Something Broken

(Originally published July, 2003)

It was six years ago that I idled down that long narrow driveway for the first time in too long.

We were both at our worst, that old house and I. As much as myself, the old place was facing its own trauma, its particular grief. My grandmother’s old Caprice was still in the garage, and the old house leered at me with a face I didn’t recognize, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. We had grown estranged, distant.

I remember sitting in the truck for awhile, locking my gaze with it. I stared into its window glass eyes, wondering if there were anything left here for me, the wayward son, the one who had turned his back on it and all those within. Behind it, overgrown brush and thicket threatened to advance farther, devouring the house, causing it to vanish as the world took over in the absence of loyalty.

“I don’t want it,” I had said to her. “I won’t be around here. Let someone else have it.” Even that day in the drive, I still saw it as only a temporary haven, a stopover on my way to something else, as yet unknown. It glowered down at me, all bone-white and steep of roof, small porch like a snout. It reproached me for my absence.

The key complained about the lock, the lock resisted the key, but at last the bolt turned and I let swing open the front door. The smell was dark, musky, faint hints of dog and stale air. I had expected that: My father had finally let the dog and cat go to new homes when he reluctantly conceded she’d not be coming back to rejoin them.

I didn’t enter. I studied the siding, dirty and in disrepair. The stop chain had broken, and the screen door hung open. Everywhere there was the blight of emptiness. Behind me, in the back of the truck, was everything important enough to me to take here. Inside the house was everything important to my grandmother over seven decades of her residency here. I stood there, more beaten down than I had ever been. I had fled just that morning, my life in shambles from broken dreams and hanging promises without stop chains.

Of course, I knew this place. I had always been here. Part of me still was. I knew the linoleum covering the floors, but had forgotten the perfect white oak hidden beneath it. I knew the marble coffee table just there near the sofa, the big white-framed mirror on the wall, the torn and ragged sofa witness to the dog’s months of loneliness. I knew the alcove behind the living room, had slept there many a time, safe and secure. But I had been gone for years, struggling through forging a life, building its foundations, nailing up its framing, raising its roof, but my craftsmanship was tawdry. It collapsed around me, splintering and cracking loudly, until all that remained was a jumbled debris field.

Unloading the things from the truck, I glanced at the old brown easy chair in the corner, and winced against the pain of the statement, “I don’t want it.” I imagined the pain it must have caused her, me, her only heir, her only grandchild. Though I had not intended it that way, it was like saying, “I don’t want you.”

She had looked up at me, there in that old brown chair, a half-finished beaded necklace on a loom in her lap, and her eyes were black, moistening pits of hurt. “Burn it, then,” she said, voice trembling like falling roof trusses. “Promise me you’ll burn it to the ground.”

But I resisted the guilt, the vow, reminding myself I’d just be here for a little while. Just long enough to put myself back together, find those pieces that had fallen away, see where they fit, snap them back into place. There was much to be done to make this old place livable again. I walked through it, check listing the work ahead of me, and marveled at how two years of emptiness can diminish a house. Its doors must be opened and closed, its floors walked on, its ceilings soaked with voices and laughter, and yes, even crying.

Over the months that followed, I worked at getting it comfortable again. I painted its walls, not even bothering to fix the cracks in the sheet rock. I wouldn’t be there long enough. I had landed a job again, and spent my evenings working on the old house. I stripped up all the decrepit linoleum and, in the living room and kitchen, released the old wooden floors my grandfather had installed. Nights I slept under its protection again, but I reminded it that I would be gone again soon. Yet there were reminders of her, and of me, everywhere. When I pulled off a piece of baseboard, hidden there was an old mathematics flash card she used to teach me when I was a kid. When I emptied out a dresser, hidden within, was a manuscript I wrote when I was 14 called Memories of a Grandfather, a disjointed, rambling work penned more to make sense of his passing the year before than any literary purpose.

It took six months to refinish the floors alone. But I scraped away decades of old varnish and the glue used to hold down the cheap linoleum and dropped the debris into an aluminum pan. When the pan was full, I’d throw it into the waste basket, and when the waste basket was full, I’d carry it outside and dump it into the big garbage container, and when that was full, it would go to the road and be emptied by the big trucks that came twice a week. Little by little, I relieved the house of arthritis and rheumatism, but with every pass of the scraper, I relieved myself of something, too. A wall of wainscot in the kitchen had buckled and popped loose, cracking in the process. I replaced it, painted it to match the rest, throwing out something broken and bringing in something whole.

It’s been said there’s only one way to hurt a man who’s lost everything: Give him back something broken. I was given back something broken, this old house, and over time, without even realizing it, the notion of temporary became permanence, and the thought of leaving it forgotten.

The last time I saw her was an afternoon on, I think, Mother’s Day. I had cut the lawn that morning, using her old Snapper mower, and that afternoon, my parents and I had gone to visit. I knew that there were moments of clarity, but they were mostly outnumbered by the fog of her aged focus. She hugged me, there in those white, crisp sheets, surrounded by metal bed rails and featureless furniture.

“I saw you outside the window,” she said, and I nearly wept. Here, frail and withered, was the strongest, most elegant and graceful woman I had ever known in my life, now shrunken, so thin I feared she’d get lost in those sheets one day and never be found. “I saw you outside the window this morning,” she said.

“Did you, granny?” I smiled, swallowing down any hint of dismay lest she hear it in my voice.

She nodded. “You were cutting the grass. You did a good job, baby. Do you have a cigarette?”

She was 92 years old. She was 22 when she had first walked into that old house back on the reservation. Seventy years later, surrounded by sterile walls and white-garbed nurses, I would have forsaken everything I had to give her a cigarette. Everything.

It wasn’t much later that the phone awakened me in the dead of night. I stumbled out of bed, picked it up and heard my father’s voice crackle, barely in control of his grief.

“Old woman went home,” he said.

Home. I mouthed the word soundlessly. I promised him I’d be there at daybreak to help with the arrangements. I sat in the near-dark, moonlight streaming through windows relieved of grime and dirt, casting hazy shadows over the living room. I sat in that old brown chair. Home. Around me, fresh paint reflected the moonlight, and the oak floor twinkled in some spots with satin luster. There was, I thought, so much left to be done. Years of work ahead.

Home. When I was old enough, she would ride me on the lawn mower with her, let me steer. When I was a little older, she let me drive it by myself, and eventually, I was charged with cutting the lawn regularly. Then, for six years, I cut not a single blade, seldom opened a door, rarely lifted laughter into the ceiling. Not until the day I pulled up in the driveway, a truck full of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises in tow, and slid the key into a reluctant lock to gaze in at my own life, wrapped all up with hers.

The pieces of us are rejoining. Oh, the foundation still needs to be leveled, and the northern rooms and upstairs still need to be renovated. There are unpainted trim pieces around the windows, some of which need new glass. But the locks accept my key easily now, and the ceilings are saturated with voices, the floors firm with trust. I still have that old brown chair, and sit there, in the exact same spot she did for 70 years. Sometimes I wake for no reason, thinking I heard the phone ring. Most times I go right back to sleep, but sometimes I go and sit in the dark in that old brown chair, and she moves through shadows, vanishing in moonbeams, surveying my work, considering my progress: “You did a good job, baby.”

If I live to be 92 years old, I will have been here for 60 years. What then? I’ve given orders to those who matter that I won’t wither away surrounded by strangers and metal bed rails. I don’t know where I’ll go after this life, but I’ll depart it from here. We’re still rebuilding, this old house and I, one fragment at a time. Will we be finished by the time I go home? I don’t know. Sometimes I doubt it. Sometimes I think rebuilding a life worth living is like rebuilding a house worth living in. Maybe you never really finish. Maybe you never really should.

(Note: Faye Rogers Stouff went to sing with her ancestors in July, 1997.)

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