A Perfect Place

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When our first child was born, a rosy wriggle of a girl we named Eva, my wife and I were living in a second-floor apartment on the noisiest avenue in Bloomington, Indiana. Every truck grinding its gears, every belching bus, every howling fire engine and ambulance, every unmufflered pickup and overhorsepowered jalopy in town roared past our windows, morning, noon and night.

 

To begin with, Eva weighed only six-and-a-half pounds, all of them fidgety. Like any newborn she was pure appetite. With a stomach so small, she hardly seemed to close her eyes between feedings. When they did fitfully close, they would snap open again at the least sound. Ruth nursed her to sleep, or I rocked her to sleep, and we’d lay her in her crib as gingerly as a bomb. Then some loud machine would come blaring down the street and Eva would twitch and wail.

 

Once an engine had frightened her, mere milk would not soothe this child, nor would a cradle endlessly rocking. Only songs would do, a rivery murmur while she snuggled against a warm chest, and the chest had to be swaying in rhythm to a steady walk. Fall silent or stop moving and you had a ruckus on your hands. Night after night, I worked my way through The Folk Songs of North America while carrying Eva in circles over the crickety floorboards. It took hours of singing and miles of walking to lull her to stillness in my arms, and then a siren or diesel would undo the spell in seconds.

 

After seven sleepless months, Ruth and I exchanged bleary stares over the breakfast table one morning and muttered, as in a single breath, “We’ve got to move.”

 


 

That day we set out looking for a house. Not just any house, but the right one, the inevitable one, the one made in carpenter’s heaven to fit our family. How to find this perfect place among the countless ones available? It was a problem as difficult, and nearly as consequential, as finding a mate to marry.

 

To compound the difficulty, Ruth and I carried in our heads quite different postcards of the ideal house, for she had grown up in a city and I had grown up in the country. She wanted a sturdy old box shaded by sturdy old trees, within a few steps of the place next door, in a neighborhood of sidewalks and flower beds where folks traded recipes and sat on their porches and pushed babies in buggies at dusk. I wanted a log cabin beside a pond in three hundred acres of woods bordering on a wilderness. Failing that, I would settle for a run-down farmhouse on a dirt road unknown to maps.

 


 

We compromised by buying a house in town that was as badly in need of repair as any cabin in the country. Five lines in the “For Sale by Owner” section of the newspaper led us there: “CHARMING 2-story brick, walk to work, Bryan Park & Elm Heights. 3 bedrms., bath, liv. rm. with fireplace. 1113 East Wylie. $25,000.”

 

Now that was cheap, even in 1974 — not so cheap that I ever supposed we would live long enough to pay it off; nor so cheap that the loan officers at Workingmen’s Federal didn’t stare at us hard with their fiduciary gaze — but still, we could cover a monthly note on $25,000 without going naked or hungry.

 

More alluring than the price was the location. That section of Wylie proved to be a two-block sanctuary of silence, cut off at one end by a cross-street, at the other end by woods. No trucks, no sirens, no hustling jalopies. You could hear birds in the big trees, crickets in the grass, children on screened porches. At night, in the hush of a bedroom, you could hear a baby breathe. The houses were old and sturdy enough to please Ruth; the park just around the corner gave me a taste of country, with its green swells, sunsets and star-spangled skies.

 

We had already toured more houses than Washington slept in before we set our hearts on 1113 East Wylie. Whether it was charming, as the ad promised, the eye of the beholder would have to decide; but no one could doubt that it needed work. Realtors, in their cheery lingo, would have called it a fixer-upper or a handyman’s dream. On our initial visit we made a list of items that would require swift attention, from roof to foundation. Of course we’d patch up that plaster, Ruth and I assured one another. We’d tear out that threadbare carpet and refinish the floors. We’d mend the chimney, ventilate the attic, dry up the basement, enclose the front porch, hang new doors, make over the kitchen, patch and paint and seal.

 

We moved in 18 years ago, and we are still working on that list. The list, in fact, has grown season by season, like adult grief or the national debt. For every job completed, two new jobs arise. Reglaze a broken window, and before you’ve put away your tools a gutter sags or a switch burns out. In an old house, when handyman or handywoman takes on entropy, entropy always wins. Things fall apart, as Yeats memorably warned us, and not only in politics and religion. Pipes rust, nails work loose, shingles crumble, wood warps. The smooth turns rough and the straight grows crooked. A house is a shell caught in a surf that never stops grinding.

 


 

Over those same 18 years, our girl grew up. No longer a light sleeper, Eva went off to college last fall, having lived up to every beautiful promise in those original six-and-a-half pounds. The vague bundle of possibilities that lay in the crib, suckled on milk and swaddled in song, has become a definite person.

 

More than a little blue about Eva’s going away, I work on the house and consider how it holds me. Of course there is no single right place to live, any more than there is a single right man or woman to marry. And yet, having made my choice, I feel wedded to this house, as I do to my wife and my neighborhood and my region. To become attached to a woman, sure, and to neighbors, fair enough, and maybe even to the local terrain—but to a pile of brick and wood? How has this box, this frame of possibilities, come to fit me so exactly? By what alchemy does a house become a home?

 


 

The short answer is that these walls and floors and scruffy flower beds are saturated with our memories and sweat. Everywhere I look I see the imprint of hands, everywhere I turn I hear the babble of voices, I smell sawdust or bread, I recall bruises and laughter. After nearly two decades of labor, the house dwells in us as surely as we dwell in the house.

 

By American standards it’s small, plain, old-fashioned: a cube roughly 25 feet on a side, encased in yellow brick, with a low porch across the front, a wet basement below and on top a roof in the shape of a pyramid. I have touched every one of those bricks, scraping ivy or pointing up the joints with fresh cement. I have banged every joist and rafter, brushed every foundation stone. I know its crooks and crannies, its faults and fillings, as well as my dentist knows my teeth.

 

I could blame or thank my father or mother for the itch that keeps me tinkering. During my childhood, they fixed up their own series of dilapidated houses, thereby convincing me that a place isn’t truly yours until you rebuild it with your own hands. Thoreau, who cobbled together the most famous cabin in our literature, complained that “I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house.” Had he been a contemporary of my father or me, he could have walked by our doors most weekends and found us hammering.

 

A month after we moved in, my parents came from Oklahoma to inspect the house and dandle Eva. As soon as my father could bear to put the baby down, he walked to the basement and opened the fuse box, hummed darkly, then came back upstairs and removed the faceplate from a light switch and peered inside. Turning to me with a frown, he said, “Son, you’ve got to rewire this house. I won’t have my granddaughter sleeping in a firetrap.”

“I’ve been meaning to get to that,” I told him.

“We’ll start this afternoon,” he said. “Where’s the nearest lumber yard?”

 

We did start that afternoon, and Ruth and I kept on for months after my parents went back to Oklahoma. Room my room, we replaced every outlet, every switch, every wire, fishing new three-strand cable down from the attic or up from the basement, driving copper stakes into the soil to drain away any loose amps, until the juice from Public Service Indiana flowed innocuously.

 


 

During their visit the next winter, my father ran his hands over the walls in Eva’s room. More dark humming. He lit a match, blew it out, then held the smoking stub near the window beside her crib. I knew what was coming. “Son,” he announced, “you’ve got to insulate and weatherstrip and caulk or my baby’s going to catch pneumonia.”

 

That job took two years, because Ruth and I decided not just to dribble loose fill into the wall cavities but to rip them open and do it right, with fiberglass batts and polyethylene vapor barrier and new sheetrock. Eva slept in our room while we tore hers apart. When I pried away the lathe and plaster next to where her crib had stood, I found a message scrawled in carpenter’s chalk on the pine sheathing: BILLY WALES IS A STINKER! JUNE 12, 1926. I thought about leaving that part of the cavity exposed, with a frame around it, but that would have allowed a draft to blow on my girl, and so I closed it up tight.

 

Inch by inch, as though the house were a ship in dry dock, we overhauled the place, driven by concerns about Eva and then later, when our second child came along, by concerns about Jesse. Who knew what corrosion lurked in the heart of those iron pipes? Replumb with copper. The cracked chimney might allow sparks into the frame, so re-lay the bricks, then line it with stainless steel. Sand those oak floors to protect small toes from splinters. And what if there was lead in that peeling paint on the woodwork? Better pry loose the baseboards and trim, the moldings and sills, the mullioned windows; better carry it all outdoors, then scrape and sand and strip everything down to the bare wood, seal it anew with harmless finishes, and put every piece back where it belonged.

 

In our patching and repairing, our tightening and securing, Ruth and I could have been a pair of hawks tucking sticks into the nest, or beavers smoothing mud inside the walls of our lodge, or prairie dogs hauling dry grass into the burrow. We could have been parents of any species making a haven for our young.

 


 

Unlike the hawk, of course, we fetch our sticks from the lumber yard; unlike the beavers, we get our mud ready baked into bricks; unlike the prairie dogs, we buy fibers that have been woven into blankets, curtains, carpets, mats. But for all that artifice, the house is still entirely derived from the land. The foundation is laid up with chunks of limestone from nearby quarries. The frame is a skeleton of pines. The white walls are gypsum from the bed of a primeval sea. The iron in the nails has been refined from ore, the glass in the windows from sand, even the unavoidable plastic has been distilled from the oil of ancient swamps. When I walk up the stairs and notice the oak treads, I feel their grain curving through me.

 

Because so few of us build our homes, we forget that our dwellings, like our bodies, are made from the earth. The first humans who settled in this part of the country fashioned their huts from bark, their tepees from tanned hides held up by saplings. They warmed themselves at fires of buffalo chips and brush. How could they forget that they had wrapped themselves in the land? In his oral autobiography, the Lakota Sioux holy man Black Elk said that “Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.”

 

When white settlers came to this region, they sometimes camped inside a hollow sycamore while they built a log cabin; so when at length they moved into the cabin, they merely exchanged life inside a single tree for life inside a stack of them. The bark on the walls and the clay in the chinks and the fieldstone in the chimney reminded them whence their shelter had come. Our technology has changed, but not our ultimate source. Even the newest ticky-tacky box in the suburbs, even the glitziest high-tech mansion, is only a nest in disguise.

 

Nature does not halt at the property line but runs right through our yard and walls and bones. Moss grows on the shady side of the roof, mildew in the bathtub, mold in the fridge. Roots from our front-yard elm invade the drains. Mice invade the cupboards. (The best bait, we’ve found, is peanut butter.) Male woodpeckers, wooing mates, rap on the cedar siding of the front porch. Wrens nest in our kitchen exhaust fan; the racket of their hungry chicks spices up our meals. Water finds its way into the basement year round; for all our efforts to seal the joints, rain and snowmelt still treat the basement like any other hole in the ground.

 

When we bought the house, it was covered with English ivy. “That’s got to come off,” Ruth said. “Think of all the spiders breeding outside Eva’s window!” Under assault from crowbar, shears and wire brush, the ivy came off. But there has been no perceptible decline in the spider population, indoors or out. Clean a corner, and by the time you’ve put away the broom new threads are gleaming. The spiders thrive because they have plenty of game to snare. Poison has discouraged the termites, but the carpenter ants still look upon the house as a convenient heap of dead wood. (When Eva first heard us talk about carpenter ants, she imagined they would be dressed as her daddy was on weekends, with sweatband across the forehead, tool belt around the waist and dangling hammer on the hip.) Summer and fall, we play host to crickets, grasshoppers, moths, flies, mosquitoes and frogs, along with no-see-ums too obscure to name.

 

Piled up foursquare and plumb, the house is itself a part of the landscape. Weather buffets it, wind sifts through. Leaves collect on the roof, hemlock needles gather on the sills, ice and thaw nudge the foundation, seeds lodge in every crack. Like anything born, it is mortal. If you doubt that, drive the back roads of the Midwest and look at the forsaken farms. Abandon a house, even a brick one, and it will soon be reclaimed by forest. Left to itself, the land says bloodroot, chickadee, beech. Our shelter is on loan; it needs perpetual care.

 


 

The word house derives from an Indo-European root meaning to cover or conceal. I hear furtive, queasy undertones. Conceal from what? from storms? beasts? enemies? from the eye of God?

 

Home comes from a different room meaning “the place where one lies.” That sounds less fearful to me. A weak, hairless, slow animal, without claws or fangs, can risk lying down and closing its eyes only where it feels utterly secure. Since the universe is going to kill us in the short run or the long, no wonder we crave a place to lie in safety, a place to conceive our young and raise them, a place to shut our eyes without shivering or dread.

 

Perhaps the most familiar definition of home in the American language comes from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man,” in lines spoken by a Yankee farmer: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/  They have to take you in.” Less familiar is the wife’s reply: “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” The husband’s remark is pure Yankee, grudging and grim. I side with the wife. Home is not where you have to go but where you want to go; nor is it a place where you are sullenly admitted but rather where you are welcomed—by the people, the walls, the tiles on the floor, the flower beside the door, the play of light, the very grass.

 

I am acutely aware that thousands upon thousands of people in my own country have no roofs over their heads. Like anyone who walks the streets of America, I grieve over the bodies wrapped in newspapers or huddled in cardboard boxes, the sleepers curled on steam grates, the futureless faces. This is a cause for shame and remedy, not only because the homeless suffer but because they have no place to lay their heads in safety, no one except dutiful strangers to welcome them. Thank God for dutiful strangers, yet they can never take the place of friends. The more deeply I feel my own connection to home, the more sharply I feel the hurt of those who belong to no place and no one.

 

The homing pigeon is not merely able to find the roost from astounding distances; it seeks its home. I am a homing husband and father. Away on solitary trips, I am never quite whole. I miss family, of course, and neighbors and friends; but I also miss the house, which is planted in the yard, which is embraced by a city, which is cradled in familiar woods and fields. The house has worked on me as steadily as I have worked on the house. I carry slivers of wood under my fingernails, dust from demolition in the corners of my eyes, aches from hammering and heaving in all my joints.

 

The real estate ads offer houses for sale, not homes. A house is a garment, easily put off or on, casually bought and sold; a home is skin. Merely change houses and you will be inconvenienced; change homes and you bleed. When the shell you live in has taken on the savor of your family, when your dwelling has become a taproot, then your house is a home.

 


 

I heard more than hunger in Eva’s infant cry. I heard a plea for shelter from the terror of things. I felt called on to enfold her, in arms and walls and voice. No doubt it is only a musical accident that home and womb share the holy sound of om, which Hindu mystics chant to put themselves in harmony with the ultimate power. But I accept all gifts of language. There is in the word a hum of yearning.

 

It is hard not to think of our home as a chrysalis from which the butterfly has flown. I miss my daughter. The rug bristles with the absence of her dancing feet. The windows glint with the history of her looking. Water-rings on the sills recall where her teacup should be. The air lacks a sweet buzz.

 

Unlike a butterfly, a daughter blessedly returns now and again, as Eva came home last December for winter vacation. Ruth and I had been preparing the house to receive her. The storm windows were snug; there was a fire in the stove. Before leaving in August, Eva bet me that I would not have finished remodeling the sunroom by the time of her return between semesters. I stole hours to work on it all the autumn. Just in time I put on the last coat of varnish, so that, when she entered, the place would shine.

 


Scott Russell Sanders is a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Indiana University and the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Bloomington, Indiana.


 

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