ONE of the most beautiful opening lines of any book is contained in Isak Dineson's ``Out of Africa'' which begins, ``I had a farm in Africa, at the foot to the Ngong Hills.'' Reading it, you know immediately that this book is going to tell you about the farm and how it was to live there and what it felt like, and you experience that sense of anticipation that is inherent in all good books. Dineson tells you that each morning when she awakened in the highlands, she thought, ``Here I am, where I ought to be.'' Most of us spend our lives searching for the place, the house, the country, where we ought to be. This is part of the reason that we buy houses, particularly old houses, because they seem to promise that place that is uniquely ours. The charm of houses is captured in the old, the used, the cherished, in houses where shades and shadows remind us of a world long past. It is this that we seek when we buy houses that are Victorian, antebellum, or plantation plain. We are seeking a return to the past, to a childhood not necessarily ours, but someone's, when home was a haven and when houses sheltered us.
In books that I loved as a child there were always special houses, places that endeared them to me: Laura Ingalls Wilder's ``Little House'' books, Kenneth Grahames's ``Wind in the Willows,'' Francis Burnett's ``Secret Garden.'' Writers I love as an adult, too, write with this strong sense of place: May Sarton and Colette. In Rumer Godden's novels there is first the house, then its inhabitants. ``In me, you exist,'' says the house.
When I began writing, I was to discover, as had so many writers before me, that geographical places experienced in childhood would become my own ``country of the mind,'' evoked in memory and becoming a kind of treasure-trove encapsulating the essence of place needed by a writer. But outwardly, before I knew that the place was safely inside my head, I searched for the perfect place, the perfect house, the place where I belonged.
Southerners, in particular, have a strong sense of place and home. William Faulkner invented an entire county and peopled it. ``Place then,'' Eudora Welty says, ``has the most delicate control over character, too; by confining character, it defines it.''
This search for our place is something most of us share, otherwise why would we keep buying houses, moving, looking for the ``perfect'' house? There is no perfect house except in the country of the heart and, there, you alone may find it.
MY place was known by my family as simply ``the old house.'' It belonged to my Aunt Margaret. It was there that I spent summers in that time of extreme sensitivity in childhood when nothing escapes you, when sights and sounds and smells are drawn to the vulnerable and open spirit, and that, for a writer, will be drawn from for as long as you exist.
The old house sat on a rise in the middle of a pecan grove in central Alabama. It was white clapboard with shutters of such dark green that they looked black in fading light. A fanlight over the front door splintered the light that entered it into small pieces in patterns on the floor of the entrance hall. I remember deep blue larkspur and creamy white stocks on a marble-topped table near the hall tree where my uncle's frayed and battered straw hat hung while he was at home.
To the left, as you entered, was the living room that ran the width of the house. There was an indefinable scent in that house, a combination of wax and flowers and well-prepared meals, and there was something else - a spicy scent like cedar, overlaid with a sweetness that has no name. All of my adult life, I've wanted my own house to smell like that. Occasionally it does, but it is always a surprise.
The screened porch next to the living room was much used in those days before air conditioning. On it were a metal glider and chairs with fat green cushions. Jade plants, their fat leaves perfect for pinching, sat on glass-topped tables where there was usually at least one glass of iced tea, the ice slowly melting in the heat, leaving rings on the tables.
Lying in the glider, moving it gently with my big toe, I read on somnolent afternoons. ``Jane Eyre'' and ``Wuthering Heights'' were two books that I read over and over.
Lights were never used on the porch - the house lights sufficed, shedding a soft glow and making the darkness seem cooler. White moths, attracted by the existing light, hit the screens with soft plops. From the living room, my Uncle Doyle's laughter would ring out at something Rochester said on the ``Jack Benny Show.''
REMEMBERING those days of dappled sunlight and flowers, it seems always to be high summer. My grandmother, Huberta, made dresses of voile and lawn, the scraps of which were fashioned into dolls' dresses that were crisp and faintly scented with sachet.
When I think of the house, I think, too, of the gardens surrounding it. Margaret's garden bore her own unique personality - bright and generous, nothing formal; a kind of ease, a benign carelessness in the sprawling beds of zinnias and larkspur and snapdragons. Cannas, red as rubies, grew down by the pump house and at the side of the house, roses lifted heavy heads to the sun.
Eleanor Cameron wrote of old houses and their occupants: ``...telling over wordless winter nights, the stories of those who have lived within them, lives played and replayed, speaking in antiphony from one century to another, until to the listener they speak from a single enveloping present.''
Of course, the house, any house, is only the shell for its occupants. Like a nautilus shell, it grows, chamber by chamber, each chamber leading outward but with access back to the heart. In one of his Taliesin lectures, Frank Lloyd Wright spoke of the shell as a house when he said, ``Here in these shells we see the housing of the life of the seas, the beauty of their variations is never finished. Certainly Divinity is here in these shells in their humble form of life.'' It is the passage of time that molds the form and substance of a special place.
When I go back in memory to the old house, I still feel that sense of openness, of ``time like air'' that moves and lasts. Those walls breathe around me, allowing me space to dream. A woman leans down to smell a rose and it is as though she is drinking from a fountain. The roses I remember are bathed in mist; the gardens shimmer in light.
Like Auden's ``Evening - grave, immense, and clear,'' the memory of that place glows in my mind like a loved room bathed in late, golden light. It is the voices we hear speaking to us from the past that call us to old places. It is the house created by its occupants that holds us and calls us home.