My father still lives in the house we moved into when I was a few months old. The house is like an appendage of our family. Is an appendage. A sheltering body, an embrace. Arms of dark wood and white plaster; strong, squat legs of stone. Paned views seeing out, westward to the sunset, eastward to the city across the park. It was playful and patient when I was little, hiding anachronistic openings and cupboards, panels, loose floor boards, a hidden stairwell. I would drag pillow and blanket to its darkest closets at night, unable to sleep. I pushed through the clouds of tiny pink-shard insulation above the attic hatch to see the house exposed, wood-beam skeletal.
The house was far enough from any friends to necessitate adventure. While a fence still separated ravine from back yard, you could tie a length of coarse rope to it, secure the other end around your waist, and rappel down. It even enabled adolescent misadventures, providing rear doors and quiet stairs for late night entries. A shady little forest at the front under the single cedar tree. Benign, smooth bottles and rusting iron grills in the back ravine, near the water, where people must have picnicked. The year my parents closed up the creaky door to the backyard and made a small bathroom down the hall, I understood how much the house could change, could be forced to change. But it was a house that happily accepted being so lived in. Lived with us and grew and resisted and decayed with us.
A house is primordial shelter. It’s an early and long-term space of protection, but certainly not our first. Our first sense of safety comes from the warmth and privacy of our mother’s body, an enclosed space that the embrace of a loved one echoes afterwards. Like the house that watches generations pass, observing the span of an entire life spent within its walls, a parent sees and knows time differently than their child. A parent brings us into the world, knows how we know the passage of time as it moves according to us. What is more parental than a house?
The February that my mother died, the house mourned with us. It had grown quiet and unsure in the months of her illness. It adjusted for her, awkwardly but earnestly, as we all did. A mechanical lift was drilled into the staircase. It was an invasive, foreign, grey metal contraption. She never had a chance to use it. Living room became temporary bedroom. Disease room, dying room, grieving room. While she was sick it smelled like the hospitals. Of sallow chemicals like formaldehyde, though I can’t be sure it wasn’t just her skin burdened with the odorous weight of illness. We associate the smell of formaldehyde with pausing the life it holds suspended, but it’s a smell and a substance that heralds the inevitable thought of death, too. The house even sounded like sickness: crumpling wrappers, creaking wheeled implements, bandages padding the small garbage bins that were unaccustomed to molting. When she died it held its breath. It grew dry-aired and stagnant. She, who had lived the most and every moment. The warm, the fast flowing, she, the overflowing with life. Breathless.
No warm wind and no fresh wind came in March or April, only bitterly cold, unfurling breezes like the strands of hair as soft as it had been when she had been alive, but somehow lifeless now only moments later. A dead thing in my living fingers.
In spring my house breathed again. Ivy that had always grown back miraculously grew again, and covered rough stone on the north wall. We laughed again, once in a while; I had sex again, was seventeen again. Summer came, and with it, the rest of my life.
The seaside cottage in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse watches time pass. The cottage experiences the passing of time on a different scale, waiting out the years between the first night the Ramsay family arrives until they return after the war.
The place was gone to rack and ruin. Only the Lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw.
In the years that pass in their absence, a daughter, a son, and a mother have died. The cottage is dying, too. It lives when it is lived in, ages and waits in case it can be vivacious again.
The strong wind coming off the sea, impervious to time but an emissary of it, asks the folded letters in the cottage’s wastepaper basket, those abandoned objects like the others in the house: How long would they endure? Forces of nature, time, the sea, the seeking beam of the nearby Lighthouse, and the cottage itself are characters in To The Lighthouse as much as Mrs. Ramsay herself. They move and are animate; living, they wait. Their lives are a haze between their own existence and existing only through interacting with the people they touch.
My house’s breaths grow belaboured. It’s an old house, built in 1937 on an apple orchard.
It heaves in strong winds. It sighs uncomfortably in humidity, like my seventy-one–year-old father. He keeps the house company now; it keeps watch over him. It has seen him bring life, it has seen him age and even lose a life he loved, but his children always return. The house still holds our time. But this transference from one generation to the next, a parent bringing new life into the world without seeing the end of its time, does not always happen.
My grandmother saw it all. She was born before my house was built. She brought my mother into this world and saw
her leave it. It feels right, we think, to raise a child and have them bury you. To transfer the burden of seeing, of understanding the passage and fullness of life to your children follows an order where grief is distributed over time. To not have to see the life of your child encapsulated within your own. There is a weight in seeing too much.
My grandmother’s house has shrunk. It’s a pale shell around her hum, white paint and paper thin and permitting of rain on the porch. Lintels, cupboard handles, and a fireplace mantle soft from wear. Tired from the death of her own mother, who lived and died in the back bedroom that looks out at a small garden, and laden with photos of my mother. A house full of photos of me and my siblings as well, of family and my new baby cousin. The baby cousin shares my name; she made my grandmother a great-grandmother. Yet though new life fills the house, my grandmother and her house hold on to absence more than anything. Together, they carry and embrace the absence. How could you not hold on, when you’ve seen so much pass?
Wind creeps silently, darkness speaks. Rufus, the five year old protagonist of James Agee’s A Death in the Family, grieves for his father and speaks:
Gentle, gentle dark. My Darkness. Do you listen? Oh, are you hollowed, all one taking ear? My Darkness. Do you watch me? Oh, are you rounded, all one guardian eye? […] Darkness indeed came near. It buried its eye against the eye of the child’s own soul, saying: Had ever breathed, had ever dreamed, had ever been.
For Rufus, darkness is a space where there is room for absence within shelter. In the corners of our homes and lives there is space for Darkness, for absence. We live with absence and we remember; we cannot fill it all with light, cannot know every corner. Darkness watches, swathes, holds Rufus. The house encloses, listening, watching, holding.
These inanimate creatures, houses and their shadows, grow weary. Like the wind and beam of the Lighthouse, like the stone and wood of my father’s house, Darkness knows time differently. Darkness has existed before Rufus and will outlive him. Envious of the shortness of a life, Darkness speaks. Rufus is young enough to understand this intangible, living force, as when we are children we understand shelter intuitively. We understand that our parents will care for us without needing to know about their lives before us. We know the house will shelter us. We know it has secret spaces and we know it is an ally; basement boiler room and ravine and window ledge to put a mandarin orange on and forget for months until it becomes so shriveled it pulls up a little kiss of paint when I finally removed it. The house, my House, has lived and lives with us. Lives when it is full of life and gives life. Living, it waits. ♦
Zoë Ritts is currently based in Providence, Rhode Island where she studies architecture.
Image: found art
“Held” is from our MOMS Issue (spring 2015)