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What this old house remembers

What this old house remembers

I live in an old farmhouse that is literally falling apart. Each spring, clouds of termites rise in the bathroom and the bedroom, coating the windows and covering the kitchen stove and the mirrors in the bathroom with tiny wings — wings that clog my vacuum cleaner for weeks.

In the winter, the wind woofs in the eaves, pours through the attic and seeps into my bedroom like an ice-laden river. All of the doors hang off-balance and a tennis ball dropped in the living room will roll slowly from room to room — like a cue ball looking for a pocket — until, eventually, it finds its way to the kitchen, always coming to rest behind the sink.

But, with each passing year, my affection for these canted floors and leaning walls deepens. I came to live here when I was 2 years old, and now, more than 80 years later, I still sleep in the same bedroom — the one my Uncle Albert dubbed “the North Pole.” The entire house bears testimony to the lives of my grandparents, and when I walk from room to room, I hear lost voices and sense fading warmth.

Just here, beneath this old flue, my grandmother tended her Home Comfort stove. And over there, on that cracked cement hearthstone that once fronted a fireplace, I used to lie whimpering on winter nights — my cheek pressed against the warm hearthstone (I was plagued with chronic earaches) while my grandmother poured warm cod liver oil from a tablespoon into my ear. 

There, where my computer now sits, my grandfather used to tune the old Silvertone radio, listening to “Renfro Valley” on Sunday mornings. It is also where his coffin rested (for I lived in a time in which the dead came home for a final farewell).

The old house seems to be slowly sinking into the earth, dragging with it a roofless canning house and a derelict barn. Yet, there are brief moments — usually in the morning — when this dim space seems filled with a kind of tangible energy. There are mornings when I wake in the chilled air of my bedroom sensing that I am not alone — that this empty shell has become an echo chamber. In the kitchen, my grandmother’s Home Comfort radiates warmth while she conjures red-eye gravy from a black skillet; cathead biscuits bloom in the oven and a tin coffee pot chuckles on the back burner.

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I feel my Uncle Albert’s discontent (he suffered from migraines) as he sits, leaning back in a cane-bottomed chair at the dining room table, his chair legs gouging little half-moons in the linoleum. My grandfather is milking the cow, and any minute now, he will stomp into the kitchen with a bucket of steaming milk. From the living room comes the strains of Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me,” followed by the banter of Reed Wilson, WWNC’s popular early morning DJ.

Fly the ocean in a silver plane,

See the jungle when it’s wet with rain.

But when my foot touches the floor, it all vanishes ... recedes like an ocean tide withdrawing down the corridors of the years; carrying away warmth, biscuits and my grandmother’s hands through the draft of a broken window. Sometimes, I move quickly to the barren kitchen, hoping to capture a belated fragment of what was here a moment ago — perhaps the last vestiges of Albert’s complaint lingers. (“Ahhh, God! I didn’t sleep a wink,” he says as he massages his head). And here ... who is this tow-headed creature in his mint striped pajamas? My God, it’s me! I’m on my way to Albert’s bedroom, where I will find a stack of lurid magazines beneath his pillow — “Captain Marvel,” “Plastic Man,” “Black Hawk” and “The Blue Beetle.”

Is it possible that there are past moments that have taken refuge in these rooms? Are there moments that were fueled by such intense emotion, they hang suspended like banks of summer clouds, waiting for an alignment of hours, months and memory? My mother’s grief for my father’s murder is somewhere in this bedroom; my grandmother’s loss of a “blue baby;” the return of two sons from WWII haunts the front porch; an old, broken fiddle that played “The Waltz You Saved for Me” resonates faintly in the attic — are they all here like eavesdroppers in the next room, waiting for their cue to enter?

Perhaps a night will come when moonlight will penetrate the cobwebs on the attic window, touching the faded portrait of my father’s face; and he will turn to my mother, whispering, and the two of them will laugh. Then, a dozen specters will awake causing this old house to shudder as music, heat and the smell of red-eye gravy floats in the summer darkness. Then, children’s footsteps will mingle with the slow trudge of the elderly, and blasts of snow, wind and heat will batter these walls as spring and winter collide and this old house finally explodes, leaving nothing behind but the buzz of a solitary wasp freed from its prison behind an attic window.

Finally, this old house will mingle with fog and moonlight, drifting through the stand of hemlocks that encircles this dim cove where my homeless spirit will rise to meet the morning sun.

(Gary Carden is a storyteller and writer who lives in Sylva.)

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