Behind Closed Doors
It was dirty and it smelled bad. It had horrifically ugly wallpaper and even uglier carpeting, though the pattern was hard to see through the years of grime that had accumulated. It looked like varying shades of brown, so we were all quite astonished to see vivid yellow and saucy lime green in the tracks left by the steam cleaner. The yellow and green plaid wallpaper made a little more sense after that discovery.
We would go to the house in the evenings after my Dad got off work, so they could clean it up and make it habitable. Apparently, several different species of animal had lived in the house along with the human occupants, though whom was more responsible for the level of filth is difficult to say. There was feces in abundance as well as animal skins, feathers and even a turtle shell, which looked very forlorn, all empty and upended in the corner.
The basement was dark and dank and downright terrifying. My sisters and I refused to venture down the narrow steps into that subterranean hell, mostly because the furnace looked like a big monster in the weak light, which cast multi-limbed shadows that reached out to us.
But something about that house spoke to my mother. She saw something besides filth and decay. She knew there was something beautiful beneath it. From the day she decided that THIS house was the one, she loved it with a deep and abiding fierceness. I don't think my Dad ever really understood or shared her attachment to the house, but he agreed to the purchase nonetheless. I'm sure he must have had grave misgivings about that.
At night while my parents cleaned, my sisters and I played in the room that was, for many years, our playroom. My mother erected a round, expanding playpen type thing that must have been a death trap and would almost certainly be outlawed today, to keep my baby sister from wandering off while they worked. When it grew dark, we got our sleeping bags and placed them within that deadly circle, with the baby in the middle. We drifted off listening to my mother and father laughing, talking and singing to the country music that played on the beat up transistor radio we brought with us.
"When we get behiiiiiiiiind clooooooosed doors. And you let your haaaaaaiiiiiir hang down..."
"Shhhhh! Gary, stop...the girls will hear!"
"No they won't...they're fast asleep..."
Giggles and a crash. Then some silence. I didn't understand the silence then. I do now. It makes me smile. But it makes my heart hurt too.
Forty years. Forty years it took for that place to live up to the potential my Mother saw there.
For many years, there was just no money. They had kids to feed, a mortgage to pay, doctor and dentist bills, cars to keep running and a monster furnace which had to be supplied with oil through the long and harsh Wisconsin winter, lest it demand that a hapless child be fed into it's gaping metal maw ((shudder)).
But she kept it as pretty as she could and always scrupulously clean. She put out lace doilies, she draped the threadbare furniture with pretty sheets, she disguised the balding carpets with runners and throws, and she hung her crosstitch on the walls.
She and the house waited.
And then, when the kids were gone, and with them some of the bills; when the responsibilities of parenthood ceased to be such a heavy burden, when her time was once again her own...then...then the house began to shine.
She scraped wallpaper and ripped out carpets. She stripped and sanded every inch of woodwork in that house. If you know anything about the Craftsman style, then you know that was a Herculean task. She plastered and painted and textured and rag rolled and stenciled and sewed. Of course my Dad helped her. But for him I don't think it was quite the labor of love that it was for her. It was just labor. A means to an end. For my Mom, I think it was almost like giving birth again; recreating life out of something dead and forgotten.
It was breathtaking when she finished with it. And every single inch of that house was full of her.
It was so strange when I walked into that house the first time after she died. She was gone. I could feel it. But still so very present. I couldn't make sense of it, not then, not now.
For forty years, that house has been my home. My going back to place. I fled to that house many times during my young adulthood. Fired, spurned by a lover, sad, out of sorts, broke, lonely....I headed back home to sleep in the same bed I'd always slept in. To quiet my soul and to feel safe.
And now it will be sold to the highest bidder. My entire childhood is up for sale.
I just don't know if I can take it. I know I have to accept it. It's part of life. And I have to move on. But my heart and my mind can't agree on how to handle it.
I had a dream recently.
I was wandering through the house as it was when we first bought it; dirty, dark and somehow sinister, though I never thought of it that way when I was a kid...except for the basement. I kicked aside snake skins and turtle shells and feathers. I could hear country music playing faintly from somewhere in the house and also somebody weeping. I knew it was my mother and I began to search for her, wandering from room to room. In reality, there are only 7 rooms in the house, but in my dream, there was a vast and endless warren of rooms to search through. I began to panic, thinking I would never find her. I could feel it tighenting my throat and making my heart pound in my ears.
Finally I reached a door, behind which, I was certain, I would find my mother. It wouldn't open at first and I tugged and tugged, growing more and more frantic. Suddenly it wrenched open and there was my mother in her bedroom. There was no furniture other than the bed on which she sat. Her concentrator was on the floor beside the bed but the hose dangled from her lap. Her head was in her hands.
She raised her head and looked at me.
"What happened to my house?" she asked. There was bewilderment and deep sadness in her voice.
"I don't know. It was fine the last time I was here."
"It's not the same. This isn't how I left it. "
"I know, but we can fix it up again. I'll help you."
She shook her head
"No. It's too late. It's too late."
I bent to embrace her, but she evaporated before I could get my arms around her. The oxygen hose dropped to the floor and landed on my feet. I stood there in the empty room listening to faint country music. It wasn't until that moment that I could make out any words.
"When we get behiiiiiiiiiiind closed doors......"
Addendum: I managed to find a few pics. They are not very good, because I was too lazy to scan them and so I just took pictures of the pictures. There are better ones that she sent me as the transformation progressed, but all our pictures are currently in boxes stacked up in the dining room. But, nevertheless, you can see the beauty of the house and the painstaking care she put into it.