We had a death in our family my junior year in college, a loss that in a quiet moment can still cast a shadow over my psyche. There was no funeral, and to my great chagrin not enough tears were shed over the disappearance of this very influential force in all our lives. We’d all found loving shelter in the relationship, two full generations of us in fact, and the memories we shared should have made the parting an impossible task to bear. But the ashes had no sooner scattered to the winds than people were moving on with their rounds, changing from their farewell clothes into uniforms of sensible daily life.
But I’ve never gotten over the loss and have dragged a talisman of that relationship through my entire adult journey, one that rivals any metaphorical burden a shrink could diagnose. That sacred object, my only touchstone to this 36-years-absent family member, is a porch post. Ancient white paint peeling down to bare wood in places where the weather won the bet, a now purposeless piece of turned wood propped up in one corner after another at an angle that insults its once proud function, hauled from one address to another, from Idaho to Washington to California and back, over protests from one roommate after another. A porch post, which holds up at this juncture nothing more than the portion of my heart that refuses to reconcile what’s missing.
What’s missing is the house of my youth. Yes, the dearly departed was just a house — my childhood home. Sticks and stones, lath and plaster, paint and varnish and grand archways and double doorways and serpentine hallways and fir floors, and a porch that wrapped around two full sides like loving arms caressing all within; a house that was also the house my dad grew up in, his eight siblings as well as his eight children all personally acquainted, down to the depths of their own souls, with the soul of that structure as well as its heart and its bones and its demons.
The house I still think of as “home,” despite its razing in 1973, started life as a hotel. It was built in 1911 and initially gave shelter to overnighters riding the mail stages up the treacherous mountain grade. In those days, the long trek was a journey harder on the horses than the people, so the mammoth barn was built first and a year later came the house. (I always thought that was an amusing fact, but in retrospect realize it’s the sort of unsmiling logic that informed decisions on the ranch through every generation.) The house came into our family when my grandfather and great uncle bought it and the ranch in 1915, and from there the house’s DNA settled into ours, a mingling that might be impossible in biological equations but thoroughly impossible to separate in the sum of our alliance, even after this many years of remove.
My dad claims he never loved the house — that he had always hated its drafty windows, that mom hated the big, inefficient country kitchen, that he’d gotten sick of mopping up water in the basement after major settling had produced cracks in the stone foundation. In his spare time during my last year at home, I watched him begin sketching ideas for a modern house, consulting a list he’d scribbled over the decades detailing the things he’d always wished he could have in a home. What I saw as a magical, even spiritual structure, inspiring a sense of place in the way cathedrals inspire believers to feel they’ve found spiritual shelter, he saw as an albatross. Every time I’d try to humor him out of his musings about tearing the place down and building a “nice house” he’d ignore me and calmly go about his doodling. I honestly figured the doodling would never go past that stage.
Certainly, we all froze to within an inch of death in the winters sleeping next to those paper-thin windows. And the house was indeed an unending source of work, from constantly painting the huge porch and all those posts to setting traps for the rats that squeezed in through the holes in the closets, to mopping up those basement floors. And cleaning it took entire weekends, on end. But the house was also a continuous source of entertainment and education and comfort and mystery. Those basement floors rewarded us during particularly rainy epochs with the most hideously wonderful salamanders, which we gleefully wrapped and presented to our mother as “gifts,” anticipating the thrill of her shrieks with the tying of every shiny little bow. The endless porch offered us kids an early painting apprenticeship, which has come in quite handy over the years, but it also provided hours and hours of training in the hidden dangers of seniority rules, with games of Mother May I always sending someone falling backwards off the end and a big kid learning that a little kid will always tattle. Ollie-Ollie-Oxen-Free trained some killer arms for sports, as everything from balls to Frisbees to little sisters’ dolls went sailing 25 feet over the top of the roof.
The move from one bedroom to another always signaled a step closer to adulthood, with babies leaving the crib in mom and dad’s room for the bedroom nearest the kitchen, then sent upstairs when they could be trusted in the dark with the creaks and whistles and their own vivid imagination and only a sibling for comfort. When I was 12 and was moved from the big girls room upstairs back down to the little kid room after a long stay at the hospital, the bedroom demotion felt worse than the rheumatic fever.
As a teenager, after I’d moved back upstairs, a loose floorboard in my room served up a tiny vault for all my secrets — a diary, love letters from a boy my parents didn’t want me writing to, money I’d squirreled away for some future emergency. The big closet in that room held not only our plaid jumpers and 4-H projects but my mom’s wedding dress, zipped into a regal plastic hanging bag designed to keep it wedding ready and inspire my sister and me to find boys worthy of its handmade satin covered buttons.
The kitchen was our own personal Cordon Bleu, before we knew of such a place. Everything we needed to know about cooking, my sisters and I learned in that space, a kitchen that was also big enough to seat a family of 10 around the table. And the fruit room directly below was the nearest thing to a trophy case we’d ever know, hundreds of lineal feet of shelving crammed with the proof of our long summers’ labors.
The archway between the big living room and the music room was the spot that gave lie to Dad’s claim of not having loved the house. Every Christmas he brought down from the mountain the most perfect pine boughs, which he nailed painstakingly and so artistically around its frame, a sight and a scent that shouted love, pure and simple, to this romantic’s eye. How could a crumbling foundation and rattling windows trump such a love?
The day they bulldozed the house down the hill and lit it on fire, first pulling a giant cable through its middle in a cleverly barbarian prelude, I was away at college so was not able to attend the execution. Or could I have driven the one hour to observe the event, but chose not to? I don’t remember. All I know is that Dad had salvaged the porch posts, using one on the new house — stripped, stained brown and varnished to match the modern deck it would grace, on a contemporary ranch home with all the things Dad had ever wanted in a house already now standing within about a yard of the old one. I asked if I could have one of the salvaged posts, and someone delivered it to me a month later.
I still love visiting the ranch, but I’ve stopped thinking of it as going home — though I do adore going into the barn, which next year will celebrate its 100th birthday. The perfume of that place transports me to hours spent frolicking with cousins in the hayloft and ogling new little piglets with a nasty sow menacing our every move. I can close my eyes and be 8 again in that space. It’s the only place on earth I can go to do that — the only place on earth Dad can do that — because my home — our home, the place that wrapped its big porch around us and kept us safe when we were kids, is gone.
I’ve had 19 addresses since the old house was torn down. I guess I’ve been a little lost. But I’ve dragged the porch post to Vashon Island, and this summer I’m finally going to install it somewhere. The time has come to unpack and settle down. I need a place I can finally call home.
—Rebecca Wittman is a freelance writer living on Vashon.