Down East 2013 ©
It’s my fault my husband and I have been living in a small, unfinished house with no closets for the past twenty-plus years. I was hell-bent to buy a house before my son graduated from high school; I’d been waiting since he was a baby.
He was a junior now. So when we pulled into the drive, I announced we would buy this one no matter how bad it was. It was bad: a thirties bungalow hobbled together by a man who drank a lot. The house’s weather-beaten shingles were drilled with woodpecker holes, and a crooked stoop with a plastic roof hung from the back. Inside was worse: a dark kitchen, its floor sloped so that any spill ran under the stove; a stairwell papered with three patterns; bedrooms barely big enough to properly make a bed; and the bathroom floor rotting along the tub. Beneath all of this, a stream ran through the dirt cellar where shelves held old canning jars. Spiders the size of nickels hung in sticky webs. But on that first viewing, my brother poked the joists with his pocketknife and said, “Not too bad, won’t fall in for awhile.” That was good enough for me.
In my defense, you couldn’t buy much for sixty thousand dollars. And I figured we’d fix it up in five years. I had a good imagination — I’d tackled harder things and come through. We’d move on later if we wanted. And I could see the real value was the four acres ten minutes from Penobscot Bay. Despite the three sheds slumped in the yard along with an old washing machine, bald tires, chicken feeders, and a telephone line on original rotten poles, I could see promise in the spreading butternut tree, lanky spruce, apple trees, and a big yard that sloped down to brush and woods, where the mountains became visible when the leaves fell.
We should have gutted the house, or, better yet, torn it down. But we tore down sheds. Hauled off truckloads of junk. Painted and scrubbed. We moved the piano in, maneuvered our bed and bureau up the narrow stairs. On Thanksgiving we cooked a thirty-pound turkey and invited our families in to eat off Willow Ware. That Christmas we walked through the woods, over the brook, and cut a tree. Some nights I went outside to look through the windows at the ornaments and crèche, the rocking chair. That first winter we shoveled the long walks and fed the fire.
Ice formed on the bedroom wallpaper. The pipes under the kitchen sink froze. Mice scrambled inside ceilings and walls. By spring the furnace conked out and the water heater broke. That summer the well went dry. So we began the long climb to replace and repair chimney, roof, foundation, well. When we gutted the bathroom, we found a flannel shirt nailed inside the wall for insulation. When we demolished the kitchen chimney we found burned framing covered with aluminum foil keeping us from disaster. We tore off the stoop and built a porch.
But in the beginning, we did only what was nearly free. We clipped, mowed, dug, tugged, tilled, and planted. And year by year, gardens grew. Lilacs, rosebushes, and day lilies spread. We grew onions and berries, carrots and squash, tomatoes and beans. We raised hens, and when they stopped laying, fed them until they died of old age.
In the summertime we leave the doors open unmindful of insects. The dogs wander in and out at will. In the evenings my husband and I carry our meal to the screened porch and listen and watch through the season as frogs give way to crickets, June bugs to lightning bugs.
But when fall comes the house retracts back into itself. Storm windows go up. The furnace rumbles on. The maples on the front lawn shine and testify why farm women requested sugar maples for beauty. And though I love this season when I was born, it is a season when my failures and all the things I haven’t yet done rise like leaf smoke. This is the season when I look around at piles of clothes with nowhere to go, stacks of unread magazines, notebooks of unfinished poems, rooms still needing repair. This is the season when I wonder how I ended up here.
So, when my husband asks what I want for my birthday, I say, “closets.” Oh, there are a hundred other things. But I want closets. I see doors opening to shelves and long rods. Blouses and jackets neatly hung. A home for shoes and my collection of hats. And a high shelf where I will tuck a small box. It holds the nightgown I carried my son home in: red flannel I cut and stitched, when I was young and still imagining him and how my life would be.