Jun 16, 2009

Walls Full of Memories

The beehive class visited an elderly couple in our ward tonight. I tend to be shy in group situations, especially where I don't know the people, and so I didn't say much. When the wife asked me to say something about myself, I mentioned that I live in Anna's old house. The stories started pouring out, just like they always do. Every time I mention Anna, and the fact that I live in her house, people rush to tell me the stories.

Anna was a small, refined woman of Danish descent. Her love and joy was her garden. I try to keep it up, apologizing under my breath to her as I clumsily root through her iris bed. I hacked her roses to pieces two years ago. This, the third year living here, I finally got them back so that they are blooming nicely and evenly.

She made rich, eight-course breakfasts. I chuckle over my toast crumbs, thinking of porridge--real, danish porridge--and rich cream, fresh berries, pastries, milk and fresh-squeezed juices.

She lived her whole life in the house she was born in, the house her father built close to the turn of the century. She had beautiful taste in furniture. It's all falling apart now, but the muted golds and greens, the brocades and the lovely upholstering, the fading wallpapers and soft gold draperies remain. The blinds are the wide, 1950's slatted wooden blinds; Skywalker has repaired a couple of them since we moved in.

One room upstairs has scalloped wood accents along the closets and cubbyholes, and a little closet bar down near the floor for little girls to reach. The window is a wide, sunny window that looks directly into the branches of the tall elm that grows there (and also shelters the hundreds of birds that like to relieve themselves on our car.) It is papered in pink, and when we moved in, there was an old, decaying pink rug covering the linoleum-on-boards-floor. My children play on a newer carpet remnant that I placed over the old rug. It pads their footsteps and gives them a soft place to sit.

The walls are thick and cool--adobe brick, made from materials right out of the ground where the house stands. When it was first built, it was warmed by chimneys. There are two at least, plastered over and papered, now only humps that run up along the walls for both stories.

One time when I was laying in the other upstairs room, the old, white cheesecloth curtain billowed out and suddenly I felt spooky, like a moment later I might see something I wasn't quite ready to see. The next day I got out all of my old family heirlooms: the bookcase my grandmother made, the pink china pitcher from four generations back, my husband's grandmother's clock-- and placed them in various spots, as if claiming "my space" in this place that had been built, and lived in, and existed so long, for Anna and her family.

The more I live here, the more I think how I wish I could peel back layers of wallpaper until I find the faded pink brick. Maybe I'd find a thumbprint in some mortar. Probably not; the people who built this house were fastidious--artisans. But I like to think I might, or that, if I put my ear up to the wall, I might hear something. These massive walls store heat and cold, keeping our spaces temperate far longer than the cheap tinder we build with now.

I wonder if they also store smells, voices, touch... skin cells?

I'll be sad to leave this place when the time comes. There's something to be said for living in the middle of a hundred years of memories.


Janell said...

beautifully, beautifully written

David L said...

As someone who lives in a 100-year-old house, I too feel that way sometimes.

When we painted our living room, we pulled off some of the old, cracking paint and discovered this rich wall paper underneath. Florals in a very light, faded tan with blue and silver highlights. If it had been in any kind of condition other than "ruined," I would have been sorely tempted to try to restore it.

This last Sunday, we looked up an old fire insurance map from the year before our house was built. Nothing but empty fields, and we live in downtown now. Such a change from now to then, but I get the feeling that whoever came before would be glad to see us make the changes we've made and especially glad to see a young family finally come back into the home after so many years as a rental.

Fred said...

When I lived in the UK, I answered a knock at the door from two women. As it turns out, they were the granddaughters of the original owners of the house, and asked to see where they played as children. I was somewhat hesitant (being the mistrustful American) but decided all looked well with the two frail Scottish residents. It was amazing to hear their stories, and they gave me a much better appreciation of the old house I lived in.

Mike said...

Wow I just discovered your website this morning and started reading. Captivating.
I want to write too but you are better than I. SO I quit.
Just kidding. I only slowed down a little.

NoSurfGirl said...



Dave: Yes. I know exactly what you mean. Can you give me the website for that fire insurance map? I'd LOVE to see what houses were around at various times. And I wonder where you go to find city plans, records of buildings, etc. This is one of the biggest reasons I wrote the novel I'm about to podcast. I love the history, and seeing it in the city that I live in.

NoSurfGirl said...

Fred: That is so fun. Luckily the people we rent from are descended from the family who built the house, and so there's a wealth of information there. It's priceless in a way, isn't it?

michele said...

Your house seems so lovely! Maybe John and I can stop by your place sometime in the next couple weeks to see your place and family. What do you think?

NoSurfGirl said...

Yes, we'd love it if you guys came to visit us. Please do!!

We even have an extra bedroom upstairs you could sleep over in if you need to. We often have Care and Steve stay there, and Cait has before, too, and my parents.

Anyway, totally feel free! I know a certain little girl would be thrilled beyond belief... *chuckle*