I’m sitting at my mother’s kitchen table waiting for the propane guy to come and fill the tank. The thing is — my mother died a year ago. And we are still filling her propane tank.
My husband comes on Saturdays and mows the grass. He has taken on my mother’s old beautiful remarkable house as his midlife project.
Did he see this house before he asked me to marry him? Someone once asked me that.
He got the peeling windows painted and replaced the ancient washer and dryer. He rebuilt a stone wall or two and has been hacking away at the swamp that has grown up around the old swimming pool. He says, “Let’s just fix it up a little and see what happens.”
Why are we, the new owners of this house, letting him do this? My sisters, both of whom live far away, say, “Oh, but we aren’t ready to get rid of it yet.
“Besides,” they say, “where else can we all possibly come and be together?
“But mostly,’” they say, “what would we do with all mom’s beautiful stuff?”
My mother was a collector. Not a hoarder — a true collector. She was a lover of flea markets, books, and the natural world. She never spent more than $20 on anything, but she had a clear and unerring eye for what she found interesting and beautiful.
When she moved into this big house after her in-laws died, she made it her own. It became her visual voice.
Toast racks and tin boxes
There’s her collection of silver toast racks. It sounds so strange, but the way their silvery geometry shimmers on the dark surface of the sideboard is like looking at the reflecting surface of a pond.
There’s her collection of first-edition books. She has 12 different editions of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. There’s her collection of bleached animal skulls and bird’s nests that she found in the woods and around the yard. The dozens of glass candlesticks and small white pitchers in all shapes and sizes. The little terrarium she created by planting grass seed in an old glass jewelry box that she bought for a dollar. The multiple paintings of cows. The many other paintings she bought just for the frames. The blue-edged platters, the baskets, the 22 old tin boxes.
“What would we do with all her stuff?”
My grandparents bought this farm in the 1930s. They were city people, not farmers, but they had lost a child and wanted a new horizon. As kids, we spent a month in the summer there, and when our grandparents died our parents sold our house and moved to the old farmhouse, where my mother truly found her calling.
Over the years, in order to keep it going, they sold the land surrounding it. It’s surrounded by developments now, but as my father always told my mother, “If you don’t like it, just look in a different direction.”
The house, the barn, and what’s left of the yard and the thin strand of woods are still the same. Arriving there through the development is like putting your hand in the pocket of your jeans and discovering it is lined in velvet.
Everyone has always loved to come there. When we were kids, a series of people lived there with us. Someone’s troubled son, someone’s divorced mother, someone who had lost a job. This year so far, my daughter-in-law has used it for a work retreat, my niece for a baby shower, and my grandson had his birthday party there. People say, “I love this house. It’s so amazing. I can’t believe this is where you grew up.”
They marvel at the giant leaf my mother once found. She threaded it and hung it like a wide, embracing hand across a bookshelf, where it wavers as if from the vibrations of all the information and stories contained in those books. People who visit love to wander up and down through the rooms of the house. The silver toast racks shimmer. The candlesticks shine in a forest of reflecting glass. The white pitchers perch across the shelves like a row of peaceful doves and the old baskets hang from the wood beam in the kitchen. ‘This house!” they always exclaim.
Since my mother died, people say to me, “Why don’t you just move in? It’s not that far away.” They say, ‘“What a wonderful house! It’s so big and beautiful, and with all this amazing stuff, why wouldn’t you sell your house and move there?
“Your husband loves it there,” they remind me. “Look how much work he’s already done on the place.”
I try and explain, “I don’t want to live in a house with a presence bigger than mine,” but no one can understand it. They think I’m being spoiled, stubborn and ridiculous. “If this were mine …” they say in disbelief.
A small family reunion
This summer my sister from the west coast came for a couple of weeks with all her kids and grandkids, and we had a small family reunion. “Where else could we possibly do this?” they all said. “It’s so perfect here, so beautiful, so full of all of her cool things, so full of her. There’s nowhere else where we could all go and stay so easily.”
“Maybe you’d like to live here,” I say to them. “It’s yours for the asking. Take it.”
So they talk to one another, they imagine living here, they daydream about it, they speculate how it would work, they do research on the school system — and then they go home. “At least take some stuff,” I say.
But they all live either in apartments or very small houses already full of stuff they’ve collected themselves, the way you do when you have little kids, or even when you don’t. Maybe someone took a toast rack, maybe someone else took a small rug or a white pitcher.
Everyone said the same thing. “We want it but we have nowhere to put it. But how great was this to all be together! Where else could we ever do this? We could never manage to do this anywhere else, all of us together. Can we just wait one more year before we decide?”
The other day the water stopped running. I called the electrician because someone told me it was an electrical problem. Two electricians later, I called the plumber. The plumber said “It’s not a plumbing problem, it’s a problem with the pump. You need a pump guy.”
I called the pump guy. He said, “Looks like the pump has died. How long has it been there?” I made something up since I had no idea.
I asked him, “How long do pumps last?” He said, “Depends. Sometimes 20 years, sometimes three.” He said, “How’s Tuesday? I can be here at 8:30 with a backhoe, and we’ll dig it up and replace it.”
Today is the Thursday before that Tuesday. I’m here waiting for the propane man to come and fill the tank.
I guess I better text everyone and see if, finally, digging up the pump with a backhoe will be the last straw. If, finally, it’s time to dismantle the collections and send them back out into the wide world for the next round of collectors to reassemble.