought some of college since meeting Antonio but he had come to feel at home with few constraints. He had become stronger, muscled; he turned heads all the time. He was nearly fluent in Italian and German. But I was still the same, I told him the week before we were to leave. It seemed as if I was the one less improved by all that we had experienced.
“Are you kidding? I’d agree just to bug you but in fact you are quite different,” he said. “Oh, I don’t mean obvious things.” He looked down. “Though Antonio says you are soon to be ‘ravishing’… No, I mean you’re a lot smarter than I imagined. Aw now, wait–it’s like your mind has ripened and everything you feel or say is more interesting, your ideas more complicated. I see how much you take in, wonder over like Dad, but you have Mom’s way of making your way with new people no matter where we are. People are drawn to you. I’d say you’re better than before, too.”
He stopped to throw a rock into the vibrant blue water. We watched it sink a little, then disappear.
“I didn’t know you had such thoughts about me,” I said. “I can say you’re more confident, You can learn languages so easily! You always enjoy forging a new path, finding adventure. You seem fearless to me, Stefan, like nothing can deter you. You don’t feel lost in the world, it seems.”
“Nice. Not all necessarily true but very nice.”
We moved closer to the water so our feet found the water’s edge. Each wave greeted toes, then receded. It was good to sit with my brother at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, thinking over the times we had spent in breathtaking or simple or unusual places. I was saturated with the time away from Indiana. It felt as if I could be wrung out and then people might see patterns, colors and textures come to the fore as I dried out. Things that had never been there before, transforming moments that might not be understood for years to come.
Stefan pushed me into the sea but I rose right up and got him back. We swam a long way, our bodies lithe and shining like vessels captured by the water’s mysterious pull, its beauty a power we accepted, felt in our veins.
Antonio was waiting when we returned to the shore. He put his arms around me, hugged me, told me he hoped one day we would meet again. So I kissed him and he responded and everything I had hoped felt true, even if only a moment’s worth of truth. It was just enough to last me a long while.
The three of us joined my parents for a meal and I ate. I ate as if I had not tasted such marvelous food in years. Every bite was a revelation. My eyes rested on Antonio and my heart felt fed, too.
Now, tonight, I am sitting in a large auditorium in Chicago. It has been fifteen years. I am the well known editor of an arts magazine. Two years divorced; one child, a young daughter. Prone to working too late not far from this place. I am riveted by the person on stage. Antonio is taller and darker than I expected and he is leaning into the lectern, enthusiasm for his topic spilling over into an attentive crowd. He is telling the audience how he ended up becoming a ethnomusicologist. That he believes music tells the truth, the critical stories, and he wants no one’s music to be lost or kept silent or to be misrepresented. He travels a lot, the kid from Praiano, Italy who got lucky. Antonio is animated with an ardor for his field and his mission to share what he’s learned. I give in to his words and vision and time floats by. Music plays and I am carried by each idiosyncratic note, how they create a wholeness of song.
Afterwards when he signs copies of his book, my body doesn’t want to move along in the noisy line, to take itself to where he sits, a smile readied as his pen is set upon a blank page. I force my feet to take small shuffling steps until I am third in line. It is too much, the past colliding with the present, his life, my life. I step away and glance at him and he looks up, just catches my eye. Frowns. I pause to smile, then rush through the front doors, onto the sidewalk where glaring lights and honking cars and congested sidewalks conspire to steal my breath and rattle my mind. I am starving, my stomach clutching my ribs. There is a coffee shop nearby, I will find it, drink a strong cup and gather my wits before I pick up dinner to take home. Antonio, in Chicago! It is too crazy and wonderful to grasp.
But the chilled wind is pushing against me, enough that getting my footing isn’t so easy as people rush by. Someone grabs my shoulder and I pull away.
“Scusami, is it really you Celia?”
When I turn around, Antonio is there. Praino is there. That time of wonders unfolds in his beautiful, craggy features, in his vibrant voice, in my spoken name.
“Yes,” I answer. “Want to share a decent Italian dinner with my daughter and me?” and his laughter is a relief, a cascade of delights as we enfold each other inside no small joy. At last.
After a brief business trip to the west coast they could have taken an earlier flight back to Virginia; he could have bypassed the visit altogether. It’s a jolt to be back here again. He imagines his grandfather would declare it unfit for eye and soul but he thinks the property retains some of its charm. Or it could with expert care. It was so much more expansive, open to sky and the grand Columbia Gorge when he was growing up. Trees, flowers and other plantings have gone wild, ravaging the grounds’ elegance. It used to offer such coherence of design.
It is Elinor, his wife of three years, who has encouraged them to visit once more. He was informed old family friends had taken ownership from the last buyers. Still, the late afternoon party invitation was an aside in the phone call, as if the Griswolds were not that thrilled to extend it but compelled by good manners. They had been eager to share their recent purchase, though. And there will be croquet so dress the part. So Patrick humors Elinor; she’s wanted to see the scenes from his upbringing. The place was in his family for over eighty-five years, after all, two generations.
Patrick feels there should have been a memorial of sorts, create a transitional ceremony noting its passing from one dynasty to…well, the Griswolds aren’t a dynasty but they might be someday with enough business acumen and luck. His grandfather and father would have appreciated that idea, some suitable bombast to mark its fate. But Patrick never quite took to Hal (who had once been a Harry; apparently Hal better suited him now), though maybe he did a little to Pris (Priscilla Martin before marriage).
Neither old friend had been any good at basketball or swimming, hadn’t shared his enthusiasm for spontaneous adventures. They had little use of reading for pleasure, something Patrick early on found improved on real life, plus he was easily held in thrall. The other two were the type that studied too hard to better forge ahead, making them seem more admirable. Maybe they were, though Patrick did well enough. Now his old cohorts seemed on the path to their own material glory. Back then their brief entertainments included gossip and television. They complained of heat and bugs when prodded into doing something even faintly athletic. So Patrick and his younger sister, Susan, included them since they were scholl cohorts but were not so close to them.
The tennis court is still intact, he sees, but weedy, a few snaking lines in the cement pad. He has an urge to bound onto the court, execute a few phantom serves. Do they possibly own tennis rackets and balls? The pool on the other hand looks good as ever, and now is being used by the Griswold’s seven year old daughter. Patrick wishes he had packed a swimsuit; he’d like diving from the low board and swimming a lap or two. He’s pleased Elinor undertakes her own social meandering after he introduced her to a few folks he once knew. Hal did the bulk of introductions, then let them be.
In the distance she looks ethereal with her wide-brimmed straw hat and flowing ivory skirt topped by a linen blouse. The setting is much better enhanced by her attire and grace than Pris in her crayon-bright attire. He warms at the thought.
“Is it all you remember, Patrick?”
Pris is standing behind him when she speaks but he still recognizes the scent she wears, to his surprise, something from Guerlain she once told him in high school. He never forgot it after they briefly dated; she was far more into him. He wonders if it was a deliberate choice today, then thinks himself an arrogant idiot for the thought. Maybe some never alter what was once liked. He finds that idea odd.
He turns abruptly to see her long-lashed eyes brighten with amusement. Discovers her square teeth unusually white.
“It is and isn’t what I recall. Ten years since I visited, after my father’s funeral. It was left intact, I think, after the other owners bought it. Which I appreciate. What about your plans?”
“I’d think it needs gutting and a total reno. Finally! It was getting old when you grew up in it. It needs more than a facelift now.” She turns as she places the lip of the tall glass to teeth. A delicate eyebrow rises. “Is that a shock?”
Patrick’s thin lips spread into a cursory smile. “It’s to be expected when a place ages, the fading paint, the creak in the floor. Our horse farm is one hundred fifty years old. But lots of people can’t stand antiquity. Newer means better, so we’re told. Faster, shinier, oh, yes, more ecological but also disposable.”
“I don’t plan on DIY work, no worries there. And I like a traditional look. Just a refreshed one, more color.” She steps apart from him and stares into the scenery. “How is Elinor managing on that place when you take off? She says you travel half the time. Doing heavens knows what, carousing with locals on Crete, I gather, or in Tuscany.”
“She’s devoted to her horses. She isn’t the kind of woman to pine away for an absent husband. Actually, I tend to wander alone more often than not. Scandinavia. India. Montreal. I love coming back to her…And how about you? How will you like it out here without the city excitement?”
“I grew up out here, remember? And it turns out I’m a bit artistic, I paint miniature dogs and cats. I have embroidery projects. I work part-time at the law office. And I have Laura.” She waves to her daughter who is just climbing out of the pool. “She might miss her friends so far out but she can have them out for sleepovers. There’s so much room! I thought it was bigger–as a child, it seemed beyond vast–but I do admit I still can feel lost.”
She looks at him as if expecting a memory to be shared, a moment of intimacy. Patrick’s mind brings forth the house’s interior. He knows how much room is there: eight bedrooms and five and a half bathrooms, a cool, shadowy formal living and dining room, a rustic family room, a leather-and-cherry study, a semi-circular breakfast nook and a pantry almost the size of the kitchen (once white and pale blue)–
“Patrick!” Hal saunters up, slaps his back and hands him a beer. “What do you think? I mean, really? Can you believe your old buddies are married, had a child and are now living here?”
Pris studies Hal and Patrick from under the fringe of red bangs. Patrick looks away. He finds her hair alarming. It was once auburn brown; now it is nearly the bright penny color of Elinor’s hair, an odd coincidence though his wife’s is the real thing.
“What do I think about your buying my family’s old estate? Or about your success in real estate? Or Pris’ very red hair?” He doesn’t mean it to sound so sharp, but the words hang in the air between them and silence gathers.
Pris lets loose a guffaw, to their surprise, then waves to a woman easing into the pool. She dashes off, leaving the men alone.
Hal eyes his old pal and wonders if he made the right decision asking him to stop by. They weren’t all that close and Patrick has turned out to be a semi-reclusive, story-scribbling type. He has published three suspense novels already and they seem to sell very well. Hal likes them. Of course, Patrick doesn’t have to actually work for a living with his marriage to Elinor and his inheritance. He can still play around while Hal works like mad to give his wife what she wants and deserves. What they both want. Including the Keating’s ancient estate.
“I’ve coveted this house ever since I met you,” Hal admits. “Now I have it to myself.” He sighs, a man well-satisfied.
“Really? You liked it that much? I thought you came over to harass, then attempt to romance my sister and, barring that, to avail yourself of all amenities.” Patrick slugged Hal in the shoulder, lightly but not too lightly. “But it was fun to have you and Pris and the rest over to play. We had some incredible pool parties.”
“That we did. And Pris and I will again.”
“Remember the Fourth of July after our senior year? The fireworks our two uncles set off down below, how the sky over the Columbia River blew up with all those bright explosions? Then those stars later, which are always better. Pris and Susan and the others jumped in the pool fully clothed, music was blaring and you got lit on vodka, stinking drunk!”
“You always wore trunks underneath your shorts, ever ready for a quick lap around the pool, a grab at the girls! Yes, indeed, I passed out in Susan’s arms–eventually.”
Patrick squirms at the thought. “You did? Where?”
“Under that–” he spins around until he finds a towering elm–“that monster tree. That one nearest the brick outdoor fireplace or oven or whatever it is. There wasn’t any fire burning, of course, so no one else was over there but us.”
Patrick lifts his straw hat, scratches his head, then carefully resettles it. “Susan’s husband is at Oxford, you know, and she’s doing noteworthy new research on Joan of Arc. She’s happy.”
“Well, that’s great, good for them!” Hal reaches down for a stick, then tosses it into the air where it flips twice before making a rapid descent. It bounces into the pool. “But it was your house, I have to admit, that brought me back. We lived on the other side of the road, in a very sound split-level my dad built. Custom design and work! Pris and her family lived four miles east with her mother, yes, it was quite a bit rougher than today…We each lived such different lives. I absolutely wanted yours.”
Patrick finds this sad and a bit absurd. No one can take over another’s life. There are so many factors, the shifting strands of personalities, fortunes that change. You create your own life. Anyone can copy externals or repeat a few choices. But if Hal thinks his moving into their house will be as wonderful as it was for Susan and himself, their parents and extended family, he is in for a rude awakening. That house shared their lives, harbored, celebrated and suffered them well. There were decades of living through ups and downs. Things Hal doesn’t know about and never could understand. The Keatings created their home’s energy. It was seasoned with love. It was a testament to loyalty of family, dedication to noble enough aspirations, a friendly showcase of substantial and comforting style.
That Patrick took another route via Elinor and writing didn’t terribly distress his grandfather or mother. But his father stopped talking to him for five years, then regretted it when he became terminally ill. It could not have hurt Patrick more, those lost years, but in the end they found a commonality once more. They were Keatings, afterall, they were one and the same if with different stripes.
But the house, this acreage, has been in other hands for so long. It is not the same as it was and never can be, not even for Patrick. Certainly not for Hal. He and Pris will have to make it entirely their own, whatever that may be, just forget the varnished past.
He thinks of saying all this but he can see the gleam in Hal’s eyes, how the fervor of new success and the ownership of such a house and so much land have served to ignite him with fabulous expectations. He got what he meant to get.
“Pris may have had the right idea–gut it and start over. Make it something just right that suits you.”
“I can’t have that! We have to preserve as much as we can. I want it to be as it always was.”
“Good luck, then. It was a happy house for me. I hope it is for you.”
Hal shines with triumph and pumps Patrick’s hand. They reminisce as they walk the perimeter of the grounds. Patrick feels a shiver here and there: this is where their favorite calico cat ventured out and never returned; this is where he and Susan climbed a tree with their sleeping bags but Susan fell and broke her leg; this is the rock bench where he brought his notebook to write things on week-ends. The huge brick oven presided over wonderful barbeques, scads of people milling about, the Tiki torches casting their burnished glow on everyone.
Once back at the pool, he has the sudden urge to swim. He strips down to his boxer shorts.
“Wait, Patrick, really not appropriate this time, come back!”
He runs off the diving board, clutches knees in arms and executes a cannonball. Smacks onto the lambent surface of cool aquamarine water, then sinks and sinks into the depths. He keeps a strong hold on his breath. Opens his eyes. All is lit up, gentle perfection, voluminous space emptied of distractions. He shuts his eyes and floats sideways, then upward when there is a rush of water and bubbles beside him. He sees Elinor’s white blouse rising off her chest, her skirt ballooning around her bent elbows. She has a giddy look. Her long red hair streams around her, fire and water commingling in this momentary heaven. Her mouth tells him, I love you.
They grab each other’s hand and float upward, their heads breaking surface. They gasp and giggle, arms thrown about each other.
All around them are the party goers, some considering jumping in, most staring at them with a mixture of admiration and distaste. Strangers drinking and eating and whispering and plotting on this land that was once Keating land. Not his now. It doesn’t cause any pain to say it aloud so he does, to his wife.
“This is so not my life, anymore. It’s a relief to be returning to our own place, my real life.”
“Yes, so right.”
Streaming water, they walk to an edge of the property where she picks up sunglasses and purse from the picnic table. They pause to admire a last time geography of his youth, the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. The place that set him dreaming and moving on a good course.
“Patrick? Elinor?” Hal and Pris dash toward them with towels. “Can we help you back to the house?”
“No, we’re on our way.” He sweeps his arms open and around the area, turns to Hal’s disapproving expression.”Treat it kindly but make it your own. It may take good care of you.”
“Where will we change?” Elinor whispers as they walk away.
“In one of their bathrooms or in the cab?”
They leave the others chattering, no apologies offered for the pool plunge. No last words for this good land, the esteemed house. Off to horses and stories. A sweatier, more intriguing, contented life.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson