In That Country with Children

The barn at the country house
The barn at the country house

As I read about the Arctic weather that is descending upon the eastern portion of our country again, the images that slid into mind’s eye were of the ten months spent in the country outside of Clare, MI. It was 1981, a winter of moderate blizzards in Michigan. And we lived in the middle of it.

Snowdrifts and banks were often so high they dwarfed my five children, all aged seven and a half and under (as well as myself) as they trudged to the school bus stop a quarter-mile away. This was dependent upon whether the snowplows–either county road service or those attached to personal trucks– got out and cleared the way in time. Their youngest sister, one and a half years old, was swaddled in pink snowsuit puffiness. As she called out her voice was the barest tinkle swallowed up by the razor wind. She could barely move her little legs to keep up with me. I lifted her and held tight as we joined the others. I wanted to make sure they weren’t sideswiped by a zealous snowplow wielder or even lost in another battering round of snow-armed gusts.

It was not so far to go, but it was a walk through a whiteness that fairly sparked, a landscape of hillocks of voluminous snow. Trees and structures were refashioned into abstract sculptures. Sunlight bounced off curves and hollows, rendering us half snow blind. Traffic was scarce but we were lucky if the school bus made it on time on those treacherous side roads.

At the end of school days five sleds came out from the garage and snowball fights commenced from behind the protection of snow-block forts. Snow angels covered the pristine surface. They would take refuge in the towering, spacious barn, a favorite place. Once they tumbled into our house, snow pants and jackets peeled off, ruddy cheeks kissed and snotty noses wiped, there would be hot cocoa or tea and snacks. A fire to thaw fingers and toes.

The Clare house was one that accommodated us easily. We had moved from a small college town and an aging two-story house that was just big enough. But the idea of a larger contemporary house smack in the middle of flat farmlands appealed to us. The owners were off trying out a business on the other side of the country for a year. It seemed a good adventure for us; it wasn’t that far from Marc’s job. So we signed on the line and moved in. It was the first country habitat shared since our two families had been blended, though Marc and I had each separately lived in the country. We were not that naive about life without easy city convenience. He now commuted a leisurely 25 minutes to and from work but it felt farther in winter. Then it was a journey marred by life-threatening moments on icy county roads. Skidding into the ditch was to be expected sooner or later, and often more than once a season. Carrying sand and shovels, blankets, coffee, flashlight and some food was recommended. There were no cell phones then; you relied on passersby, if any came.

We found the new house and fields vast, refreshing. It was not altogether comfortable at first to me, there was so much to it. I had to keep track of all those children. We had lived in a neighborhood where the kids could come and go a bit as long as they were together, and they’d met friends at the corner. Bicycling all over and playing hopscotch on sidewalks–no more. We had no sidewalks and the roads were so long and bumpy–deserted. Here we had plenty of elbow room to spare, huge windows that allowed us to see far across the acreage, a wood stove in the living room that cast radiant heat even up and downstairs as long as fragrant wood kept burning. We even had an extra room for the television and record player, with wall shelves for a library. But the children could no longer dash to their buddies’ places. They couldn’t while away the time on a cozy porch, watch cars and walkers pass by, strike up random conversations. They were stuck with each other. And I was more often alone for long hours without Marc as his career took off–my good friends were elsewhere. Still, I had faith that this would be a good year. We would make it so.

For one thing, there were whitetail deer about. They most often came out toward dusk and twilight to feed, as well as early in morning. There were dense woods near the back of the our borrowed land; they would make their way into open spaces, stealthy, sniffing the breezes, grazing and taking tuns keeping watch. Their sleek brown bodies gliding across bright white land enchanted us. Deep snow hindered at times; we’d see only tracks here and there, if at all, near us. Marc hunted a few times, but came back empty handed, except for a bone or two that roving dog packs had left behind.

In fall, spring and summer they came closer to the house, roamed wider, sprinting about. Fawns with spotted fur made us catch our breath. But the proliferation of deer meant that driving could be hazardous to both them and us, and many a deep had its life ended early from crossing a dark road and making contact with a vehicle. We hit a deer that year, and it limped deeper into the forest, leaving our front fender dented. Once you hit a deer that heavy thud is not forgotten; you become vigilant, watch either side of the road for a flash of tail or eyes in headlights.

One evening in the deep of winter I rested in shadows by the dim light of the wood stove when something skulked about, one corner to another. I looked around and thought at first it could be shifting light from the stove slipping over the room. I grew drowsier. The children were sleeping, Marc was due back from a trip in a couple of days, and I felt grateful for shelter from the snow and a deep, soothing quietness. I had my notebook in hand after a coveted hour of writing. Yet I felt something else alive was there so stood and searched with chest tightening. Nothing but the stillness of night. I checked the children’s rooms and found them snoozing. I settled down again, eyes half-closed. But a sudden scurrying sound across the kitchen floor told me these were not children’s feet approaching and receding.

Mice had finally found their way in.

I wish I could say the problem was easily solved. There were countless traps set over the next weeks. We stalked them ruthlessly. But no, they eluded us most of the time. They heard us coming. They had their hideaways and they were not budging until snow melt. I worried about every stray crumb. We put all grains in tightly sealed glass or plastic containers, put fruit away. The garbage was removed daily though once I had the impulse to make a trail with scraps from kitchen to the back door, readying myself with a broom in one hand and sledge hammer in the other. I didn’t carry that plan out, but I thought it may have worked for at least a night. We were forever cleaning and disinfecting, opening traps with small, mangled bodies in them sometimes (I can’t say I was aggrieved but neither did it bring glee), but more often empty. Cheese gone, of course. They were busy all night even getting fat then resting or undertaking sneaky reconnaissance during day. I knew they were there always, and resigned myself as best I could. I gave names to ones I kept seeing, though common sense said they were likely not the same, and told them things that were not close to kind. Though, of course, it was we who resided in their territory.

The children got so used to them that they’d not even look up, just call out, “There’s another one, it skidded under the big pillow,” or “I heard one in my room but it didn’t get on the bed.” We were not allowed to have an indoors cat. The major problem was that the mice were gnawing away at things in walls. Like insulation, surely electrical wires. So we called the owners who were not at all pleased. (Did they never have mice running havoc, or did the critters just like our hospitality? It was the country!) Then pest control in utter defeat. They took care of the infestation, in time.

The winter proceeded in a plodding fashion. Its grayness imbued the rooms and outdoors alike. We played board games and card games. We hauled out art supplies and made things of paper and cardboard, paint and glitter and macaroni and string and more. The walls filled up with marvelous and crazy creations. We baked cookies and cupcakes. Cleaned the house for fun. All five children danced and sang to the music cranked up on boombox or stereo; practiced acrobatics in the lower level of the house; played in the snow but less often. They growled and argued and luckily the house was big enough that they could get away from each other. We were being taken over by cabin fever and resources were strained. But, too, five (not entirely related) children were learning how to live together without anyone forfeiting their place in our arms, without anyone needing stitching up, without Marc or me staving off regrets. It was all hanging together, imperfectly, but it was working pretty darned well.

When the older ones were in school, my toddler daughter and I took walks, read stories, played with blocks and tinker toys, found notes on the toy piano, sang favorite songs as her language skills grew. I played my cello for her as she lay at my feet, twisting her curls, humming along. She loved being in the kitchen as I made meals and when I wrote, took crayon to paper.

And that was the year when she underwent some of the first medical testing to determine why she was growing so very slowly. I remember the day when I got the news that she did not have an assortment of dread diseases or disorders. So far. I pressed telephone to ear, sliding to the kitchen floor, weeping and thanking God even while knowing the tests weren’t close to being finished, that there was much more to come. I just didn’t know what next or when or how. But that snowbound, splendid winter it was enough to know she was not actually ill, that we would investigate and find–yes, find–different answers. A child was given me who was filled with a joy that bubbled over, who was doted upon (mostly) by her siblings–and still oblivious that she was perfect, but tiny. She had a knack for discovery of surprising experiences and brought the wonder to us; we surrounded her with our hearts’ protection.

I told myself: Snow will soon leave us. Our lives are good here. These children, this living is so beautiful I could die today and say it was all much more than enough. I was full to the brim. It felt as if such love would never tire, would just keep growing and holding us up no matter what. Even if I had fear or worry, even if there was pain or sorrow. We had made it that far, mice and medical tests, cabin fever and certain lonely nights.

As spring arrived in increments, one snow bank melted after another to reveal brown, muddy grass and it was a miracle. Rivulets of water filled the ruts of roads and pathways. We flung open the sliding glass doors of the dining room and kitchen. The land gave up its wild perfumes, the coldness relented in soft gusts of sun-burnished air. The children ran and leapt like mad things across the soggy earth and their hands came back filled with rocks, tiny blossoms and frogs. Insects and broken birds’ eggs and twigs with tight buds.

The barn was the best place when not roaming under the sun. They climbed into the haylofts, screeched over its scratchiness and odd smells and made special rooms in the corners. They put on plays w with remnants of this and that. They got out tools and fixed things or made things with Marc’s help. We walked down the road and waved to farmers as they planted fields. The bikes came out and in time I trusted they would come home to us. The deer roamed closer. The birdsong was so startling in the dawn I would lie there mesmerized. Eventually, snow was replaced with rainstorms. We could trace their path, see them coming miles off, black clouds running and lightning with its thunderous postscript dazzling the scene, rain swooping across treetops, dashing the hungry land with curtains of water. After it stopped, Marc and I might sit on the wide deck, breathe deeply, watch the children play in the puddles and the trees grow greener. We’d say nothing at all. Contentment found us that easily. It felt like there was nothing not to trust or hold with care.

Our year there came to a close as the school year ended. The owners had had enough of their experiment in the new city and state they’d tried. They wanted us out, pronto. And so we packed up everything again. It wasn’t easy to leave the large, light-filled Clare house with its myriad gifts. and lessons. But it was alright to go forward. The next house was in a good neighborhood with scads of kids, in a city known for education and the arts and best of all, near loving grandparents. I might say that year was the one when I knew for certain that I had dug in, managed well enough and was looking forward to the long haul–more challenges of motherhood, a second marriage and my own life, a crazy dragon I had always wrangled with and defended, sword in one hand, olive branch in the other, a life loved, anyway.

(An afterthought: The owners of the Clare house had moved to Portland, OR., which is where Marc and I have lived for over two decades, as well as some of our family.)

Under the Baby Grand Piano

IMG_2343Under the baby grand piano was an undisturbed expanse. Sunlight brightened beige carpet and sage green walls. The legs of the piano were mammoth, at the end of which were brass rollers, in case anyone thought to move it. If I lay still and touched the wood, I could feel the vibrations of the chords and melodies brought alive by my siblings or father. I could watch feet at work on the pedals, altering the presentation of notes. I could see the underpinnings of the piano and marveled that it held everything needed for such sounds, especially when the top was propped open. If I was quiet and my father wasn’t giving string lessons, I could stay undisturbed a long while.

I brought pillows to create a miniature home within the small domain. My dolls took their seats or made their way through a maze of textured softness, to the length of curtains, behind which they would wait. They came out to converse, fume and laugh, to smile and bow. Then back they went into their pillowy house where we would listen to the piano’s bountiful voice, enchanted. Sleepy. I put them to bed with brilliant scarves my mother gave me; they doubled as dolls’ clothing and impromptu partitions. I covered my face with a floral scarf, then lay back. This was a front row seat. This was my own hidden world, and I was stage manager, director, actors.  The music surrounded me–piano joined by cello or violin or clarinet– and fluttered or blazed its way into mind and heart. My dolls had to be told what I already knew: this was simply home.

Such found spaces were the start of an obsession with dwellings that stayed with me. As a child, it was the piano space and the hideaway behind the evergreens in the back yard. It included the aging maple tree, as well, for branches could be chairs, leafy limbs could be walls and stairs to, depending on the number of climbers, the treetop look-out.

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I grew up in a three bedroom, one bath home that housed seven persons. It was a household that welcomed neighbors, frequent visitors, or students of my father. My parents entertained regularly and fit a number of people into the modest but attractive dining and living rooms. The Michigan bungalow was less accommodating than what was preferred, especially since it was not as large as the rambling old Missouri house referred to by the street corner it was on, “Trenton and Lamb”, with its many fruit trees, breezeway and larger rooms. But the house I grew up in didn’t feel that crowded to me. The bedroom we three sisters shared was adequate. My brothers were a dash across the hall. We learned patience and fought quietly. There were ways to create space within space, with books or blankets or a closed closet door. Or a piano. And our yard and the tree nursery behind were heaven.

As I grew up I began to sketch houses as a way to challenge myself and indulge a love of design. Rooflines slanted this way and that; living rooms incorporated glass ceilings or streams; screened balconies were big enough for pajama parties in humid summer nights. I drew the houses I wanted to live in when I grew up: cottages on lakes, glass and fieldstone forest homes, habitations that hid in the sides of hills. And an old, narrow brownstone, of which I had read and thought quite exotic. Once, when I was old enough to accompany my parents to the swanky home of their arts-patron friends, I was overcome with glee when I saw a tall tree rising through the rooms, through the roof. Anything was possible, I decided. I saw what could be done, how people could match houses to dreams.

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I lived a lot of places after leaving my parents’ home. As a college student and newlywed, I once inhabited a chicken coop that was more likely a shed. It had, of course, been fully renovated but one could barely walk in and out of the tiny spaces we called rooms. At the peak of the roof in the kitchen and bathroom we could stand up full height but without elbow room to move. I can’t say I was fond of it, but it was unique, and was shelter enough for a time.

IMG_2351By age thirty or so, I stopped counting how many times I moved, either for school or work. Over time there were several children joining us. Then divorces. Buying a house seemed a far-off dream.  For someone who had grown up in one house, it was surprising how easily I adapted. I was, in fact, excited about each new city or town  and with it, the discovery process of making new friends. I had an expansive appetite for adventure; the apartments and houses were part of it, the setting for a life.

Without money to burn or a gift for either decorating or domesticity, I had a few challenges. There were my own paintings at first, then prints and photographs hung. There were ways to make things feel intimate, eclectic, homey. Candles blurred imperfections. Incense camouflaged telltale remnants of previous tenants. Books overflowing bookshelves fixed any dull spot. My cello and a few guitars looked handsome in the corner. Handmade ceramics lent an artistic, earthy feel. Colorful pillows and wall hangings (harkening back to life under the piano), children’s art work, warm color on well-used walls: it could be a place to call one’s own, if even for a short while. Add love and we were set.

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Then we were transferred to Tennessee, where we bought an A-frame house on a half-acre of land. It was built into a hill and from the road the A-shape looked deceptively like one-story. An anomaly in the small, southern town with a village green, it reminded us of northern Michigan homes. With four bedrooms, two baths and two spacious living areas it was large enough for five kids and then some. There was a murky pond which we soon found attracted snakes. There was gardening space which rendered a few good vegetables despite ignorance and weather. Insects abounded, which interested me, except for the black widows in the woodpile–but they were worth a quick look. Facing away from the road, on the ground level, were two bedrooms, a family room, kitchen, all of which looked out onto a large yard and woods. We had a woodstove to use in winter. I kept the fires going while my husband worked long hours. I loved the work, the country- modern feel of the house. I dreamed of getting a big dog but the neighbor’s German Shepherd mix visited daily. The cicadas rasped and buzzed in the deep heat of summer and we watched thunderstorms roll past our large windows. The kudzu vines that grew rapidly were mighty and strange. It was green hilly country coupled with good architecture.

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When we left less than two years later, it was the dog who made us cry. He leapt up and licked our faces as we closed the door. We left too soon, but a career called us to another place and a new start once more: Detroit. Still, we found a place in the outskirts, in a suburb that looked like a village putting on fancy raiment. It was not what we’d hoped, smaller and older and in need of a facelift. There would be changes again in a few years. And more after that.

Today I live in the inimitable Pacific Northwest, where the land itself takes my breath away. If that isn’t enough, my city offers a panorama of structures; it favors both old and new. I remain enamored of structures and gardens–of houses, in particular. I pour over good architecture magazines and books. You will find me walking our distinctive neighborhoods, eyes scanning placement of windows, finesse of a portico, the way a veranda encircles a house to bring the outdoors in but keep family and friends close. I take my camera everywhere. I don’t want to miss the odd element or small detail.

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You might be surprised: I don’t live in a wildly imaginative or beautiful home. I live simply. It is what we need for now and suits me. But I sometimes long for, even dream of just the right house. I still secretly draw, add a warm watercolor sheen, light dappling a courtyard. As we are apt to do as we get older, I wonder if becoming an architect rather than a counselor would have been a good path. Regardless, you and I inspire our dwellings, create whatever we need them to be, and they can inspire us in return. They are, as in my baby grand piano fort so long ago, our places to be fully ourselves. Home.

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