The Former House

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How deeply, indelibly does a house, a window-view, a room’s configuration sink into us? For the last week, I’ve been caring for Sick Daughter Numero Uno, numero only. Too weak and bleery-eyed to drive, she asked me to accompany her to her dad’s house where she’d promised to water the plants. This was my first marriage house, in a border neighborhood between Minneapolis and Saint Paul called Prospect Park, possibly because of its witch’s tower on a promontory above University Avenue. University Avenue, which connects the two cities, running from the capitol at its eastern end in Saint Paul to the University of Minnesota at its western end in Minneapolis: each city’s major claim to fame.

It’s been more than thirty years since I lived in this house, which cost all of thirty-nine thousand dollars in 1970. The streets curve around Prospect Park with its witch’s tower. Many houses lift above the deeply indented streets onto mini prospects of their own. This is true of my ex-house. Built probably in 1920, with a brick primary story and stucco on the second and attic stories, it has big banks of windows facing the street, one in the dining room, and another in the major bedroom upstairs. For the ten years I lived there, these two windows were my eyes into the neighborhood, eyes that led me first through the coiling branches of an Amer maple tree.

I’m standing downstairs at the dining room picture window waiting for the school bus to pull its yellow bulk opposite the house, ready to engulf the daughter, age six, on her way to first grade. Under my hand her long fall of hair soothes the anxiety we both feel. There at the corner of the window stands a hand-painted lamp from my ex-husband’s Baltimore family. I might not recognize it in an antique shop, but here, it speaks of Great-Aunt Wilhelmina, whom I never met, but who gave her name to one of our first cats who used to lick the ballpoint pen off the paper as I wrote: totally black Willie, who pined for me so much after I left that she waited to die until I could be summoned to say good-bye.

There’s so much I left behind which now returns. Between the house and the close neighbor’s, the ginko tree we planted when the daughter was maybe seven stands enormous, thick-trunked and far taller than the house. It was a mere shoot then. My ex is an excellent gardener–the backyard, though somewhat changed in its trees, is reminiscent in being full of flowers. Even this early after an April snow, the ground is covered with tiny blue and white sprigs. The blue I call Scilla, though the daughter corrects me with a name I’ve never heard. And there’s the live-animal trap propped against the garage: how many times did the ex trap squirrels and send them gently to their ends with ether?

But the yard means less to me. We’re back in the house, which is empty of its human inhabitants–they’ve gone off to Arizona for a week. Cats greet us, though, different cats entirely from the ones I left behind, but still part of the menage. And I don’t hesitate to follow the daughter upstairs, pausing just before the landing to look through the most beautiful stained glass window of the house: a thin panel of two long-stemmed, schematized yellow lilies, dotted about with quasi-stars. It’s an art nouveau look, as old as the house, and softened with light. Those two yellow cups helped me rise up many a morning to the daughter’s smallish bedroom on the north side of the house beside a huge catalpa tree, still leafless, of course, but holding in memory an enormous great-horned owl who perched there one late winter and hooted at us. In the 1970s, a good portion of woods and marshy land lay close-by, in the corner between highway 280 and University Avenue. Now it’s been “developed” into low spreading warehouses, apartment buildings, etc. Owls lived there, so the University Extension service told us in the 70s. I’m hoping they still do.

But it’s the bedroom, almost square, not at all imposing that makes my heart stop. This was the core of the house when I lived there. The daughter was almost one, the year we moved in, and would stand up in her crib, calling out in the morning. Evenings we sat together in a rocking chair, long-gone, and sang songs, read simple then more complicated books–Richard Scarry’s busy animals with their trucks and planes sent us elsewhere with our insistent rocking, yet we never left the comfort of the two windows tucked under the roof’s overhang. My one experience of motherhood engaged all my senses, as if a second self were emerging from my side and slowly separating itself into a face that drew me backward into my own childhood and forward into her own. What I had repressed out of rather harsh necessity came to life again in our gentle rocking, and in fledging her, I fledged that earlier part of myself.

Though I’ve long explored my childhood in poetry and story since then, it is this simple, profound first knowing of self and my beloved daughter which now sits beside me in the light of these two windows and floods the small room with radiance. I expect to remember this remembering, and laugh at myself for spinning so fine a thread to the connection I still have to this house.

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