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Category: making home

this old house is so much more…

 

not long after nine the other morning, an army of painters pulled to the curb and launched what appeared a military-level operation on this old house. ladders upon ladders were hauled from the lid of a van, drop cloths were draped over bush, tree and stoop. brushes were slid from plastic wrapping, buckets of paint shimmied up ropes, dangled from hooks that swayed in the breeze. in all, 15 painters had at it, each with his eye on the darkening skies, the skies that threaten a freeze by daybreak tomorrow.

it’s been 15 years — at least — since this old house was slathered in beechwood semi-transparent stain all across its shingles, its windows and mullions traced in white white, its doors in van deusen blue. that was back in the long-ago days, back before high school and colleges and law school, back before a broken neck and assorted orthopedic adventures, back in the days when a fat cat prowled the so-called acreage. back when we were deep in the grain of making this old house our own.

this old house has harbored much in our short slice of its 78 years. it’s become the place we come home to, the place we miss when we’re away. a few weeks ago, when the tree cracked in half in the dark of the night, both boys — faraway now — wrote home with alarm. they begged for pictures, needed to see for themselves; hauled out the exclamation marks on their keypads. even from a distance — long distance — they did not cozy to the notion that their old house and the tree that harbors it had suffered a blow.

home is like that. home roots us. home is our ballast in the storms — and, oh, there will be storms. we come to consider home — the old house with its particular creaks and moans and recalcitrant sashes — something of a character in the life of our family. its floorplan is the one we trace in our imagination, the narrative throughline of all of our stories. we picture it, no matter how far we roam. sometimes we physically ache to run our palms down its bannister, to click open the door that insists on a shove. sometimes, when we’ve been away a long while, we begin to feel its pull, its true magnetic pull, soon as we come through the underpass, take a left at the smoke house, retrace the leafy lanes, see the place standing, just as we’d left it. sometimes, we can’t get the key in the lock to turn quite fast enough. sometimes we don’t fully breathe till we’re standing there in the old front hall, and we inhale the smell of home again.

there’s a book on one of my shelves titled, a home for the soul: a guide for dwelling with spirit and imagination, by anthony lawlor, who happens to be an architect and author of the acclaimed the temple in the house. in the opening pages of home for the soul, lawlor writes:

from the moment we are born, we seem compelled to travel homeward. in places and people, we seek that elusive feeling of being welcomed. home is the goal of the epic journeys of the human spirit. jesus returns to his heavenly father. moses leads his people to their homeland. buddha reaches the immovable spot of enlightenment beneath the bo tree. 

i like it even more when lawlor turns to a lakota medicine man named Lame Deer who writes of the sacredness right under our noses, a sacredness woven into the everyday fibers of home, yet a sacredness we sometimes forget to see.

writes lame deer:

what do you see here, my friend? just an ordinary old cooking pot, black with soot and full of dents. it is standing on the fire on top of that old wood stove, and the water bubbles and moves the lid as the white steam rises to the ceiling. it doesn’t seem to have a message, that old pot, and i guess you don’t give it a thought. [but] i think about ordinary, common things like this pot. the bubbling water comes from the rain cloud. it represents the sky. the fire comes from the sun, which warms us all. the steam is living breath. it was water; now it goes up to the sky, becomes a cloud again. we sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things, which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual. we see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life. we try to understand them not with the head but with the heart, and we need no more than a hint to give us the meaning.

the painters are gone now. they’ve folded up their drop cloths and hauled them and the ladders away. our old house this morning is redolent of eau de semi-transparent stain. when i wandered out to gather up the newspaper at the curb, i turned to ogle the beechwood shingles and the van deusen blue door in the first light of the day. i’m certain this old house is standing just a little bit snappier today. it’ll be good for at least another chapter, this one that now echoes too often and too loudly with the sound of not quite full.

where do you find the sacred pulse point in the place you call home?

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the painters tied up the bushes so they could paint my window to the world

playing house

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as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.

decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.

then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.

and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.

keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.

i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.

this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.

i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.

there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.

with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?

i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.

and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).

the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.

only it’s not make-believe.

and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

it’s the question that stirs me night and day….

what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)

coming home.

coming home kitchen

i slipped back in as if gliding my arms through the sleeves of the oldest soft-knit sweater from the back of my closet. the sort of sweater you reach for when it’s the end of the day, and you want the goosebumps to go away, but even more you want woolen threads that breathe against your skin, woolen threads that whisper to your soul, “here we are, home.”

that’s pretty much how it felt to unlock the door after a few days away, to plop the duffel in the front hall, to wander about in that way that one does, to check for what’s happened while you’ve been gone. i saw right away that chipmunks must have upturned a brick or two at the steps that lead down to the garden. and the old house all but hollered to please open the windows, to let the hot dry air back out where it belonged.

wasn’t long till i found the note left on the kitchen counter, the note written by a dear, dear friend — the one who’d stayed at our house while we were away, since she needed a place to sleep and we had one. she wrote:

“in this house, one is always aware of time. the ticks and tocks, the chimes of multiple clocks evoke shared joys, episodes of comfort and sorrow, presences long gone but still close to our hearts. the rhythms of those machines wake me in the mornings, lull me to sleep…and call me to return.”

it’s a fine thing to hear your house through the ears of a friend, a soulful friend, a friend who has always put words to page with more grace than nearly anyone i know. my blessed friend’s words only amplified what i already know. what i know every single hour of every single day i live here.

coming home — even when there’s not a note to remind you — sharpens your ears, and all of your senses. wakes you up once again to this place you’ve spent your life making — making home.

home, for those of us lucky enough to have one, is that place that over time has come to hold the living breathing narrative of perhaps your most essential essence, those threads in your life you hold to be sacred.

my old house is one layered with story upon story. each old clock tells a story. the sounds that ooze in through the windows — the fact that i almost always leave a window open at least a crack — the birdsong, the breeze rustling the leaves, the faraway train whistle, the dog down the block. those are the sounds of home to me. i know its gurgles and burps so intimately that if one is off-kilter i know it’s time to call the plumber or the fellow who stokes the furnace. i am the guardian of my old house, and my old house returns the favor: my old house guards my heart and my soul.

and so coming home to it was coming home to a friend i’d left behind. we’d gone off to see the boy we brought first into the world. we’d packed a two-week visit into four short days — whirled our way through the hottest days DC has seen in a mighty long time (and lived to tell the tale, though for a while there we were gasping for air and long, tall quenchable waters). i’d be lying if i didn’t admit to wiping away a tear (or more) when we said goodbye to the sweet sweet legal-scholar-in-the-making, the one who was working so hard he couldn’t even take in the fourth of july fireworks. and while i wouldn’t trade a single one of those days away for anything, the sweet joy of finding myself back in this place where i most belong made the absence more than worth it.

i’ve come to know my particular custom for coming home: right away i dump the laundry down the chute, i gallop off to the grocery store, tear through the stacks of mostly-junk mail. i’m a madwoman restoring order. and then the puttering comes: i pour drinks down the gullets of my garden. i reach for the clippers and snip here, there, and yon. i stuff the old pitchers again, and tuck a fresh batch of cookies under the shiny glass dome that sits atop the pedestal (my nod to the ’50s diner).

i always take time to listen. to breathe in the ticks and the tocks and the chimes and the rhythms. to be quelled and lulled by all of the quirks of this place i so know by heart.

by the time i plop my creaky bones atop that old familiar mattress, perk my ears to the night sounds seeping in through the screens, whisper my litany of thank-you prayers, i am thoroughly deeply home. and more than grateful to call this old friend by that most blessed of names — home.

thank you, sweet home.

what’s the thing you relish most when you come home? and, just because i’m curious, do you have a quirky way of reacquainting yourself with the place once back from where you’ve roamed?

here’s a little extra morsel, a link to a story about retro and vintage cookbooks i wrote for the chicago tribune. it ran on the fourth of july, a day not too fit for browsing through the news pages. it’s a story whose reporting made me swoon — for the fine cast of characters from the literary kitchen, tamar adler, graham kerr (the famed “galloping gourmet”) and a very fine baker with a yen for updating retro pies, cakes and confections.  

first things first

dispatch from cambridge (in which the chair up and flaps its wings, plopping down in the land of ZIP code 02139)…

getting to the garden had always been on the list. getting to the garden with scissors and a sense of the possible, a whole new bouquet at my fingertips, petals that didn’t bloom in my faraway garden.

and so, listening to the sound of my heart humming, i snipped and snipped and snipped. black-eyed susans, sunshiney marigolds, a bright-butter-yellow coreopsis or two or three.

fists full, i climbed the back stairs up to the third-floor aerie where all week i’ve been playing house, and while everyone else was out, was away, i added a signature note to the canvas that is our new dwelling.

i knew i was home, really home, when i stuck those thirsty stems into a cobalt-rimmed water glass, plunked the whole lot onto the pine table in the breakfast nook (where blue jays and sparrows come to the feeders there in the windows), stood back  and soaked it all in.

thus has this week unfolded, this first week, this long exhausting week of stuffing the poor old cat into the carrier, watching the taxi pull up to the curb, giving my mama a kiss as she and a gaggle of neighbors (at least one in a house coat) stood at the sidewalk of the house i love, and bowed on bended knee as we pulled away — the little one, the fat scaredy cat, and me.

the trip through airport security was smooth as i might have hoped, save for the news that they were pulling me and the cat (loose in my arms) aside for a paw swipe (mine, not his) to make sure no scant trace of explosive dust was anywhere upon me.

all this as i watched my laptop tumble down the TSA conveyor belt as the suddenly-left-alone 11-year-old tried to grab for the laptop, his backpack, my backpack, the empty cat carrier and whatever else was due to crash to the ground soon as the belt did its dumping. (like i said, this was about as smooth a stumble through security as i might have hoped for….)

then came the plane.

all was swell enough till the part where the plane comes out of the sky, and typically, as we all learned long ago, the descent is an expected — and necessary — part of any flight plan.

up till then, our fat old cat had more or less snoozed in his chic black bag, the one squished under the seat in front of me, the one that made the lady at the end of our row, the lady with the hearts-and-flowers tattoo peeking out from her undies, roll her eyes, while muttering impure thoughts, each and every one of those unkindnesses darted straight at our sorry trinity.

but then, not long after the pilot announced it was seatbelt time and we were headed down, that old cat let out a howl that, long as i’ve known him, means he needs an airbag and he needs it quick.

for the next half hour, my past life as a little-kid nurse came rushing back to me.

the 11-year-old beside me kept shrieking that something was wrong with the cat, the cat was going to pass out, “he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe,” were the words precisely. and i, pretending to be an ocean of calm, prayed mightily, and prepared myself for cat CPR.

to spare you the gory details, i’ll cut to the quick: no CPR ever was needed, but by the time we landed, let’s just say i was covered in decoration i’d not worn when i boarded the plane.

once we’d rustled up our bags (which oddly had come in on another flight, making for a few heart-stopping moments as we all imagined our life’s belongings swirled down some airport drain), we hopped into the little black car and let our driver (that would be the fellow who snared this faraway fellowship in the first place) steer us home.

wisely, he’d picked a route that zipped us right past fenway park at 55 mph, a sight that the kid in the backseat, a kid who considers wrigley field a holy mecca, couldn’t help but up and notice.

then came the exit sign: “cambridge,” was all it said, with an arrow pointing up and to the right. but the deep-down knowledge that that’s where home now was, and this was indeed a road marker in the story of our life, well, it made my heart thump just a little bit harder.

the architecture critic with his hands more or less on the wheel made like he always does whenever he drives: he’s pointing here, there and every which way except for the road, pointing at some built treasure whose whole story we all need to know. (it’s why i feared for my life when, back in chicago, they were building that god-awful soldier field, and he’d be so busy glaring and cussing as we sped past, i was certain the end of our story would come in a fiery crash with the headline: “architecture critic & whole entire family smashed to smithereens on lake shore drive in a final fury of fast-lane drive-by criticism.”

but back to the story of how we made it to home, here on franklin street, and what happened next: i’ll spare you details again, but let’s just say i walked into a lovely place, a perfect place, a place whose windows hadn’t been opened in weeks. it was hot. and, lest you forget, i had in my arms a queazy cat who’d barely escaped in-flight CPR.

i did what any newly-arrived immigrant might do: i dashed into the bathroom, and slammed the door. i had a trembling cat on my hands, a cat who wasted no time slithering beneath the footed tub and cowering in a corner.

i cleaned us all off, and dove into what i’ve come to recognize as my default mode — i made like a 9-year-old version of my little girl self and, just as back in the days when a whole glorious summer could be spent rearranging logs into tables and chairs and whole rooms in the woods, or turning a shoebox into a cozy cottage, i started to play house.

for the next three days i unpacked, i puttered. i pulled blue cobalt bowls from the shelves, and tucked them around the kitchen counters. i made a list or two or three of things we need from the nearest home-supply store. i dusted up cat hair. i talked myself through the first load of laundry in a cobalt-blue front-load washer that looks like it could double as the mars rover (i had visions of “i love lucy” soapy disaster, fearing i’d hit the wrong knob, just as lucy and ethel did back in the black-and-white days, and rivers of suds would cascade into the apartment just below ours).

i’m rather a firm believer in the notion that if we’re all going to spread our wings — and that’s why we’re here in the first place — we need one solid nest from which to fly each morning, and to which we return as the night sky fills with stars.

and so, my job no. 1 here on franklin street, was to turn this place into a home that feels like it’s ours. i’d tucked plenty of tokens from our faraway house into boxes and the back of the car (despite a chorus of eye rolls and protestations).

i knew, because i believe in these things, that the little guy just might need his vuvuzela, that long-necked noisemaker that punctuates soccer games around the globe. i knew his favorite fleece blanket might come in handy, draped at the end of his brand-new bunk bed. and i knew that a pantry filled with birthday peanut butter, and his old jar of honey, just might start the day with a not-to-be-underestimated sense of the familiar.

and so it’s gone here in our first week in cambridge. first things first, i know deep down. take the time to make it home. and who knows just how far and high those flights from the nest will carry you.

unfortunately, the other thing i seem to have packed in my suitcase was a nasty on-again-off-again fever, so some of my sticking close to home has been due to the achy bones that often accompany said elevated temps. i did make it out to harvard yard, and was blown away by the history and stateliness. truth is, i felt my knees wobble just a little as i passed through the brick-and-iron gate, kept wondering when a whistle would blow, when they’d check my passport and send me packing, saying i didn’t really belong. but i’m told by dear friends who did lug their college texts under these leafy arbors, that that’s not so uncommon a feeling here, it’s just that plenty of folks won’t let on to such wobbles.

so began week one. and tell me this: do you too find you must feather your nest before the real work of the heart can begin?