Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More Than a Shell

[A few years back, I wrote a series of essays about life in our 1780's house. I plan to post them in the upcoming weeks.]

Approaching the front door, the black wrought iron railing still bears an “M” for “Meyers,” although Mr. Meyers passed away a good five years ago. The brass knocker, too, confounds visitors as it continues to read, and perhaps always will, “Meyers.” It is not nostalgia on our part, or an unwillingness to release the past. This house took us in twelve years ago; Dave, Tucker, Casey and I are its family now. But unless some future bustling efficiency or yearning for accurate documentation spurs us, the Meyers will stay on in railing and knocker.

The garden bordering the railing is unequivocably ours. We dug up thriving pachysandra that had overtaken the small front yard, inspired by an Impressionist oil of an English garden. It was a wonderful distraction for me in the early months of summer, calming my mental tumult of shoulds and imagined fears in the pursuit of weeds and dead heads. Now in October, the sedum has turned almost rust, its heady sweet honeyscent a whisper lure to pollen-heavy bumblebees. Purple asters lie prone, downed by their own weight, but still vibrantly blooming. The cosmos, too, crawl the earth, seeking the sun with upturned pink blossoms atop feathery green stalks.

This wild tangle no longer calls for my care, but like gleeful children finally free of supervision, has grown inventive in its autumnal glory. Goldenrod as fragrant and lovely as any chosen flower has boldly unfurled her yellow laced fingers, a comforting caress for the bristly brown heads of passed echinacea and bee balm. The gomphrena is ablaze in clover-like buttons of garish magenta. Faithful impatiens, shaded by catmint overgrown now that my ministrations have dwindled, stretch and smile in plentiful splendor.

The house itself offers a simple face of white clapboard; a massive center chimney of painted brick is the most distinguishing feature. Black lanterns of iron, once mounted on a carriage postern, flank the front door. With barely an effort, I can picture the expansive canopy of the towering ash tree that shaded the house when we moved here, although it came down almost two years ago. From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of my dancing malamute, our dog, Kody, pleased that I’m home. In reality, she too is gone, but this house holds its tenants. We all come to stay.

Colonel Isaiah Jennings built the house in 1782 upon his return from service during the Revolutionary War. I like to think he knows we are here and approves of us. We found this place as many buyers do, by flipping to the pages beyond our price range in the realtors’ book and then finding it impossible to return to our side of the tracks. How could we walk away from the yawning fireplace that could fit our family of four with ease, the warped wide plank floors and massive beams hewn by some long ago hand?

When we began the purchase process, my mother would call almost daily with anxious questions. “I’ve been up all night worrying. Have you considered crime in the area, other new kids in the children’s classes, the rabbit warren effect of the rooms?” I don’t think it was really the house that caused her concern; it was more the life change for me. After living on various school campuses since I was fifteen, I’d be living in the woods a good quarter-mile from the nearest neighbor. “This may not be worth it,” she cautioned, “A house isn’t your life; it’s the shell for your life.” But, our house has a spirit; it is more than a shell. And despite my mother’s reservations, it was only with her help that we’ve come to live here.

As we stood in the front hall that first day in 1990, the empty rooms - newly painted white as an open canvas - held the promise of the rest of our life unfolding. I pictured Mr. Meyers’ farewell pause on the threshold after his forty-five years here; perhaps he smiled sadly at a fleeting image of his wife, by then deceased, resting by the fireplace, or the scampering dance of his small daughter, now grown. Surely all of the laughter and sorrow of each family steeps into plaster and supporting beams like tea suffuses a watery brew.

After the Meyers’ belongings were swathed in moving rugs, folded into boxes and trundled out on the shoulders of sturdy young men, the house was left empty for over a year, awaiting the next link in the chain. At least, that’s how I see it. I am keenly aware of the changing of the guard. It is our time now, but we are temporary stewards, and that is the privilege of living in an old house. We've become part of its heritage, entrusted during our tenancy with honoring its past and keeping it safe for those who follow.

1 comment:

DSylvestro said...

"Surely all of the laughter and sorrow of each family steeps into plaster and supporting beams like tea suffuses a watery brew."

After the sad and joyful events of this past week, celebrating and interring dear Aunty Cam - accompanied by our and her friends and cousins rarely seen - I read these words as testaments to what happens in lives lived well. Aunty's joys and love, along with her human foibles and frets, all suffuse the reminiscences of her friends new and old, and of each of her devoted family members. Like this old house, we're all absorbing life essences from those whose love abides in us.

How's that for an early Saturday morning musing??