Kevin and I finally surrendered after our fourth rental was sold out from under us - we would buy a house. We lived then on the edge of a Maine tourist town that swelled to forty thousand in summer leaving three-month traffic jams and we wanted a place away from the activity, something small and quiet, back yard, abundant sunlight. The realtor we found nodded and said something like that had just come on the market that morning. He chatted about how buying a house made the most sense as he drove down a road neither of us even knew existed, then to the end of a long driveway and smiled at our faces when we saw a quarter acre of granite boulders and columns rising out of the snow like ancient sculptures. I wanted to get lost in them, to walk between the boulders as I'd walked between the hoodoos in Chiricahua National Park's heart of rocks.
"A very old granite quarry they stopped working fifty years ago," the realtor said.
Kevin and I looked at each other and wordlessly agreed that we wanted to own it.
"You should look at the house too," he laughed.
The house itself didn't inspire enthusiasm; it had the characterless anonymity of many 1950's houses, but the kitchen window over the sink looked out over the quarry, mysterious in the play of light and shadows over rough gray mottled with pink and I imagined washing dishes while I looked at it. There were two small but adequate bathrooms. It had a couple of bedrooms, not enough when both our sons' families visited, but the basement was dry and would lend itself to a third one. We bought it, but what we really purchased that morning was the sprawling quarry. It seemed to me a sort of megalithic stone circle that felt somehow magical. I thought of Celtic myths and ancient observatories and the mysteries surrounding such places. Years later when we went to Ireland I saw it was nothing like a stone circle, but I retained the belief because the fantasy felt more real than the truth.
The owners, a military family, had taken impeccable care of the house. The garage was lined with license plates from everywhere they'd lived, the family relocating to one base after another until he’d finally retired and they’d settled in this house fifteen years earlier. The woman loved it but her arthritis had grown worse and she wanted to be near her daughter and grandchildren in Florida. She was teary-eyed as she reminisced about wonderful times in that house and at one point I wondered if they could really sell it, but she flexed her fingers, painfully holding her hands out for me to look at, and then suggested a reasonable price. At the closing she apologized for rambling. I told her I was grateful and humbled by her memories; they imbued the house with a personal history that made it more immediate and precious and granted it a particular dignity that we would honor.
Despite its geometric stodginess the house had many good qualities. It was sturdy and well insulated with an efficient glass fronted woodstove we fed with fallen trees from the four acres that abutted it. Each window offered a different view of our woods, the greens and browns and whites a multi-hued montage. The occasional moose strolled beneath our windows, wild turkeys woke us with their hungry gobbling, and a red fox denned in our quarry, spectacular against white snow when it emerged. The garden, as it came up in spring, had been as neat and well-cared for as the house itself and we had only to continue what they'd started. By mid-summer our grandchildren invaded the quarry to pick sweet wild blueberries we made into muffins, pies and jam. They climbed the boulders and ducked between them pretending they were a wall around a castle. When it rained, pockets of water created their "moat" where they and their father held off an invading dragon. The center of the quarry housed wild lady-slippers, their soft pink pockets bright polka-dots against the gray. Before winter set in, Kevin laid a trail of red ribbons for a snowshoe path through our woods that we used even during blizzards. We donned snowsuits, mittens, earmuffs, and shoed between the dense trees and over buried boulders, sometimes crossing the path of deer and a few prowling housecats that should have been indoors. We thought we'd live there forever.
Time passed. We grew older. We began to pass our narrow road at night and drive an extra mile before one of us said, "Missed it again, turn around." The shroud of heavy white snow on our last-to-be-plowed-out road left me stranded and alone during Kevin's frequent travels. During the heaviest snowfalls we had day-long power outages and had to feed the woodstove much of the night as well as during the day. We set our alarm for midnight but if we slept through it, we'd wake up to ribbons of frost over the pipes and had to blow on our hands to warm them enough to get the woodstove lit again. Over the years our curving driveway seemed to grow longer, the front steps higher when we needed to shovel. We became reluctant to drive forty-five minutes to a movie or concert or dinner at a friend’s house, knowing that the late-night drive home would be across an unlit road slick with ice. In rural Maine, winter can become a bleak reality. What had once seemed a luxurious privacy had become numbing isolation. I grew up in New York City where the weather was an inconvenience rather than an obstacle. I wanted to live in a city again, in Portland, thirty miles away, small but with a rich cultural center. I had a dear, elderly friend who lived there who I barely saw in the winter and wanted to visit her every week, take her to a movie or out for lunch or play scrabble or just sit in the sun in her back yard and when I told her our plans she clapped her hands in glee.
I began house-hunting and packing, an almost overwhelming task in light of seventeen years of accumulation. I love old china, silverware and crystal and my second-hand collection had grown until it pushed at the doors of cabinets like impatient children wanting their turn to emerge. When I found a Limoges or Rosenthal bowl I thought particularly beautiful I felt close to my mother who'd been dead for ten years. A day's adventure for us would be scouring New York’s Second Avenue thrift shops. She would hold a piece of china or glass up to the light admiring it and bargain the shop owner down to below a dollar. I never passed up Turkish towels and Egyptian cotton sheets on sale, giving a middle finger to my childhood of one towel per family member and pilled sheets that we washed each week in the Laundromat on our corner. There were now enough to fill a floor to ceiling linen closet and I felt embarrassed by the excess. Piles of books, CDs, paintings, artifacts from our travels defied easy sorting. I was surprised as I emptied drawers and closets, by forgotten bargains hidden behind other forgotten bargains. I'd planned to utilize everything but it had all gotten away from me.
I sorted belongings twenty-five years earlier, preparing to move from Long Island New York to Maine after my divorce. I'd found my sons' and my old roller skates, dirty and shrunken from being stored on a shelf in our garage. The boys and I had learned to skate backwards and dance at the nearby rink. I had poor balance, but four wheels rather than the popular blades kept me stable. We loved circling around in an explosion of sweat, music and enthusiastic crowds of adolescent boys and girls with long hair and ripped jeans, attentive parents teaching their young children to balance and adults like myself who'd grown up with street skates and skate keys. I'd splurge on getting us sodas and French Fries for the boys to split. Because I was in college and frequently broke, the weekly specials provided outings cheap enough for me to cobble the entrance fees together. The exhausting physicality of it helped me sleep on nights I climbed into bed wondering how I'd make it through to the next week.
I uncovered line-ruled boards, tee-pins, moldy jute rope, waxed linen threads and beads from seven years of finger-weaving. I'd exhibited in galleries and craft shows which had brought me extra income and I'd thought about doing it professionally until I reminded myself that I wasn't good enough to earn a living. The boys and I loved the craft shows, the milling crowds, admiring customers, and usually a local guitarist with a fine voice and encyclopedic knowledge of folk songs. There was an easy camaraderie, good humor, and generosity between craftspeople. We often traded items at the end of the day and the vendors in the food booths, who knew the crafters' kids from countless shows, dispensed free snacks to them.
In a dingy corner of our often-flooded basement I'd stored a meat smoker from my first marriage to my meat-loving Cuban husband; I became vegetarian immediately after our separation. Although my husband felt cooking was only for wives, the smoker seemed a masculine alternative and he would stop at a supermarket and buy a big roast which he'd place in it early on a Saturday. When he opened the top to turn over the meat the pungent scent of well-spiced beef or pork filled him with satisfaction. After he left I never brought it upstairs to save it from the periodic surge of water that left the tall, metal legs rusty.
Two plastic boxes contained my undergraduate reports and a graduate school thesis. I found teaching curriculums from my two unsuccessful years as a teacher, reports from my years as a market research consultant, hand-written menus from three years catering small parties. I thought about how many lives and identities I'd had in addition to being a wife and mother. As our tiny house emptied until it became bare space that could now belong to anyone, my life felt like it was unraveling. I reminded myself why I was leaving; New York was too expensive, at only thirty-nine I felt like a failure there, my ex-husband and I couldn't stop quarreling and leaving would give us breathing space. I had a close friend living in Maine who encouraged us to move there, if only to sort out my life which seemed to me a dead end.
As Kevin and I searched for a home in Portland I realized how spoiled we'd been by our previous experience of buying the first house we saw. I assured friends who pointed out the ease of that purchase in Wells that I was prepared to look at a hundred houses if needed. However, what one believes in the abstract can be entirely different in actuality; after a single day I hated it even though house-hunting had changed and my realtor sent me links to look at first. It was difficult to tell from the video tours and movie-like sets of rooms what a house really offered, but the initial online look at least eliminated some places. Once I began visiting in person I felt unexpectedly self-conscious, like an intruder into sellers' lives; these were peoples' homes after all.
My easy distractibility created a problem for me and rather than asking about heat costs, if the neighborhood was quiet at night, parking space, how quickly the street was plowed, I examined furnishings as though we'd be purchasing them as well. I found myself thinking a carpet detracted from the room, curtains were too cutesy, ran my fingers over volumes in the bookcase and either wished this person was a friend or thought we’d have absolutely nothing to talk about. I examined their art thinking, "One of my favorite artists" or "Nope, won’t do." I willed myself to stop seizing on what was irrelevant and worry about the bones of the house instead.
The first place we entered proved my realtor wrong about owners always being gone. It was the top floor of a condo owned by a woman too elderly and fragile to leave. During the showing I avoided the small balcony where she sat reading, noting the thin form leant over a book, the well-coifed hair silver in the sunlight. It was an elegant brownstone apartment, enormous windows, richly carpeted floors, smart, urban kitchenette a few steps up from the combination dining room - living room. The furnishings were sophisticated, the books lining the walls scholarly and well-used, paintings of great quality, an antique table from China richly inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs, an old silk tapestry, probably from France. I wished she was my aunt so we could meet every day and talk about art, politics and her memories.
Before we left I stepped outside to the balcony to thank her for allowing us to visit her home. She looked up at me, a bit surprised, then answered, "I've lived here forty years. I can't climb steps anymore and I can't take care of it. I hope whoever buys it loves it as much as my husband and I did." As I drove home I struggled to not feel she had passed the mantle of responsibility onto me.
I brought Kevin to see it a few days later after her son had moved her to her new home, which I fervently hoped was as the lovely as this one. Her belongings were still there casting a spell of urban sophistication. Kevin loved it also and we walked down Congress Street dodging cars, staring into store windows, stopping for coffee, lost in a Woody Allen-ish fantasy of the two of us living in what, for Portland Maine, came closest to a Manhattan penthouse. Common sense shook us brusquely. There was only on-the-street-parking which meant paying for a garage in the winter, if we could find one, because cars couldn't be left on the street to impede snow removal equipment. The tiny bedrooms demanded a choice between bed or bureau, and the other rooms offered little space for our pottery collection, paintings, and considerable stacks of books. We turned the condo down and I had an image of its owner shaking her head in disappointment, but it sold within the month.
By the third month of house hunting I felt defeated, then five months into the weeding out process I felt enticed by a house with a flagrant display of clutter: an Irish lace tablecloth covering a piano, and others in white fading to yellow that covered couches and easy chairs, vintage tables with tarnished silver candlesticks, books piled everywhere, each one an invitation, exotic pottery and tapestries, art-crowded walls, Moroccan throws, a bedroom of scarlet, startling and blatant in its sensual boldness, gold silk and indigo pillows cascading over an Indian bedspread. I was so blinded by its abundance that it took two visits to realize that it wasn’t the house but rather the owner’s vision that drew me. The house itself, with sagging roof, cracked foundation, rusty pipes, would cost thousands to rehabilitate. The deal-breaker was that it was under foreclosure. It would take a year or more before the bank released it and I wanted to be in a new home before the first snow fell.
It took the rest of the summer, much of early fall, part of the winter, and far too many walk-throughs before we found the house we bought. It was on an avenue featuring a school at which, thirty years earlier I’d taught for a year. I loved the avenue, walking it whenever I visited Portland, and had said many times that I wished we could live there, but knew we couldn't afford it. Our moving coincided with the burst of the housing bubble providing something we couldn't have purchased months earlier and, as happened previously, we wanted it for the location rather than for the structure itself. There was a Goodwill thrift store at one end, a large supermarket and cleaners at the other and in between a little college art gallery, a tiny branch of the Portland Public library, a pizzeria, video store, post office, tailor, one of the last cobblers in the city, a small tract of woods, an enormous old cemetery with a duck pond and miles of hiking paths and was only three easily walked miles from downtown.
The house had been poorly cared for. Two parlors smelled badly of the owner's parrots. The stove had only one working burner, the refrigerator shoved into another room to make way for a wet bar and racks of wine and there was a puzzling hole in the wall covered by a straw shade. There was fading, peeling wallpaper and cheap carpet that wheezed dust with every step, no downstairs bathroom and no insulation other than heavy plaster walls. On the plus side it had been built in 1905, had hardwood floors hidden beneath the carpeting, lovely molding, an elegant staircase. There was no sharing of stories here and the owners had left heavy furniture in the attic and in the basement that we finally paid to have removed. When we steamed the wallpaper, the plaster walls were covered with obscenities, which we found amusing. Besides the investment of our own time, we paid to reline the pipes, fix the chimney, insulate the house, repair a leaking roof, turn the hole in the wall into a cabinet and put in a small second bathroom. It nearly broke us, but it was a good decision at this point in our lives. We joined the symphony, two theatre groups, the museum, I volunteer at the library, and Kevin is relieved to take the train to work, thus avoiding hazardous driving in winter.
Coincidently, we moved at the same time as other friends and family did. A dear friend moved from Maine to New Hampshire and another from Idaho to Montana. One of Kevin's brothers moved from Kansas City to Rye New Hampshire and the other from Dallas to Milwaukee. Our younger son’s family moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. Moving is one of America's pastimes; the great western migration of wagon trains in the 1880s that I think of as finally culminating in Silicon Valley, and later the northward migration of African Americans from the South where they'd struggled to survive, much less thrive, under so much injustice, and people fleeing during the Dust Bowl to find somewhere to farm again. My grandparents moved from a dangerous Russia to the immigrant haven of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1920s. They lost a tight-knit community but acquired safety from pogroms. Kevin's parents moved from the small town of Springhill, Pennsylvania to Kansas City, losing a house they loved but advancing his father's career as a jazz musician.
Every essay about moving is by its nature an essay about memory, sometimes gain but especially loss. After Kevin and I settled into the house, I imagined I'd do most of the same things I'd done the last time I lived in a city. That idea was as much a fantasy as Kevin and I actually owning a megalithic stone circle. I was older with diminished energy, and perhaps a more accepting manner of being in the world, a broader view of what life is about. I wanted different things now, quiet evenings, activities I didn't need transportation to get to, nearby friends. By the time we found our house my elderly friend had died. Our first week there I visited her grave and tearfully apologized for not being able to keep my promise. I reminded myself that none of our promises can be guaranteed; life will always have its way with us. Kevin and I, surrounded by cartons, exhaustedly swore our first night in our new house that we would never move again, but then...there is perception and there is reality and we spend our lives moving through that liminal zone between the two, never assured of what comes next.