Thursday, March 28, 2013

excerpt (slightly abridged) from my book with Fleda Brown

Wistful : The Yellow House

We moved in that April of 1968, the prior winter’s back broken, and no sons or daughters yet to keep out of the considerable mud that lay all around us, as we learned to do later. More than once, that mud bogged my trail-worn Ford Fairlane up to its hubs, but I rarely had to call a wrecker; some kind neighbor would pass the house in his big farm truck or tractor and yank me out.

For my part, I felt I had gone to heaven. Oh, there were a few problems with the antique boiler, but I learned how to tweak it just so and get it up and running again– most of the time.  I discovered likewise how to fiddle with the air volume control on the equally ancient water pump, so as to make it kick in again too. I was not only undismayed by these little chores; I rather savored them as part of life in the north country.

Come May, I set about cutting enough wood to get us through the winter. I was young and strong, and there was ample timber to be had from a neighbor’s lot that he wanted thinned. So I decided to be more than safe, even to get a little ahead for the second winter we’d live there, so I cut and split and stacked ten full cord.

Well, ten cord turned out not to be sufficient to keep our stoves blazing through the first winter. The one in the living room was a Round Oak, all filigree and finial, with actual mica in the door, through which a cozy gleam seeped into the living room. But the thing was as archaic as everything else in the building, loose and leaky, its firebox mere sheet metal, which at times glowed so red that I dared not turn my back on it, for fear the whole thing might simply melt away and burn the house to the ground.

One weekend night, I grew impatient.  Unwilling to wait until the stove stopped showing that alarming scarlet, I shoveled some sand in to put the damned blaze out. I hadn’t imagined there’d be enough remnant moisture in that sand for a steam explosion to blow the isinglass right out of the door, and that I’d be stamping live coals on the wide spruce boards of our floor. The charring would still be there when at long last the marriage collapsed and we sold the house.

I likewise remember a certain spot under the kitchen counter, which simply could not be adequately heated to prevent the sink’s pipes from bursting whenever the mercury dropped below negative twenty. I tried my amateur hand at all manner of insulation. I even wrapped the pipes with electrical heating tape; but in time I read of one too many houses that had been incinerated by malfunction of such a device. I hired local contractor Wayne Pike to work on the problem, but highly competent as he was, none of his measures worked either.

We had another stove in the kitchen, but there was no cellar under that room, the result being that one could feel warm as toast there –except from about mid-shin down. So cold did it get along that floor, with its fake-brick linoleum cover, that whenever those pipes did burst, the water would turn to instant, crackling ice beneath our feet.

My older son arrived in 1971, and in his second year he took to peeling the plaster on his bedroom wall.  At length he created a head-sized hole there. To look into the hole was to discover what the house had for insulation: corncobs, old newspapers (one of which headlined the sinking of the Lusitania), and here and there a bit of sawdust, though that was likely the product of rodents, who trod within those walks so freely that they tamped all this ancient insulation down to about knee level.

Cold wind, especially from the northwest, would send small gales through electrical sockets and nail-holes all through the house. And although I cut as much wood every year as many a lumberjack did in his trade, we always wanted to wear our felt-lined Sorel boots indoors, along with at least a wool vest, sometimes a parka.

As I say, the marriage guttered, but not before the arrival of yet another child, a wondrous daughter. Both these children are parents now, and they are so good at that crucial role that I sometimes blink in astonishment.

I moved into a new house, married another extraordinary woman, and three more children arrived. Then we all moved once more, again to a new house. Like any, it has its own occasional problems, but in the thirty-odd years since abandoning the yellow one, I have encountered nothing on the scale that old firetrap presented.

This house –the last, I pray, that I’ll inhabit– sits on a piece of land even more beckoning than that first plot: from a small knoll behind us, we can survey five miles of the Connecticut River, farm fields and barns spread along it, and, on a clear day, we can see deep into the White Mountains on the New Hampshire side. Rather than a tiny fire pond, we have a seven-acre one that attracts all sorts of waterfowl, otters, mink, muskrats, deer, moose.

It seems strange, then, that I am occasionally wistful for that rickety first house, with its rat-trodden insulation and boreal indoor winds, with its damnable bursting pipe, its cranky boiler and pump. I still cut wood for heat, but now four cord will do for a winter, and sometimes less, the weather rarely turning as frigid as it did when I was in my twenties and thirties. The roof is of standing seam metal, so I needn’t climb on top to shovel off the snow, an enterprise at once so burdensome and risky that I’m glad it’s well behind me, though to be sure, the snow doesn’t pile up the way it used to, either.

Early on in this collaboration, Fleda asked,
Don’t we all start in on elegy—writers or not—at about age 13, when the gap begins to reveal itself to us, the sense of having an irretrievable past—our childhood—as well as a present, which holds what’s already coming into being? 

Yes, of course. Of course it’s not really the house I’m nostalgic about. It’s a season of life, especially right at the start, when I felt up to anything, when my whole world struck me as so sharp, so new, and when those older children –long since grown and gone– were no more than dreams of the future.

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