A weak ray of winter sunlight slid timidly through the grimy window, as if it, like us, was trying to avoid contact with the mold-flecked wall. The whole house reeked with the wet, earthy stench of mildew. My husband, the only one of us brave enough to venture down the rickety basement stairs, confirmed the stink was even worse down there, complemented by lovely views of standing water and walls black with fungus.
We had already done our quick tour through the house with the realtor, though there had really been no point. The wave of odor had told us all we needed to know the minute we opened the door. The ancient plumbing, worn linoleum, ratty carpets,and scuffed wallboard atop crumbling plaster were all just icing on the cake. The sellers of this disaster not only wouldn’t get their asking price, but would be lucky if the place wasn’t condemned.
As we stood in that awful kitchen, my mom taking shallow breaths through her mouth to avoid the smell, I couldn’t help taking a look back. My eyes fell on the carved hardwood pillars in the dining room, the beautifully made kitchen cabinets. This run-down wreck had been someone’s dream home once. I could almost sense the abandoned and dying spirit of the place, and I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for it.
The image in my mind’s eye took on a sepia tint, and the years peeled away…
The fresh spring sunlight gleamed off every bright new surface, including the faces of the couple stumbling awkwardly through the front door. “No trying to peek, now,” he laughed.
“Gabe, I can’t see; I’m going to trip and fall! And wouldn’t that be a fine way to start out in our new place,” she protested.
“You’re not gonna fall, Bess; I got ya. And now, open your eyes!”
The young man with the huge smile took his callused hands off the girl’s eyes, and she gasped with delight. “Oh, Gabe,” she breathed, her hands fluttering to her mouth and tears springing to her eyes. “It’s beautiful! I can’t believe you built all this! What will we ever do with all this room?”
“It won’t seem like so much room when it’s full of a pack of young’uns,” Gabe said with a sideways grin.
She hid her blush behind her long blond hair, and pretended to swat at him.
He took a deep breath of satisfaction, inhaling the mingled scent of fresh pine and springtime, before leading her by the hand from room to room. He managed to stay modest when she complimented the freshly varnished pillars he’d built to adorn their dining room, but he had to admit to a little preening when she exclaimed over the cabinets he’d spent so many hours building for her.
What they didn’t say, and what danced in the fresh morning air between them as brightly as the May sunshine, was the knowledge that they could now be married and start their brand new life together. This place, which started as just a collection of wood and stone, would be transformed into a home.
The smell of fresh cut grass drifted in the open window on the summer breeze. Marianne decided she’d earned a break from scrubbing and polishing the kitchen cabinets.
Janine, their youngest, had argued for tearing the cabinets out when they’d put down the linoleum last year. She wanted “far out” shiny orange Formica like her friend Debbie’s family had. But Marianne remembered her mother telling her dozens of times about the first time she’d seen those cupboards. How Dad had slaved over building them just perfect for her, and the pride in his eyes when she’d admired them. Those memories carried more weight than Janine’s latest fad, and in the end, they’d compromised. Janine got orange shag carpet for her bedroom, and Marianne kept her mom’s cabinets.
The sounds of the lawnmower stopped, and a few minutes later the screen door slammed as Frank came in for a cold beer. “That afternoon sun’s a killer today,” he said, sitting down at the dining room table and wiping the sweat from his forehead.
Marianne followed him into the dining room and leaned against one of the decorative pillars her father built. In a box of keepsakes somewhere, she still had the strip of paper that used to be taped there, where she’d tracked the growth of all her kids, just like her own mom had done. Janine took it down one day because apparently all her friends were born fully grown out of thin air, and it would’ve been too embarrassing for them to find out she started out as a normal kid. Marianne had just rolled her eyes, but that night when she carefully folded that paper and put it away, she cried a little at how fast her babies had grown up.
Frank was watching her with a smile when she came back to the moment. He nodded at the pillar. “Your old man sure knew how to build things right, I’ll give him that. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.”
She laughed. “To hear Janine tell it, that’s because people nowadays are too groovy to live in an old-fashioned place like this. Except us, I guess.”
The August sun streaming in the window gilded the gray in his hair as he walked over to her. “Listen, woman. There’s nothing wrong with this place, or the people in it. Kids these days don’t have the sense to appreciate things that are good and solid, that’s all. And I don’t care if Janine thinks you’re square; I like every shape you got.”
He held her tight and pressed her against the pillar, kissing her like the day they’d first moved in, all those years ago.
“There, Grandma,” said Eric, hammering in the last nail just as the last hint of autumn sun faded into twilight. “It might not be as pro as your grandpa’s fancy cabinets, but at least it’ll keep the plaster from falling into your bath.”
Janine smiled and hugged the boy, trying not to think what her grandpa would have said about the cheap wallboard. But it was all she could afford on a fixed income. And it made the job easy enough that her 17-year-old amateur contractor could be paid in sandwiches. Of course, given the state of the kitchen after Eric went through it, it might have been cheaper to pay cash. She chuckled, gathering her sweater more closely around her old bones to ward off the late October chill.
“You did good, kid,” Janine said. “Thanks for helping your poor old Gran.”
Eric smiled, and then turned thoughtful. “Grandma…can I ask you something? Why do you stay in this big old heap? You know you could come stay with us, and you wouldn’t have to be alone all the time. I know Mom would worry less if you were closer, and I could drive you to your doctor appointments and stuff now that I got my license.”
The dwindling sunlight threw the lines on her face into sharp relief. She tried to think how to explain to one so young the value of something old, with a tinge of irony since she knew full well she hadn’t appreciated any of it at his age. Why did it matter that her mom, aunts and uncles, her brothers and sisters, and her children had all measured their childhoods against the work of her grandpa’s hands? So what if she could look at places in the house and think, there’s the couch where Mom waited up for me when I missed curfew; there’s the place John stood when he asked my dad if we could get married; there’s where John smiled and fell asleep that last time before he went ahead to wait for me in Heaven? How could she tell him that even though she was alone, she wasn’t, really, because the walls were filled to bursting with the echoes of all the people she loved the most?
In the end, she just smiled and patted his hand. “I’m sure I’ll probably do that soon enough. But I’m not ready just yet.”
As she walked him to the door, they passed through the kitchen, and her eyes fell on the cabinets. “Besides, the old place might be falling into bits of wood and stone,” she said, “but for now it’s still a home, and I think it would get lonely without me.” Eric laughed, and headed out to his car, crunching through the swirling autumn leaves in the growing darkness.
“Well, are you ready to go to the next house on the list?” asked our realtor, drawing me out of my reverie, back to the present. My mom led the charge, eager to escape the awful mold smell as soon as possible, even if it meant heading back out into the winter chill. I shook my head to clear the daydreams from my eyes, and followed.
“Goodbye, house,” I thought. And we left the old house and locked the door.
If something is part real, and part daydream…does that count as fiction or non-fiction? Oh well; I promised myself this experiment would be as little self-criticism and over-analysis as possible, so we’ll just say it is whatever it is. 🙂 -Raevyn