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There is a
memory which comes back to me on certain early summer days, when the late
afternoon light strikes long tree shadows on the grass and life seems sweet and
full of kindness. Forty-five
years ago I made a car trip in June, across Connecticut and Pennsylvania and
into northern Ohio, on old two-lane highways, through all the pretty towns and
villages that illustrate the reach of New England, with their green squares and
white churches, houses with screened porches, snowball and bridal veil bushes,
zinnias in straight lines next to front walks.
We stopped for the night in one of those houses, close to the center of
one of those towns, the home of a cousin of my friend the driver.
The bedroom had
a double bed with headboard and footboard, a wash stand and dresser and chest of
drawers, flowered wallpaper, white sheets on the bed and a tufted bedspread with
fringe. Wooden floors, a mirror
over the dresser, an old print on the wall.
Soft thin towels in the bathroom, a
cast-iron claw-footed tub; the floor was tiled with little octagons.
The soap smelled of clean. There
was a screened porch in which we sat and talked after supper in the kitchen,
then bed and up early the next morning to continue on to Cleveland Heights.
The memory is
slow, and very peaceful. The rooms
of the house were of a perfect largeness, big enough to move around in.
The upstairs hall was wide enough, and the bathroom furniture stood
comfortable in the space. There
was a hook for your bathrobe on the back of the wooden door with its glass knob.
Sitting on the
porch after supper we smelled grass and heard only the sound of our own voices,
and the night insects, and an occasional car going past.
The kind woman
who drove me, the mother of an old friend of my sisterís, is dead now.
She died twenty years ago, and I heard about it almost by accident.
I miss her, as I miss my own mother and other mothers of friends, women
whose lives are often dismissed as trivial because of the times they lived in -
women who were born in the early part of the twentieth century and were in
college in the thirties, married and mothers in the forties and fifties,
middle-aged by the sixties, dead by the nineties.
For me the
memories reside in things, sounds and smells, and especially those combinations
that evoke a sense of place: At the
age of twelve, desperately homesick for Illinois, I haunted a few feet in front
of a house up the block from us, which had just the right juxtaposition of
granite sidewalk with moss growing between the cracks, an old elm on the tree
lawn, a set of concrete steps and a row of zinnias beside the front walk.
resides in those things which furnished my child life in my childhood houses,
and which were all chosen by my mother. Many of them are in my house now and
friends who visit us are unaware of the
iconography amongst which they move.
Thus the sheer curtains in our bedroom recall the living room in
Illinois, the red and green color scheme in the kitchen is reflective of our old
sun porch decoration, the white enameled sink looks out to the back yard as did
my motherís sink in Cleveland Heights. The
house is a palimpsest.
I began my
adult life as a painter but have been mostly other things: a teacher, a mother,
a farmerís wife. And what is my lifeís work?
Certainly among these other things, the making of a Homely House, as
Tolkein has it; a family history in
furniture and pictures, the work of
my mother, and her mother, and probably her mother before her.
The house in my memory is a Homely House, as is my motherís house in
Cleveland Heights. She used to talk
about her parents house in Dayton too, as a perfect house,
I guess all of our houses are echoes of what we loved as children.
My friend Jennyís house was a Homely House, big, rambling, with an
enormous kitchen and a baronial dining room and a fireplace on one end.
Jennyís mother is another woman I miss;
she made me think of country clubs and trips to Cuba without the kids,
and the carefree adult life I thought I would have one day.
There was a long sun room along the back of the house, where one winter
Jenny and I made styrofoam Christmas ornaments stuck with sequins and beads and
rickrack to sell to friends and make a fortune.
When I was an adult I walked into a family dinner in that house one
winter night, the fire blazing and everyone around the table, into warmth and
love and cheer.
If this is, as
I think it must be, my lifeís work, then it is doomed to obscurity just
because of what it is - a background. Also
that it constantly changes in small ways, because it is lived in, keeps it
ephemeral in spite of carpets and curtains and Grandmotherís dining room
table. We can take pictures - I
recently found a book of photographs of rooms taken by my grandfather in the
1920ís, of his beloved house in Dayton - but they are only slight indicators
of the warm reality. Sometimes houses of the famous are made into museums but that
is what they are, preserved dead things. Only
Ruskinís house in the Lake Country, which I saw last September, seemed
inhabited - and only because of the glorious landscape outside the windows,
which poured into the rooms and gave them life.
Also of course,
we are talking about womenís work, and womanly labor, which is famously mostly
honored in the abstract and hardly ever concretely.
Still, I know
that my house will be reflected in my daughterís house some day, that she
will, wittingly or not, have her own icons, this house will show through hers,
wherever and whatever it is.
A list of things I collect
to remember: seersucker pyjamas, tooth powder, the sound of croquet balls being
hit, tennis games without swearing, lilies of the valley, tissue paper,
sparklers, crickets, cicadas, brick streets, big old trees whose roots make
fairy swimming pools in the rain. Rain
boots, jigsaw puzzles, radio dramas, popcorn from a popcorn popper, macaroni and
cheese, pot roast, cherry pie, ice cream. The
sound of someone practicing the piano, Chopin
and Scott Joplin heard through a window on a summer evening.
Washing the car. Sunday dinner. Saturday
night supper. A cast-iron skillet
that belonged to your grandmother. The
slant of late-afternoon light across a wooden floor in September.
The smell of burning leaves and pipe smoke.
Running boards. A set dinner
table, aprons, linen tea towels, washing the dishes, hanging out the clothes,
Shaker pegs, birthday parties with homemade crepe paper decorations and homemade
cakes, small church weddings with a reception in the church parlor. Sidewalks, coaster brakes, ball bearing roller skates, vacant
lots, day lilies, ferns, bird baths, front porch swings, typewriters, fountain
pens, paper dolls, mowing the lawn, backyard swings, womenís magazines with
real articles in them.
What do you
collect to remember?