We’ve been looking at some houses, potential homes. Then we come “home” and I simply can’t imagine any other.
So, what is home? It’s about as hackneyed a question as I can imagine. “Home is where the heart is,” it says on a neighbour’s mailbox, the ornate words surrounded by a stencilled array of tiny flowers clinging to curlicue vines. My high school English teacher, a man named Ferris who gathered little pools of saliva in the corners of his mouth when he spoke, unabashedly announced to the tenth grade class that his favourite poet was Edgar Guest. That would be the poet who penned those profound words, “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.” And so it does, I suppose. But I’m beginning to fear that, in my case, it also takes a heap o’ stuff.
A lot of people I know are sorting through stuff—that’s “stuff” with a sneer and a capital S, the way it’s spoken of among the de-cluttering set, obsessed with disposing of the unnecessary before the kids are left with the mess. They’ve got a point. I have a plan to walk through the house with my children, pointing out the personal significance of objects so they will know where things fit into the fabric of my life. That ruby ring I never wear? That belonged to your great-aunt Florence. And the heavy wool afghan? Crocheted by my Grammy Smith in her 90s, after she’d pretty well lost her sight. And so on. Maybe that will happen soon, when the time comes to sort through, dispose of, pack up the stuff that fills this house. I suppose I’ll cry.
We’ve lived here for so long, the basement and the attic defy description. And—horror of horrors—two outdoor sheds are pretty full of stuff, too. Most of it will have to go. Most of it should have gone years ago. (Though Jack has never forgiven me for, long ago in the misty past, disposing of a rope-maker—a gadget that twisted baler twine into strong, thick rope. Clearly, our lives would have been richer if we’d had that in the basement all these years. Mea culpa!)
I know people who’ve chosen to divest themselves of everything and embraced a simple, possession-free life. They’ve become 20-something again, renting, moving from place to place, accumulating little. They say the experience has been liberating, soul-enhancing, their new life light and free. I believe them, and god knows my soul could use enhancing. I don’t think I could do it, though.
The rope maker notwithstanding, I confess my fondness for much of the stuff in my life. It isn’t just the things that make my house a home—there has been a heap o’ livin’ here—but they help connect me to some of that living, to people, episodes, whole eras of my past.
I never knew my paternal grandfather. I only know him from the stories my father told and wrote, stories of a small-town grocer in eastern Pennsylvania who outsmarted the new chain store across the street and invented things in his spare time. Things like a wagon brake that he patented just as horse-drawn wagons left the landscape, a rat trap that dropped rats into vats of water, and a wind-up flying machine that never flew. I have a model of the wagon brake in a small, hand-made wooden box with a metal clasp and varnish peeling on the top. It’s the sample he sent to the patent office.
He also made tin cookie cutters for my grandmother. I keep the cutters in the little cardboard box where my mother stored them. Opening the box is an annual ritual. First, the message scrawled in black ink on the top of the box, in my dad’s hand: “needs solder.” I don’t really understand; none of these do. Maybe he’d already soldered them, thinking of his own dad while he did. As I open the box every December, I picture my dad at his little workbench in the cellar, surrounded by toaster parts and shoeboxes full of hardware pieces. I feel the coolness of the basement, see the residue of coal dust beside the furnace, smell the melting solder.
Inside the box, wrapped in an old yellow paper napkin, are three cookie cutters: a Santa, elaborately detailed with a mittened hand, a cuffed boot, and a tasselled hat; a bird with a long beak and a delicate, gracefully arched, two-pronged tail; and a Christmas tree with branches spreading like curved fingers.
I roll the dough out on a round black surface—a special slate pastry board, two feet in diameter and as smooth as glass. My other grandfather—my mother’s dad—had it specially made for her from slate quarried near the town where Mom grew up, and she never rolled dough without it. Neither do I, and I see my hands becoming her hands as I pat, roll, and cut the dough. I see my children and my grandchildren standing on kitchen chairs beside me, sneaking clumps of the sweet, raw cookie dough. Making Christmas cookies is a family event, even when I am the only one in the room.
I know that some day, these things will end up in a garage sale, subject to soulless laws of economics, their worth determined by the amount of cold cash they garner. It’s not likely to be much; their true value is measurable only in the currency of my own life and the lives that preceded mine. In the meantime, I’ll probably haul a lot of them along whenever we move, wherever we end up. For me, they will help to make a new house a home until we can fill it with a heap o’ livin’.