Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One Foot in Another World

November 26, 2009

I've been back in Fairhope for just over a week and the dust of Hoboken is still on my shoes. My work is cut out for me, with the help of friends and family cleaning out the old family homestead and getting it rented or sold. I leave Tuesday morning and will probably return to Fairhope for the month of February. After a Thanksgiving holiday I'll have to hustle to get the last things done.

It isn't easy going back into a former life and facing the emotions of loss and regret. The house I grew up in has become, after our mother's death, a sore point for my brother, my sister, and I. There is the question hanging over us as to what we do with the property. We three have considerable difficulty looking at the historic house as a property instead of "home," with all its positive and negative connotations. The three children are at odds and it feels like the rift may not ever heal.

This has caused a stalemate at the house, which has been on the market since early February. Not that it isn't clearly a beauty of a home, but it was left abandoned and does not show well. I came here to take care of that and to come up with a plan to do right by the house itself. With the help of my brother and his wife, we have begun the painful process of setting the house to rights and working out a plan to move forward. Our sister lived in the house for several years, and announced without consulting us that she was selling it when she moved out, leaving considerable junk in every room and moving to Portland, Oregon. Walking into the place, deprived of the talk, laughter and love that had warmed it for so many years, my brother and I experience emotions that could only be described as equal parts of sorrow and anger. For my brother, who lives so near, this heart-tug has been almost unbearable.

I saw my job in coming here as taking charge of the project (being the middle child, always the negotiator) and keeping the lines of communication open between the brother and sister. This sounds fine and commendable, but there is the matter of my own response to the dear old house, the space that seems to put its arms around you when you step inside. So far four truckloads have been carried off to the dump and to local charities. The brother has taken charge of cutting through the jungle of overgrown weeds and plants put in place by our mother so many years ago. It's hard to think of that backyard without picturing her out there, digging, pulling up, and planting--her constant occupation and the source of comfort and pride for her lifetime. She collected driftwood and fashioned it into lamps and tables, hung some of it on walls "as is." It took on a significance for her that is not always easy to understand, but with her eye for the decorative, she was able to show the beauty of driftwood objects to all. Now the whole property is littered here and there with elegant pieces of driftwood. We have found a local artist who loves to work with driftwood and given him free rein to take what he wants. Mama would be pleased with that.

My sister was always a bookworm, preferring mysteries and the work of English writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. She took her best books, of course, but in bookcases there were still yellowing paperbacks of Dickens and Agatha Christie, and many many more. It was hard to heap them into the cartons to take them away, but, knowing that she left them we could assume she didn't want them any more, and certainly condition problems would have kept them from being attractive to anyone else.

With all the work we are doing it is impossible to exclude the element of emotion. I shall take this day of Thanksgiving off from thinking much about it, and just be thankful that I once had this house to live in, that I now have the life I do, and that we'll soon reach a solution for the house itself. It seems to be asking me to take care of it, and I know that, with the support I have, I'm up to the job.

That's all we all can be thankful for, at the heart of it--the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to accept the curves life gives us. Today I'll be able to recharge the batteries among friends and loved ones, and tomorrow I'll do what must be done about the house.


Steve said...

I know how difficult it is to change your perspective from home to house, or property. Reading this brought back many memories. Thank you! My mom was also a craftsperson and a wood worker and you can only keep so much. It took me well over a year to empty the house and then months to renovate and put on the market.

Mary Lois said...

Thanks for your comment, Steve. I think the reason this is so difficult is that we didn't have the one-year period of closure. My sister made her decision unilaterally and left me and the brother to deal with the issues of the house when it hadn't sold in almost a year. It's getting ready for the market now, and I have a happier feeling about the house now. It will soon be occupied by another family, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

The house is beautiful! as are your words.

Nan said...

My heart goes out to you. What a difficult situation. It was so different for me, being an only child.

Carol said...

Mary Lois, that was beautiful. I had the responsibility of cleaning out my parents house after they died. They had been in the house 65 years, lots of memories in around that house and yard. As to Maude Etta, I have fond memories of seeing her "messing around" in that wonderful yard. Will try to stop by this weekend. "let's do lunch"
Happy Thanksgiving to you, Graham and Maggie. Carol

Benedict S. said...

Your home and your words about it also call forth memories for me, not as many as for you, but enough that your words sound inexpressible notes in that part of me folks -- trying to say the unsayable -- call "the heart." Perhaps someday I will out-grow those nostalgic murmurings, but it shall be against my will.

Stephen said...

Very beautiful!

I think emptying out and renovating mom's home was one of the most difficult missions I have ever had to undertake. What to keep, what to toss. How, over time the decision making process changes. I only had one sister, she died several years ago. One stepbrother, he and his family walked out of the picture.

I am sure today must have been a difficult one.

It is a terrible market to be showing in right now too. It was hard enough being general contractor, even living in the vicinity. To do it from a home base so have your work cut out for you.

New Yorker said...

At least your sister loves Evelyn Waugh.

Mary Lois said...

I'm feeling a little Brideshead-y myself.

Talk To Ted ! said...

We have a 'local artist became famous' in Palm Coast who started his career collecting driftwood. Some great driftwood sculpture can be seen at

Mary Lois said...

Got a few pieces around the old place still--would love to give them to him.

Rupert Schmitt writers blog said...

My mother died about fifty years ago. Fortunately my cousins helped me some to clean the place. I was young at the time, with no place my wife and I could call home. The furniture therefore got shipped out to my oldest sister in New York. It is beautiful furniture. I sold some paintings. Since then I have regretted selling the paintings. I gave a civil war rifle to a cousin. He gave it a good home. My sons lack memorabilia from my parents. I feel bad about that. It was a rough job but I and my wife and cousins were up to it. We split up some inheritance to avoid rancour. Now my sisters are dead. My brother and I survive. The house was on a house tour this fall in Wisconsin. Some of the docents said, this is the living room. This is the kitchen. They left out minor things like the people who lived in the house. The dramas of a family of artists living together, determining the paths to follow. Three of us were in agreement. Money was evil. Art was good. And now Mary Lois, you will try to sell a house in a down market. My heart goes out to you from where I am "Holed up in Ajo" remembering when I was the Man in your garage.

Mary Lois said...

Rupert, you'll always be the man in my garage.

jacques mullet said...

I have already put in my cents (or nonsense) about Montrose in the Ho blog. The thing is that the actual physical
place will be gone to all of you when it is sold. And worst is young Graham having to view it as a stranger from so near. Were I able , you know what I'd do even for ML and Graham. It is a utopian idea for sure. One which might not pay for itself. Yet, on the other hand the
potential is there for blooming
My old homeplace in Montevallo, was sold to a low ball buyer with a growing family rather than to the highest bidder. My wife , daughter and I spent more nights and holidays there than the rest of the tribe all totaled visiting with my old dam. She died at age 100 Sept 13, 2009. Having seen the age happen in the house and her, time was to let go of all but what cannot be seen by others.
Yes, I do have a few old things that I admired as a kid, most from my gradmother's house. Other things are particular to mother's artistic creations. Older brother and sister did the same. A huge difference for us is the foresight of taking care of business ahead of time. That sounds cold , but it sure worked out well. The house was emptied in one weekend by us, and our offspring, all adults over 30 with homes needing gramdma's stuff. Actually we had a sort of good time in reflecting the past as items were considered for discard or relocation. An amazing thing to me is the fact that the stuff used the most, like a skillet, has little saving value yet it could reveal love, character, conflict and success if it could talk.
Still, the best for me is to see all of that in my mind's eye and my heart. We were taught to be who we are and exist in the grace of society whereever we are, for what that's worth.
Your family house really does what you say, it kinda reaches out and grabs you for a hug. It is familiar and soothing there. As well as being spacious, there are places for quiet as well. The past there is just imagination for anyone except Graham, Ml, and Billy. I suppose that imagination makes it a property istead of home. A home is lived in.

Mary Lois said...

I'm touched by how many truly sensitive comments were triggered by this post. It would seem that the dividing of family treasures is a universal ache experienced to some degree by all of us. Thank you all for sharing the thoughts my own situation evoked.

In my case, the disposition of a lovely old house has brought back into play emotions we in our family already had some difficulty in dealing with--the loss of our parents to whom the house meant so much, the conflicts still alive for the siblings, and the inevitable passage of time--all as yet unresolved and all brought into vivid focus by what should be a cut and dried business deal.

I think with the work my brother and I did on the house recently, we are better equipped to accept the current reality. It was not an easy time, and we still have to find a buyer or tenant for the house. We're not out of the woods yet, but we are on the way.

Thank you all for commiserating, and for your good wishes for us. When it is finally settled you can be certain I'll write of it here.