Staying Put

SOJ

There was in the eyes a look of anticipation and joy, a far-off look that sought the horizon; one often sees it in seafaring families, inherited by boys and girls alike from men who spend their lives at sea, and are always watching for distant sails or the first loom of the land.–Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of The Pointed Firs

The big brick house has been for sale for over a year, stately, patient in its parklike setting.  It has a broad and welcoming doorway with sidelights and a transom; there is a big second story dormer right above that hints at a spacious landing where one could sit with a book in a chaise, cozily afghaned, while the snow flutters down…

I look the listing up on-line; I see a grand staircase with a gleaming bannister, and I see really bad, bad wallpaper throughout.

It would be this house all over again, Mark says.  Every wall would have to be changed, every room. And this house had good bones; we don’t know what that house’s bones are like.

He’s right: we are slowing down.  Another enormous project–probably not now, not for us.  Still, I watch as the price falls lower and lower, and I think: Three FULL bathrooms.

My own bathroom!

A bathroom for each one of us!

Five bedrooms, three and a half baths, over an acre of land…and the price falls down to 104,900.  My heart yearns. And then: the open house sign goes up.

I talk the boys into a tour before our Sunday sojourn to Half Price Books.  Mark agrees, interested; he wants to see the inside.  Jim agrees, reluctant; he loves our current house and neighborhood and does not want to move.

So we take a trip into the past; into bathrooms with pink sinks and turquoise tiles and a houseful of knob and tube wiring.  Old coiled metal radiators provide heat; there is no central air.  The basement is portioned into tiny musty rooms, and where the washer-dryer should be, the plumbers have excavated the floor down to bare dirt, tracking in new plumbing.

The wonderful antique tile, the grand and welcoming staircase, the bold and gleaming mantle over a working fireplace, the incredible park-like space…they can’t compete with the amount of work that needs to be done.  The plaster walls upstairs are crumbling; the raucous wallpaper is all that holds them in place. The slate roof must be replaced.

“It’s a gut job,” says Mark.  “It would take a couple hundred thousand just to get it livable.”

Of course, he’s right; we thank Jay, the nice realtor, and we climb into the car and head to Westerville.  But a little part of me yearns–for all that space; for all that challenge. For that new landscape.

I have a perfectly lovely house, a house that has all I need, and that offers plenty of projects I can undertake.  It’s in a lovely area; we have amazing neighbors.  But a little voice natters on about having been here four years, almost five.  “When,” it pokes, “have you ever lived anywhere for five whole years?”

Why can’t I just be happy where I am?  Why am I always looking toward the next move?

Maybe it’s time to settle in, to embrace the place, a place that welcomes and engages us.  It is, for me, surprisingly hard.

*********

When I was six months old, my parents bought a big house on the main street of our little town.  We lived in the house for ten years; we added a downstairs bedroom for my brother Dennis as he grew older, more serious, in need of a quiet place to study and read.  The house had lovely features–a stairway encased in French doors, gleaming hardwood, spacious, stately rooms.  The backyard flowed out into a ‘way-back’ yard, and that butted up against a field which led to a woods.  We loved that house; all of us did.

But, the year that I turned ten, the bottom fell out from family finances, and we had to sell the house. We moved to a neighboring city, which meant changing schools. Some of my brothers, entrenched with friends and activities, baseball teams and paper routes, were not happy. But we were moving to a rental near the lake; it had a big yard and a willow tree.  I would walk to the beach (if Mom would let me) and I would start a whole new school–a public school, which would be vastly different from my life, to that date, with nuns.

I really couldn’t wait.

I loved that new house, too, although the spiders were enormous, the basement dirt-floored and scary, and the location far, far away from even a corner store to walk to. Still, some summer days, my mother would pack up a picnic lunch and I would walk to the park by the beach with my younger brother; we would swing at the playground and wade in the lake, conscientious about our pledge not to go full-out swimming.  We would eat our lunch at a glossy, green-painted picnic table, and trudge home, tired but happy, having had a summer adventure.

I fell asleep at night to the sound of the water pounding the beach.  Stormy nights were thrilling.

We stayed a year and moved into town, into a duplex shared with the owners.  That neighborhood had three girls just my age; we formed a gang; we read books together, we wrote plays, we knitted. In the green seasons, we played Capture the Flag and Red Rover Red Rover (until Amy broke her collar bone and the game was unanimously banned by all parents); there was a troop of kids, always enough for kickball or wiffleball, enough to put on plays and carnivals. But. We had two fires in that house because of antique heating; there were relationship problems between my clattery family and the quiet, prim landlords.  Before two years went by, we moved again.

That new house, also a rental, became somewhat permanent; my parents stayed there until they moved to the tiny retirement apartment where they lived out their lives.  I enjoyed living there until college; then I tried out a series of apartments, learned that partying and housekeeping were incompatible, tried hard to grow up and get responsible.  I’d fly back to that semi-permanent roost; move out, explore, enjoy, reconsider.  I got married; that three-year adventure involved two rented homes.  From there I moved to a tiny bachelorette apartment until meeting Mark and deciding, after a somewhat lengthy courtship, to make it legal.

**********
My mother’s family came to the States from Scotland; on one side of the family the men were seafarers.  On the other side, they were innkeepers.  I always thought that was a nice intertwining: the roving and the rooted.

When they settled in the Buffalo, New York, area, the men got jobs on Great Lakes freighters, or on the docks, close to the pulsing waters if not on them.  I often thought you could see the water in their eyes, which were blue and changeable, stormy at times, and serene at others.

My mother had those eyes.  I have them, too.

I have never been a world traveler; my journeys have been from the western side of the Northeast to the eastern edges of the Midwest. I just love the adventure, and the possibility, of another move.

***********
Mark owned a snug, sturdy little bungalow when we got married; it was the only home Matt remembered, and we stayed there until he graduated from high school–some ten years.  That was a long time for me, but not for Mark, whose family created a homestead in the house they moved into when Mark was six. His mother still maintains that big, red-shingled house, a home base for scattered siblings.

When Matt graduated from high school, we moved; Mark had changed jobs, I had always had a commute, and Jim’s special needs were best met in a different system anyway. Although we loved our neighbors and community, there were compelling reasons to go.

We rented an old inn for a year; it was built in the 1830’s, it had broad plastered rooms, gleaming woodwork, a scary cistern in the dirt-floored basement, and a pathway through the vineyards to the woods.

We bought our house on Orchard Street then and settled in until Mark, four years later, went off to law school.

There, in that law school village, we transformed a trailer on a corner lot, abutting a prairie cornfield; it offered a little more autonomy and a little more equity than a rented apartment would have, and it was a fun experiment in downsizing.

We bought a rambling old house in the town where Mark found his first job after graduating; then, when Mark changed jobs, we were blessed with the chance to buy the house we live in now, with its lovely neighborhood and double lot, its sturdy bones.

I figure I have lived in 13 homes throughout my life–it averages out to a new home every four years and three months, give or take.

Some nights, I look out the window, at the familiar landscape, and I feel a yearning to uproot, to move forward to a new building, new walls.  I look at ads in the newspaper, thinking–wouldn’t it be nice to have three full baths?  There’s a whole lot we could do with those two extra bedrooms…

**************

I think about blue-eyed wanderers.  It seems true in my immediate family–my blue-eyed brother Dennis, too, was a rover, moving as his career dictated; my blue-eyed brother Michael stayed in the same house for a long time, but his naval years might have planted the travel bug.  He relocated after retirement, to another state altogether, and as I write this, he and Mary, my sister-in-law, are visiting friends overseas.

Do brown eyes signify an attachment to the solid earth that grounds us? My brown-eyed brothers seem more settled and place-bound; my brown-eyed husband and son want no part of another move.

*******

I sit at my comfortable dining room table, and I write this early on a Sunday morning.  Maxie, the feline mayor of the neighborhood, is sleeping mulchily in my flower bed; a troop of five deer tiptoe daintily down my drive.  They stop, momentarily, and regard Max; some kind of message slides among them; they ramble off. My dog rumbles lazily at the wildlife outside, but she’s too content to take any kind of action.

Mark spent yesterday re-wiring the old garage, swinging a long metal light fixture to another situation, enlisting James and me as holders and steadiers as he mounted  a ceiling fan.

The garage will become his workshop; he has plans to repurpose the paint room downstairs for my craft room; and the south side of the basement is becoming a living suite, an efficiency apartment, a man-cave, for James.

We have carved out a guest room; we have plans to make the two half baths full. This house has all I need, all I want, and then some: character and charm, a lovely community, proximity to work. We have good friends here; there is good food here, and there are some very nice museums. It is an easy hop onto the interstate when a road trip is needed.

It is time now to stay put, time now  to claim this particular horizon as my lasting own. No more uprooting, no more home-base exploration is needed (although I reserve the right to make this spot be my true north–the place I can return to from trips far afield.) Now, it is time to say: We are here.

I have a chance, now, to explore my innkeeping, house-holding, heritage. I will hold this house. I will turn my eyes to the possibilities within; I will see what it’s like to stay.

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You Know, I’m Not From Here, Myself

Image from whatmortgage.co.uk
Image from whatmortgage.co.uk

Some days I remember how true it is that I’m not from here, myself.

I got a fascinating letter yesterday from Clarissa, a former student become fast friend, who has moved to a farm some ways from here. Clarissa was detailing her summer exploits…in which she and her husband harvested and canned and preserved, froze, dried, and dehydrated, an amazing abundance of food.

Clarissa writes about the wonders of fresh eggs, the stupidity of guinea hens, and of drying every last piece of the tomato–skin and seeds and pulp,—then grinding the dry stuff to a powder she adds to soups. She writes about squash and cucumbers and corn (which the coons ate; she had to buy her canning corn in town), about an ancient variety of sweet peppers, and getting the root cellar ready.

And she writes about green beans,— picking them, cooking up messes of them, canning, and sharing them. But there was one sentence I just didn’t understand, so I took the letter into work with me.

Taylor and Andy and May were chatting at the front desk. As it happened, they were talking about eating off the land, which gave me an opening. I said to Taylor, “Hey! What does this mean: ‘The pale beans are going to be shelly beans now.’?”

Taylor gave me that ‘you’re an idiot’ look.

“Gimme that,” she said.

She scanned Clarissa’s beautifully handwritten letter and snorted.

“POLE beans,” she said. “The POLE beans are going to be shelly beans now.”

May and even Andy–who’s from upstate, who just moved here,– both nodded knowingly.

“Shelly beans?” I said. “What’s a shelly bean?”

There was one of those sucked in pauses–one of those pauses that gives you long enough to see the thought bubble settle over someone’s head, and to read, “Can you believe this moron????”–and Taylor said, “SHELLY beans. You know–like you SHELL them???”

Oh. Sure. SHELLY beans. I grabbed my letter and thanked her for her trouble and marched back to my office, which, thankfully, is way back at the far end of things. I folded up Clarissa’s letter and put it in my book bag, and maybe later tonight I’ll get on the internet and look things up and try to understand the point at which a pole bean becomes a shelly bean, and what, indeed, a shelly bean is.

And as I marched away I could hear Taylor explaining to Andy, “She’s not from here.”

It reminded me of another time. Mark and I were at a church event in Mayville, New York, and one of the older ladies was talking about the elephant that the town adopted back, I think, in the 1950’s.

“Wow,” I said–it was quite a story–, “I never knew that before.”

“Well,” she responded, and her voice had that same tone Taylor’s did when she was explaining my ignorance to Andy, “you’re new.”

At the time, I’d lived in Mayville almost eight years.

You shuffle your feet, and you’re destined to be the ‘new kid,’ a transplant no matter how long you’ve been there.

Or, instead of shuffling, you settle back in, and you’re a lifer.

Both have their own little cachets. Or stigmas, depending how you look at it.

I was talking to a man the other day who lives in the house in which he grew up. Bill went away to college, got his degrees, and moved back home. By that time, his parents’ nest had emptied. Bill had married and anticipated, quite rightly, as it turned out, that there would soon be children to fill the four bedrooms. So his parents downsized, and he bought his well-loved home.

He and his wife have transformed that home; it is a showplace, a warm, welcoming, expansive space, totally their own.

And still: the house he grew up in. How would that feel?

Thinking of that, I decided to make a list of homes I’ve lived in. I was very surprised to work it out to be 16. That means I’ve lived in three or more places per decade. That means I’ve spent less than, on average, three and three quarter years in each home.

What does that tell me about my life, my roots, my roosting qualities?

There is someone within hollering distance who remembers when Bill fell asleep on the school bus in kindergarten and rode it all the way to the end of the route. They still talk about his high school football exploits, and three of his four school days girlfriends (he married the fourth one) go to his same church. Bill could probably tell you all about a shelly bean and why the town shuts down when the Buckeyes play on Saturday; he can debate the merits of hot chicken sandwiches vs. pulled pork (and talk knowledgeably about whether the cole slaw goes ON the sandwich or next to it), and explain who our first female mayor was, back in the ’80’s.

My history is a little different. I grew up with friends whose mothers cooked duck blood soup (they pronounced its Polish name “Chi-nee-na,” but I would seriously have to look up the spelling) and pierogis, or spaghetti sauce from tomatoes they grew in their backyards, ladled thickly (some families called that sauce ‘gravy’) over homemade, pillowy ravioli. I grew up knowing it was beef on weck, not beef on “wick,” and I remember when the wing came to Buffalo. I had my sports-heart broken a lot of times.

Our winter talk was about lake effect. OUR storm was the Blizzard of ’77.

Here, they talk about the storm that came in 1978, and there are parking signs that tell you three inches of snow constitutes an emergency.

There’s no one here who remembers the time I got stuck vaulting over the horse in gym class and wound up hanging upside down by my toes–earning myself the forever nickname, from my gym teacher, of “Amazing Grace.” There’s no one who remembers the alcohol-fueled argument I had with the guy in the take out place who insisted on talking about the “Equal RATS Amendment.”

In some ways, being peripatetic is a really good thing.

It’s funny, though. I was a terrifically shy kid; whenever I went someplace new, it took me forever to warm up, a long time to reach out and make friends. So it would make sense if I hated moving, if the door jambs from every place I’d ever left had claw marks dragged into them from where they had to tear me away.

But the first time we moved, when I was in third grade, I remember being really excited. My brothers, who were older and settled into their classes, middle school and high school, were not; they were upset at being made to leave home and friends. I had good friends, too, and I missed them, but I was fascinated by the change from Catholic school to public school, from a homogenous grouping to a more eclectic one.

The next move brought me to a neighborhood where three girls my own age lived within half a city block–what a wonderful place to spend my middle school years. And then my parents moved to the house they’d occupy until they moved into their tiny ‘old age home’ apartment. That house was home for my high school years–where the neighbors would come out and ask me about my season as I swung my wooden Wilson racket down the street, walking to the courts; where Mr. Legier would sometimes drive me to my job at the supermarket when Dad couldn’t take me–in a grandpa car-boat fifty feet long that he drove at a steady 15 miles an hour.

Then I moved–college, apartments, marriage, divorce, apartment, marriage, job changes, law school for Mark, aftermaths. And every move has brought new treasures in friends and place and work and quirky, unique details.

I have lived in the town Mark Twain called a stud farm for idiots. I have lived in the town where the actual one-hour photo machine, used in the Robin Williams movie of that name, wound up being used to develop photos, sometimes in one hour, at the local grocery. I have lived in Paul Lynde’s birthplace, and I live in a place now that has a restaurant/bar built from barn wood taken from Agnes Moorehead’s farm, which is just down the road aways. I have lived, I can say with truth, in fascinating places. I have grown in each of them.

There’s an anchor, though, in my husband’s family, who are firm in the area where we grew up, a magnetic north that pulls us back. We have made our own ‘homeplace,’ and yet, for Mark especially, there are layers to the meaning of ‘home.’

Bill and his wife Allie have traveled all over. They’ve probably been to 35 states; they’ve been to Europe, to Egypt, and they have toured the Far East. But they return each time to where they began. Adventurous, inquisitive, their roots are strong and fast in the place of their births.

We are all needed–the intrepid, sometimes clueless, wanderers, the firmly planted live-at-homes. We need the memory of what has gone by; we need the expectations of what a place should be. Between the two, there’s a tension; the tension holds us up higher, makes us reach collectively for a little better life. Reach to match the wanderer’s expectations. Reach to honor the vision of the ancestors who built.

That’s what I think my work is about, at a wonderful community college where the students range in age from 12, sometimes, no kidding–to, gosh–occasionally, there’s someone taking a class who’s even older than I am. And that’s why little shelly bean jokes will never separate me fundamentally from Taylor, whose passion is in helping others reach their dreams. She grew up with some of those same dreams; she made hers come true, a lot of them; she’s got others that are still waiting to come to life. She’s helping, now, too,  her sweet, funny daughter reach for dreams uniquely her own.

My family’s dream required relocating; it’s been weird and painful and interesting; and it’s been fun and informative and priceless. We think that this place, this time, this fit, allows us to get cozy, to settle in, to let those shallow roots search out a deeper level.

We may be here twenty years from now, established [and old] members of the community.

And if we are, someone will say, after we ask about a story we’ve never heard, or inquire about a person we never met, “Ah, yes. You’re new.”

And I’ll just smile, and agree. It’s true, it really is. I’m not from here, myself.

 

Some names have been altered to disguise the knowledgeable.