I”ve been pondering roots for several reasons lately. One is because it’s spring (allegedly) and I’m considering this year’s attempt at a garden. Another is because I have The Itch. No, not the Seven Year variety; with me, it’s more like the three-year kind. The itch to change locations, to move. I sit on my hands and bite my tongue, scrolling through real estate listings for distant cities only when I am alone…
I know a man, nearly sixty years old, who has never lived more than ten miles from where he was born. Our neighbours across the street have not lived more than five blocks from where they grew up. They’ve lived in the same house for over 20 years.
My husband is living in his 22nd abode. I can’t compete with that number, but I lived in four houses before I left home. One of them came to mind as I read a novel entitled, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom which chronicles the lives of slaves and indentured servants on a plantation in Tidewater Virginia. Google, I bow down to you; I found pictures of it yesterday (which are not mine so I dare not post).
My house, while no plantation, was located in rural Maryland. Built in 1785, it too, had a “kitchen house” and one slave house. The buildings had seen battles – pieces of musket ball were preserved in a wall and local legend had it that a Civil War soldier had been shot in the dining room.
When my father bought it he nicknamed it “Fran’s Folly.” Uninhabited for over 30 years when my mother discovered it in 1968, all that remained of the main house was piles of stone, rotten timbers, heaps of chicken feathers and discarded snake skins. The first time I visited the “house,” I wasn’t allowed out of the car – it was too dangerous.
I remember my mother getting into the car, lighting a cigarette and saying, “We’re going to live here one day.” I craned my neck as we slowly descended the steep driveway, not happy about that idea at all. I was seven; to me a house had walls that stood upright, a roof, window shutters, and azaleas around the front.
It took two years – and teams of artisan stone masons, specialty carpenters, bricklayers (who were versed in 18th century brick work), and some snake wranglers – to restore the dwellings. Acres and acres of jungle were cleared by my brother and his trusty bulldozer. My mother’s vision included painstaking attention to historic detail married with 20th Century conveniences like decent wiring and indoor plumbing. The property became a showcase on historic home tours in the area and was my mother’s pride and joy.
However, the house was a far cry from “family” homes of today – there was not one inch of informal space. If anyone wanted casual, one went to the enormous timber barn and lounged on a hay bale to commune with the pigeons, chickens and horses. Or, one could wander fifty-five acres of rolling pastures and river meadows.
Scrolling through the realtor photos yesterday, my former home seemed largely unchanged although I am glad my mother can’t see the absence of historically accurate paint colours. I noted the property was for rent, not for sale. I wonder about its circumstances and of its history since we sold it in 1976. I am grateful it is still standing because I know that area is now prime subdivision territory. I wonder does my house on the hill stand like Mont St. Michel – an island surrounded by a sea of new homes?
My children are living in their sixth house. We’ve had houses we’ve loved and houses we’ve hated (sometimes they’ve been the same one). Unlike my mother, I’ve managed to avoid giving too much of myself to a house. My mother poured herself into her home, the restoration. They were inextricably linked.
After she died, my brother and sister asked the owners if they could scatter my mother’s ashes in the river meadow. Of course, they said yes. I didn’t go. I had already moved away.