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November 2019
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This Old House

She’s Been A Mighty Good Friend. Thanks Old House

Step Inside This House

That picture hangin’ on the wall
Was painted by a friend
He gave it to me all down and out
When he owed me ten
Now it doesn’t look like much I guess
But it’s all that’s left of him
And it sure is nice from right over here
When the light’s a little dim
Step inside my house babe
I’ll sing for you a song
I’ll tell you ’bout where I’ve been
It shouldn’t take too long
I’ll show you all the things I own
My treasures you might say
Couldn’t be more than ten dollars worth
But they brighten up my day
–Guy Clark

I used to look forward to it all year long, holding my breath, counting the days. I didn’t come alive until those early days of summer when we were driving through the dark line of trees shadowing that long expanse of pavement before swinging onto “The Boulevard,” that dirt windswept road where I, my sister, brother and countless cousins first learned to drive a car. The salt spray of the ocean wafted through the windows like the luxurious scent of freshly-out-of-the-oven bread from a country bakeshop. The long tangled beach grasses weaving intimately with begosa rose bushes, undulating like willows in the wind. The snapping of flags on their poles and the water of the salt marshes eddying out toward the Mousam River to blend with the never ending tide of the Atlantic ocean. Kennebunk Maine, home of the Parsons and Parsons Beach. Land of my forefathers, land of my heritage. Land of such overpowering, crippling beauty that it brings tears to my eyes. Land of so much pain.

My grandparents’ enormous eight bedroom house with as many bathrooms presides now as a lonely spectacle, a mere shadow of its turn-of-the-century grandeur when the original owners, the Knots, painstakingly laid the pine boards inside and dubbed the “cottage” with the gambol roof (as it was always referred to by my grandfather, Clayton Morris Hall) “Pineknot,” a clever play on words. Now it is weather beaten grey; sunken and ailing from years of neglect. The “new” concrete sea wall is badly cracked from the tide’s punishing intrusions, a replacement for the original stone wall that was destroyed by a storm that shook the beach to its very core back in ’77. Parts of the porch were eaten away, as well as the sides of the house. But, like an old stalwart warhorse rallying for battle, the house and its interior contents survived. And continue, just barely, to do so.

The house has grieved its share of losses, soured as a displaced child in the midst of a bitter custody dispute between bitter, revenge-minded parents. Only they aren’t parents. They’re sisters. The elder sister is my mother. The younger, my aunt. I haven’t spoken to my aunt in more than ten years. My mother’s conversations with her are bitter and full of tears and recriminations. The house stands at the crossroads of all the bad feeling, but it is of course only a symbol. The real issue is my grandfather’s preference for my mother. The other is my aunt’s alcoholism and accompanying bitter resentment. She now owns three houses on this beautiful beach; one on property given to her by my grandmother, another built (without my mother’s permission) on property adjacent to Pineknot. She also owns a half share in a house she hates and, moreover, where she has not spent the night for more than forty years: Pineknot itself. She spent years playing the role of martinet; leaving my family notes during our half of the summer (yes, our time in the house is divided in equal per stipes) commanding us to do this or that, removing valuable items she felt entitled to and belittling us for our wrongs. She gained the whip hand and still she was unhappy. My mother is culpable too. Her long neglect of the symbolic child house began not long after my brother’s death twenty years ago, when her unbearable grief crushed her spirit and took her away from us. She submitted to my aunt’s will by default, by fatigue, by a desire to no longer be in the world. My aunt now wielded her power over the house like a grim reaper brandishing a deadly sharp scythe. She issued more orders and informed my parents that my sister and I should not be allowed entrance to Pineknot. The pendulum swung wildly and she reigned supreme. And still, and still…she was not happy. My mother resurfaced from her malaise after 13 long years. Bit by bit she came back alive and came out swinging. Suddenly, she stood in her power. For most of her life she had given way and shrank back from more forceful personalities like my aunt and grandfather. Now she was fed up. She was tired of the notes and the orders. Tired of the demands. Tired of the angry, swinging scythe. 

Now there were two angry sisters. Lawyers were called in and diatribes were scribed by expensive hired hands. Threats and demands were levied. The house looked on sadly, forlorn and aging. Its mighty insides were beginning to sag from old age and years of neglect, its wooden floors covered in cobwebs and dirt, its carpets thick with beach sand, its plaster cracking and slowly popping from the walls, like an ancient, discarded firecracker that sputters half-heartedly before remembering it has life left. The phone lines are hard-wired and obsolete, the electrical wiring sags from the wall in long strings, like corkscrews made from old leather shoe lace. Mouse shit covers the catch-all table in the laundry room just off the enormous kitchen, where countless boxes of bottles and petrified food spoil and rot.

Meanwhile, the old house cries. It cries for harmony. It cries for peace. It cries for TLC. But mostly, it cries for love.

This past weekend I left my three year old son to play by himself while I rattled through the house like a ghost haunted by a vision of its happy past, vacuuming, dusting and recycling. I got on my hands and knees and vacuumed up every last pellet of mouse shit. The vacuum also sucked up the cobwebs and years of sand. I dusted with lemon-scented furniture polish until my fingers ached. I sweated so badly I had to take a bath, because there are no showers in the house. I tried to throw my weight against years of anguish, to give back a very small token of what the house has given me. And what has it given me? Many of the happiest memories of my life. My grandfather speaking ancient Greek to my brother’s girlfriend. My brother throwing me over his shoulder and carrying me upside down while the blood rushed to my head. Sitting at the large mahogany dining table with grandma and grandpa, Mummy, Daddy, J & S, cracking lobsters and dipping clams in dripping butter. Trying to throw  Pepperidge Farm fishies high into the air and then catch them in my mouth and always missing. Playing croquet on the lawn with my cousins. (When we were still speaking.) Watching my beautiful young mother smile because she was away from the life in Nova Scotia that she hated, and where she often left us with babysitters so she could escape to my grandparents’ other huge house in Princeton, New Jersey. Watching happiness and realizing it has no measure because it was my own.

I shed tears of sorrow and happiness for my old friend, the container and cause of so much joy. And I whispered my gratitude within its glorious, heartbroken, weather beaten, loving interior. “I love you old house. Thank you for taking such good care of me. Thank you for being you.”