Ten Rooms Brimming With Life
I LIVE in a house that doesn't belong to me - one of the few big houses built in this southwest Washington hamlet at the turn of the century, back when Douglas fir flowed from the forests in streams as apparently endless as the great Columbia River itself. The telephone company bought the property years ago for future development. But progress has come to our little town with merciful slowness, and so far, the house still stands.The boards in this house are long and clear, the beams full-size, the plaster and shingles rock-hard. The structure has found its shape over the years, drying and soaking and drying again until it fits its interior space like an old shoe. Nothing separates the inner walls from the outer but a breathing layer of air. The windows are single sheets of wavery old glass. The house has two stories and 10 rooms, not counting the half-basement, where I never go if I can help it. Our town sits on a marshy meadow - not basement country. But it's the basement, spidery and spooky, draining water season after season, that's kept the house high and dry and alive this long. Living here through the damp north-coastal winter is like living in a tepee or a Japanese shoji house, warmed by a central fire in the parlor stove. In summer, while heat gathers upstairs, the first floor remains cool as a glade. Either way, there's a sense of cycling through the changes in this house - of being not walled off from nature, but part of it, sheltered and yet connected. When we first moved here, just before Christmas 1979, we noticed that every time the wind blew hard, the song of a cello sighed around us, through the rooms, across the bare wood floors. The wires outside were strings; the wind was playing our house like an instrument. We felt like mice living in a guitar. We noticed, too, how sound resonates from room to room. Music and laughter from other parts of the house are never far away. It's possible to be alone here and feel the presence of family, friends, love, and history. Even when there's no one else in the house, it brims with life. I've spent thousands of hours alone here at night writing while the family sleeps. The house abides around me on its quiet corner lot, silent and peaceful, secret as the back of my head, familiar as the backs of my hands. I take for granted the places I never see - the basement with its spider webs and slug trails glistening in the dark, the attic littered with dusty hoards of broken filbert shells, the closets stuffed with more than a decade's worth of pack-rat treasure - as well as the places where pre sent life occurs, where the children dream, where my own bed waits, where the food is stored, where the firewood is stacked, where the upright piano broods in shadow. My slippered feet know the six steps down to the landing, the 11 steps down to the hall. My hands know where to find the hook to lift the lid of the stove. These moves are built into my bones. I could make them in my sleep - and most nights, I do. The wind blows, the windows rattle, and the house stands, humming the dance it has learned from over 80 years of standing. Through the worst storms, it creaks and sighs, and stands firm. WE were a family of six when we moved here. Two of us remain - my son Isaac and me. I'm no longer married, the children are grown and starting their own families, and I write in the daytime now. The telephone company developed elsewhere; its officials forgot about us, we hope. Their computer accepts our rent, and we lie low. The house is nothing to them, not worth the cost of dismantling. Someday they'll get around to selling the property; until then, we and the house are keeping each other going. Whoever buys it will most likely push it into the ground and build something new, plain, hard, and flat in its place. Our friend John, a connoisseur of houses like ours, says we're "riding it down." I love that image: The engines have quit, the house is gently sailing to earth, and we're sailing with it, keeping it alive to the last. One snowy night last winter, as Isaac and I returned from a walk, we saw the house looking as if it had just landed - a perfect four-pointer. We don't get much snow here, and we make the most of it. Under a haze of crystals floating like spent moths, the lamps along our village streets showed a world gone smaller, softer, subdued in shadowy golden light. The buildings stood muffled in upon themselves, closer together. Voices echoed, and snowballs flew on silent wings, like small owls, from one street corner to the next. The trees had become great spiny flowers, and out of the blackness above our heads the transforming miracle kept whirling dow n, millions of sparkling fragments disappearing into the whole, into the familiar gone strange, hushed by its own beauty. 'LOOK at our house," said Isaac, touching my elbow to stop us in our tracks. "If I didn't know better, I'd think we were still inside." We had damped down the fire before we left and blown out the candles. Yet the empty house glowed, mantled in snow, and light streamed from it on snowy veils - not just from the windows, but from the big balanced wooden structure, the house itself. It stood swathed in loveliness, a thing made of air, weightless, breathing on its own, as if it had just settled silently there and might vanish at any moment. "I want to remember it like that," said Isaac. "You will." "I wish it was our house," said Isaac, who will soon be leaving - and myself soon after. What would I do all alone in a 10-room house? "It is our house," I said. It is our house - I could see that. You don't need to own something, or keep it forever, in order to have it. You just need to see it with open eyes while it's there in front of you. As I watched, the house seemed to shout with life passing through, some of it ours. The street rang with silent cheerful voices, some known and remembered, others unfamiliar, all brimming and bustling with the unconscious joy of being in the world - seeing, breathing, living. Isaac and I looked hard at each other, clasped mittened hands, and burst out laughing. We crossed the yard together, climbed the front steps, and stamped our feet on the sturdy old porch. Then we went inside to the aromas of soup simmering, bread baking, bayberry candles on the table, and balsam on the fire - to the sounds of a record playing Mozart, my daughter calling long distance, and my son roaring at her jokes - and to the warmth of the stove and the sight of everything as it was, as it would be, f or a while longer.