I got a new fuschia-colored raincoat. It’s been a long time since I had a raincoat I didn’t get at a sporting goods store, but now I live where it allegedly rains all the time, I figure I should have a pretty one. After just short of seven years back in Washington—though I’ve hardly worn even my 15-year-old North Face jacket because that rain thing is a myth—my sister ordered a beauty for me through a distributor for her eclectic gift shop HUBBUB. (A little plug for her fabulous shop.) It finally arrived, the day after the April showers ended. It hasn’t rained since.
Other than getting my garden ready to plant and the seeds in to take advantage of the rain, I made good use indoors of the April showers, advancing renovations. My job (other than scheduling contractors around Airbnb reservations): painting. (That’s me in the coat in the partially renovated, not-lavender bathroom.)
My mother has been gone for a year. The 24th anniversary of my father’s death is coming up. They poured their hearts and energy into this house they built in 1960, but made only rare and subtle changes, one room at a time as my sisters and I left our bedrooms behind, and with no overall vision. Since my father died in 1995, it’s been hibernating, other than some color my sister added in the kitchen after it flooded a few years back. (How she talked my mother into giving up her pale yellow, I have no idea.)
Memories in this house float down the halls and in and out of the rooms. There’s 3-year-old Rebecca racing down the hall and careening into the kitchen doorjamb as she takes the corner.
There Rebecca and I are in our unstacked bunk beds with matching Dutch doll quilts made by Granny, home fake sick for the day playing “I spy,” which Granny taught us.
There is adolescent Jo Ann reading on the fold-out chair in the window alcove, finally with a room of her own. And there, after we all left home, is my father in his new study in her old room—a visual not in my memory bank.
There I am in the middle of the night after a nightmare, getting in bed beside my mother.
There is my mother in the kitchen, my most enduring memory of her. There we all are sitting around the dining room table, “Thank you for the world so sweet.”
I did not do anything in the living room, but there is my father scowling over his newspaper at adolescent us because we aren’t in the kitchen helping our mother. There is Jo Ann slinking into the house to confess, stomach contents in throat, that she scraped the brand new car on a telephone pole backing out of a parking space. There’s me slamming my bedroom door, then in the basement, screaming “I hate you!” at my mother, for whatever reason, or no reason. There’s Rebecca left alone for five years, big sisters gone, during our mother’s long and difficult menopause.
There are my young children and their cousins picking blackberries with their Nana and making a cobbler. There is my teenage son helping his Papa build a new sidewalk and steps. There is my daughter scraping moss out of the stone walk under my mother’s tutelage and yearning to do “boy work.”
There’s my father dealing with polymyalgia and heart disease, but not giving up working on the property, dying of a heart attack at 78. There’s my mother, banging her walker into the wall as she makes a turn in a hall not wide enough for such devices; then, one night, falling there, breaking wrist and shoulder. There I am, escaping to my room in the basement, exhausted from trying to cook a meal she can eat; from trying to make her happy. Missing my own house where I made my own good memories.
Now the family is gone from this childhood home, except for me and the memories. I feel like a squatter. There comes a time when old presences—though never removed—need to be nudged to the edges of memory to make room for the present to build new memories.
There are my son and daughter-in-love with my older grandsons—who get here far too rarely—helping me build a vegetable garden. There are the younger grandsons racing up and down the hall on the new hardwood floors and my daughter and daughter-in-love trying vainly to corral them.
The interior renovations are complete, except for my finishing work. The big exterior maintenance projects are nearing the end. The skylights have been opened up, I have added color. I think my dad would have loved seeing the trees and sky through the open skylights; my mom would say there was too much light, it would fade the photo gallery. My mom might have liked the color on the walls, I’m not sure; my dad would have hated it. They both would like the floors. I can hear my mother saying, “It’s what I always wanted.” My father would wonder why he never thought of building a wheelbarrow ramp to the step-locked middle level.
The rooms are awash in light, the dark memories faded, the happy ones leap-frogged to the foreground, the new ones waiting to be built. The deck has a new coat of paint and the rotted steps my father built to his new workshop after he retired have been replaced. (Next on the agenda is to clean out and brighten up the mildewed interior shop to make space for new creators to work).
It’s been a solid year of projects that won’t need to happen again during my sojourn here. I’m eager to return solely to maintenance mode without men and their trucks in and about.
May dawned beautiful, sometimes too hot, and I could no longer ignore the outdoor work. The strategy I didn’t realize I had of choosing one small area to rehabilitate for 3-4 hours then calling it a day’s work is panning out well. I close my eyes to all the “one small areas” reaching out to me for attention. “Look at me! Choose me! Fix me!” See it, and let it go. Instead of being overwhelmed now, though, as I was last month and the months before, I find myself excited to choose the next project.
Rebecca’s sanity garden that used to be beautiful is definitely not beautiful right now. It’s the one she created from nothing when she moved home to accompany our mother in her advanced years. How much do I want to do to fix it? It was my agenda one day last week, and I decided just to beat back the vinca, blackberry vines, and sweet peas that creep up from the lower 40 and call it enough. A friend gave me some fencing that I added for visual delineation between the tame and the wild. Even though they look exactly the same.
I worked on the front door garden in honor of my mother for Mother’s Day.
I scraped the moss and weeds off the tiny patio in my garden and chose not to pull up the bricks and put down weed-stopping plastic.
I hoed the buttercup out of the wildflower bed and added soil and seeds.
I re-painted the iron thrift store rockers I brought from N.C.
I got annuals for my mother’s pots at the front door.
Giddy with happy for a forecast this week of rain, after relentless sun and upper 80s all month, I can just sit at my desk with my father, aunt, and uncle—my current writing project—puzzling together 1500 letters they wrote in the early 1940s into a readable narrative.
I also picked one of the remaining interior projects: painting the closet doors in the guest room. I noticed in a previous painting of the inside of the door, paint is slopped over from the hinged edge to the stained wood on the hall side. I know my father did all the painting himself. Like me, he wouldn’t pay someone to do what he could do, even if he was no expert, even if it killed him. He probably never even noticed the brush putting paint where it didn’t belong, or he would have wiped it off. There will always be memories here.
Tuesday I needed to go find new silver door hardware to replace the gold. The promised rain had not materialized, to the great disappointment of me and of the gardens; so I didn’t wear my new fuchsia raincoat. Five minutes after I left, the heavens opened up.