by Ann Robinson
In 2006, as we prepared to move from our 1863 farmhouse in Swanzey to a much smaller house seven miles away in the city of Keene, I began to experience a profound sadness. The house had been our home for thirty years, and although I sensed, realistically, that it was time for us to scale down, I also knew how much we would miss the home that had sheltered us through our many stages of growth and development as a family. In a moment of reflection, I imagined our house as a nurturing parent, and created this portrait as a tribute.
In spring my doors begin to swell, shoots poke through the earth in the garden beds around my porch, and skunks emboldened by the cover of night do a lumbering dance to the high-pitched clamor of peepers. In summer squirrels tickle my roof with their toes, bats sleep behind my shutters, rabbits and woodchucks and stray cats live beneath my barn, birds nest in the corners of my porches, spiders spin their webs inside and out. In autumn mice creep from the barn, using the crawlspace as their conduit, making their nests in the walls and above the ceilings, scurrying from one end of my frame to the other like crazed Lilliputian bowlers. Ladybugs clump in the corners of my windows, seeking refuge from the cold. In winter children slide and ski on my hill, and grownups toboggan there at midnight to usher in the new year. In January I ride the crest of drifted snow, a frigate moored on whipped white seas, facing storms without dread, proud of my ability to survive.
I am House and I revel in my uniqueness: at any time of the year, you can enter my barn and smell horses, although it’s been half a century since any horse lived here.
In 1863 when I was built I saw my owner go to war healthy and whole and come back a sick and broken man. After that I told myself I wouldn’t fear anything, but over the years, daily perils have offered threats: chimney fires have roared and termites have gnawed their way through hefty beams. Winter tests me. Heavy snows have threatened to destroy my roof. After brutal storms, men chip away the ice with axes. I’ve been nicked, but my foundation is made of granite, so I tolerate the insult.
Over the years what’s happened within my walls hasn’t harmed me either, although I’ve felt each tragedy as if it were my own. When one of my women was hit by lightning while standing at the kitchen sink I suffered, my walls scorched from the strike, my air tinged with the faint, acrid odor of burning flesh. On the night a neighbor raised a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger you could hear the keening of the wind through eaves all up and down the street.
In this neighborhood, the ghosts of former owners hover like wood smoke. All I can do is testify to their existence. Thus, when houses change hands, they’re known by the name of the former owners, or known as the place where this or that event occurred. A quarter mile away stands a contemporary of mine now known as the Murder House because a former owner was stabbed to death on the kitchen floor.
Do you think I don’t bleed when branches scratch my panes? My sighs are creaks which frighten the children. Nightlights glow in halls to reassure them there’s nothing to fear; all is well until the next time twigs rake glass.
The years pass. A girl grows into a young woman who brings her sweetheart home. On a porch swing that girl tells a boy she doesn’t love him, then changes her mind; there’ll be a wedding, after all. Father and daughter will walk to the church across my field. The bridesmaids, dressed in pink, will gather in the garden, their golden hair blowing in the gentle summer breeze. I’ll have a new coat of paint that year, white clapboards and black shutters, and everyone who sees me will sigh, How Beautiful, the same words they’ll use to describe the bride, the girl who used to climb my trees and play gypsy in my barn.
The day will come, as it always does, when my current people will talk of moving to a smaller place that’s more energy efficient, a place that doesn’t require much upkeep. As I’ve done so many times before, I’ll do my best to hold them here. I’ll sift the glorious daylight through my panes of glass and hold the paint on my clapboards as long as I can. Why move? You’ll never find a house you’ll like as much as this one, I’ll tell them in a thousand different ways. Stay. I love you.
And they will stay, because we are one, even though I am made of granite and wood and they are made of flesh and bone. We pass through the seasons together, astounded by the stark beauty of a January night, enduring mud season in March, anticipating greening grass and looking for shoots that push up through the still-hardened soil in April. Together we enjoy the longer days. We hang our laundry in the back. Together we stack our wood and rake our leaves and put away the lawn furniture and flower pots. Together we settle down and wait for storms, lighting candles when the power fails. We set up the tree and decorate the rooms and welcome the grandchildren home, and for three days we are all glowing with love and merriment. Face it, I’ll hear them whisper to each other in the softness of their flannel sheets. We like it where we are. We’ll never leave.
But leave they will. Circumstances change and people age, requiring a simple life without a lawn to mow and a driveway to plow. And I, who have sheltered so many since my birth, will become a part of their past, captured in photographs for future generations to see and say, So that’s the house you grew up in.
Look. The new owners are arriving with all their clutter, and soon every inch of me will be overflowing with happiness. Already a youngster has discovered the huge rock in my back field and is climbing to the top, toeing the footholds that nature has conveniently provided for such a purpose. The mother stands at my front door, smiling. She knows she is home. I am House, and I welcome her.