Refuge and a Stubborn Landlord
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
I was putting the dishes away when a song came on so cutting and clear that tears released themselves without my permission and I leaned up against the kitchen cabinets for stability. And then I listened to the song four more times. And then I finished writing what I could not muster last year. From the time I wrote the first entry below it has been exactly one year minus one day. The memory came back around because time and grief and music are often tangled like that.
What you need to know now is that we have started over many times.
And what we thought would stand forever was burned to the ground.
And even though the beautiful farmhouse that we loved no longer exists as it did under the proud oak trees I am here to tell you that the house still stands. Because the farmhouse was truly a place of belonging. A kind of steadfast belonging that not only exists in walls and floorboards, but also a thousand pairs of outstretched hands. A history of shelter and good and home.
For anyone who has lost something or someone or had to say hard goodbye - I am looking directly into the camera for this one - to tell you with ringing affirmation - If you loved it, it is still here. Because if we have ever truly loved- it cannot be taken away from us. It absolutely cannot be taken away. Because we belong to the loved as much as it belongs to us. Of this I am certain. It’s the love that keeps the light on.
Rest assured that the house still stands.
The porchlight is on.
Come on up to the house.
August 7th, 2020
“It’s not trespassing if you have permission”. My words reverberate in the empty space as the grief and anger compel my right hand to swing the hammer a few more times. “It’s also not trespassing if the house belongs to you” the words echo in the rubble and mess. The Farmhouse was built long before my great grandparents. Built in 1840, the farmhouse remembered life before cars, radios, and electricity. It was built during the Industrial Revolution. The United States was just 66 years old. The house stood 23 years before the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to people who were enslaved and 80 years before 19th amendment awarded women the right to vote and yet, the house stood unassumingly in its reverent witness to history.
I take a few more swings at the wall with my hammer and watch the plaster crumble into a sand-like powder on the floor. Resting in the fury I take a beat to stretch and flex my hand. After only 20 minutes of chiseling my muscles are cramped into a closed fist around the hammer. Fully expecting blisters, I am thankful I brought my work gloves. In that moment I hope for solace and silence to wash over me, but what I hear instead is noise in all directions. Cars on all sides and suburban sprawl closing in.
“This can’t be what you want” I whisper to the house. Resting my flat palm on the plaster I yearn to make a connection with the spirits in the beams. Some of the horsehair fluffs up out of the place where my chisel just broke plaster. I think about the horse. What was it's name? did it love to run? Was it ever restless? What did it eat for breakfast? It must be at least a century since this plaster was smoothed onto these walls. Everything around me is as much a time capsule as it is a house. The history of heating and plumbing runs as a testimony to progress in chaotic lines all over the old beams in the basement. At one point, it was fitted with indoor plumbing, electricity, and radiator heat, but the real power came from the fact that the house really knew what it was. A refuge. From the ground up.
The original construction was dug into the side of the hill. The hearth commanded the exterior wall to the left of the entrance. A short hallway to the right connected to a root cellar. The floor was whatever the earth already put there, and the walls were constructed from ancient fieldstones heaved into place. I touch the stones and imagine the final thump they made as they were transformed from singular rocks into a wall with a job. “Keep us safe” the builders commanded to the rocks. “Keep the outside out and the inside in”. A purpose was forged in the building of these walls. Every rock a decision in placement and design. There are decades of discarded humanity in the basement now, but the hearth still pulses with the confidence and certainty that it is a portal to another world.
Mom still lives on a patch of earth down the road from this house. She is the last holdout. The final piece carved from what used to be our paradise. My grandparents, Jean and Eugene, bought the property in the mid-seventies from the Barrier family. Mom tells me that Mr. Barrier was an unorthodox kind of farmer and there was no indoor plumbing when they moved in. My grandmother, Jean, polished the broad and knowing floorboards until they were nearly perfect and demanded that my grandfather install plumbing. I can only imagine the juxtaposition. The family just moving back to the area after spending several years in Houston, Texas. My grandfather was a meticulous engineer employed by IBM to work on several NASA missions. How strange it must have been to go from moon landings and mission control to the rapture of indoor plumbing. Toilets are not as glamorous as space travel, but I will argue that they are no less of a revelation.
The reverie collapses when Mom enters the room again. I hear her approach through that earth portal basement and onto the main landing. “Wow, you made some progress!” she says with as much hope as the situation can allow. The truth is we are taking part in demolishing her childhood home. The place where she played her Carol King record and became a fully-fledged human. The home that became her true north from which she would forever navigate and relate to her world. The new owners of the property want to clear the land to build a new development. There are blueprints and signs by the street and a letter that went out to the neighborhood noting the date and time at which the house will be burned to the ground to clear the land.
The letter was formal and came as a curtesy notice to the neighbors. The moment my mother recognized the address on the page served as a catalyst for a furious volley of phone calls between her, myself, and my sister. I cried for the greater part of 24 hours. Graciously, my partner could see the distress all over me and he called the project manager, and we were granted precious time in the house. We could take whatever we wanted out of what was left. We were told to be careful. The house was unstable. Upset. And in the process of being disassembled. This was our chance to say goodbye.
We do not own it anymore, this beautiful white farmhouse with shutters the perfect shade of green. Through a series of terrible events the house is no longer in the family, nor is the swath of land on which it has stood for 180 years. We sold the property a few years ago after my grandfather died of cancer. At the time, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s spiked in intensity and my uncle was overworked with the upkeep and maintenance. I couldn’t help with the property because I was the fulltime caregiver to my mother who was battling her own cancer diagnosis. We were in deep. We could barely keep our heads above water. The man hours and money needed to keep it afloat was too much to bear. Noise. On all sides. It was closing in.
I shake my head from the memory as the focus of the moment ricochets back to me and I take up the chisel again. Desperate to free the soft green wooden pegboards from the walls. The pegboards extended the length of two of the original rooms in the log cabin portion of the main floor. The space rings with the accumulated momentum of years and years of tired people coming in from a day’s work and hanging up their coats and hats. From our separate ladders I watch as Mom pauses her chiseling and whispers something about how a home is “a place to hang your hat” and I chisel even harder because of the heartbreak. We persist in the afternoon heat. Hammers and chisels and two women desperate to save the past from the future.
“I need a break” Mom says as she climbs down from the ladder. She’s still on a lot of meds after beating cancer with rivers of chemo and a stem cell transplant. “It’s ok. I got it - I’m angry - that will keep me going for a while.” I pull out a pen and a paperback journal. “Take a break” I say to her as I motion to the brick ledge surrounding the woodstove. Handing her the journal and pen I add, “Write a letter to your house”. She stops and nods slowly as she accepts the journal.
She begins to write in silence, and I whisper to the pegboards “You need to let go now; mom wants to take you home.” The boards comply with more crumbling plaster and mom runs into the room upon hearing the triumphant crack of my crowbar. “You got it!” she said. Of course, I got it. I had to. We needed to keep something. I would carry it all home with me piece by piece, but there just isn’t time. This is an emergency evacuation.
We rescue some old iron locks. Hardware that was obviously forged from heat and elements by a skilled blacksmith. So much is handmade. The bricks. The nails. The woodwork. Hand hewn logs fortified the walls. My great uncle says they were most likely cut from trees felled on the property. The logs range from a foot to almost two feet in width. I could measure the depth of the wall by the daylight creeping in through the cannon ball sized holes left by the demolition crew. the logs were a foot thick. These were mature trees. Acorns from the 1700s. Tears roll down my face again without my permission. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save you”.
I can see the oak trees standing proud in the lower field through the gaping holes left in the cabin. Those massive oaks were planted by the son of the Barrier family. It was told to me that the son was much changed after his return home from a long-ago war. He had seen so much death and destruction and the tearing apart of humanity. After all he witnessed, he wanted to plant trees because “he wanted to see something grow again.”
The trees grew tall and into their purpose. Totems alive. Massive trunks with full canopies. They stood watch throughout the years. They were present when I pulled my sled up the hill, struggling through snowdrifts in my little boots. They watched as I played with my uncle’s dogs in the summertime or when I waded barefoot in the creek. Ever present and witnessing to life. Planted to prove that life could still go on. And life did go on. I walk back into the main room to see mom rising from the brick ledge of the wood stove. She is done writing. She hands me the pen and paper and turns to take a final walk through the house. Her house.
I sit down to write. Unsure of how to approach such a towering goodbye. The house was so much more than the sum of even its most poetic parts. It was a home. A place of refuge to all the families who needed it. To come home from war. Come down from space travel. To live when you have nowhere else to go. As it matured into its purpose, the house became more and more a shelter in the greatest sense. As if charged with a magnet or a signal the house acted like a beacon to call people in. Especially those who needed the deepest of respite. The heavy iron keys forged in a different time were handed
to many who needed a place to stay.
I decide to write a goodbye message on the wall because I needed the connection and because it will soon be ashes anyway. Mom follows my act of gratitude and graffiti. An attempt to claim it as ours once again. I set our paper notes on the brick ledge of the woodstove and place a bunch of wildflowers and a braid of grass on top. I imagine that in the flames the words and flowers would guide the house to another plane and that it will wait for us in a neighboring dimension somewhere. A place of ancestors and forever. A place where I can find my grandfather, eternal and youthful and healed and somehow still mowing the grass on his favorite John Deere tractor. A place where my grandmother’s floorboards are polished and respected and restored to former glory. A place where even the memory of pain is forgotten.
I pull two flasks out of my bag and hand one to my mom and ask her to give a toast. She gasps on the emotion as tears catch in her throat. She raises her flask and puts her other hand on her heart. She thanks the house for how it saved us. All of us. I feel the grace as it has permeated the walls. I think about my grandfather and how he loved this place. I raise my flask and smile at the thought of that wonderful and stubborn man, and I cry for his loss and for the house around me that I can no longer save. “To a place of refuge and a stubborn landlord”. We drink and I feel the house release from itself like an exhale as we fall into quiet.
It is done now. We both feel it. We retreat down the stairs and into the earth basement. Out into the light. Hay bales stacked at the ready for the impending blaze. I take a final look. And walk away knowing. That I was blessed. I was one of the chosen. To walk into that sacred space. And know it for what it truly was. And to leave my writing on the wall. Some truths - not even flames can burn. The smoke will take my words from that patch of aging plaster as directions for the afterlife.
Go find Eugene.
He is already on the other side.
You have worked your magic.
We love you.
Keep the light on.
Xoxo, Your family”
Song inspiration, Come on Up To The House, Joseph covers Waits