Farewell, Dear Solid HousePosted: January 23, 2010
It is summer and hot enough to boil the black tar between sections of concrete on Deering Street. I like to pop the bubbles that come up. It ranks up there with riding bikes and climbing trees, the stuff one likes to do when she is nine. It’s nothing for me to have a sticky, black fingertip all of July.
Today Mama tells me I have to read. What I have to read is not even a book yet—it’s just a stack of papers. Mama has brought home a manuscript written by one of her professors at Delta State that will soon be published by The MacMillan Company in New York. Evelyn Allen Hammett is the Head of Languages and Literature at the college, and she has written a story based on a few diary pages kept by her eighth great grandmother when the twelve-year-old girl made a long trek from Dorchester, Massachusetts to a new settlement on the Connecticut River. The teacher knows Mama has a little girl and she asked Mama if I could read the book and let her know if it is age appropriate for me or if it needs to be for older junior high kids.
Now, I like to read, but I like to choose my own books, mostly about pioneers on the western frontier, and I like to pick my own time and place. After all, I do have my favorite reading spots around this house. I might curl up on my soft bed against the frilly blue pillow shams, or lie on the polished hardwood floor of the living room under the window air conditioning unit. The painted-gray concrete of the front stoop is cool, and sometimes I’ll sit there against the white shingles next to the big hydrangea bush. There’s a grate in the bricks on the side of the porch venting the house underneath and sometimes I’ll lean off the edge of the porch and feel the cool air coming out of the grate opening and smell the mustiness. Sometimes I lie on the picnic table under the shade of the pecan tree in the backyard. I can look up through the leaves patterned like lace and see clouds moving on some great migration, much like the family in Evelyn Allen Hammett’s book.
Priscilla and her family are embarking on a journey to new land in Connecticut, and along the way they will encounter perils—bands of warring Indians, winter storms, lack of food such that her mother’s wedding band slides off her finger.
Priscilla has planned to write in her journal every day on the journey. The pages in it are part of a valuable store sent from England. Most of them were smeared with bear’s grease and used to fill in window frames. Her mother saved the scraps cut from the edges of the large pieces, then measured and cut them into the same neat shape. The shoemaker bound them with a tanned leather cover and stitched them with the same stitches he uses for boots.
On the last day in her home in Dorchester, Priscilla sits on the settle her Father made. “Grant—1630” is carved in the seat. Priscilla has heard the Bible read so much that she applies verses to her own family. Her father is a rock and a fortress. Her mother—“her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” She looks about her at this house her father built when they arrived in the new country—a solid house made of half logs chinked with wedges of wood and clay, roof of birch bark shingles, a door of bark and leather hinges, puncheon floor of white pine planed smooth as silk and satin, and a great stone fireplace as wide as the room and tall enough for Father to stand up in. She takes out her goose quill pen and ink made of swamp maple bark boiled with a little copperas, and she writes the first page of her journal.
“I, Priscilla, am the daughter of Matthew Grant, and Priscilla, his wife. I was born in Devonshire, England, 14 September, sixteen hundred twenty three. So I am now twelve years old. It is today 14 Oct. in the year of our Lord, sixteen hundred thirty five and of King Charles the First the tenth year.
Tomorrow we start on a trip by Shank’s mare, as Father says. He means that we will walk. We will go to a new country over one hundred miles away. We hope there will be more land for us and the winters will be milder.
We will leave the ocean. But there will be a river called Connecticut.
About sixty will go. Most of us came on the ship Mary and John from England five years ago.
We are called Puritans.
Farewell, dear solid house. God bless the roof. God bless the floor. God bless the oven and the door.”
On this steamy Delta summer day as I hold a slew of typed pages in my hands, I do not know it, but fifty years from now, I will once again pick up these words inside a hardcover book. On the front, I, Priscilla, author Evelyn Allen Hammett, a picture of a girl in a yellow dress walking on a trail. I will open it and read once again those words: “Farewell, dear solid house. God bless the roof. God bless the floor. God bless the oven and the door.” It is a time when I will be saying good-bye to my own solid house at 807 Deering Street. I will begin to sob softly, and my crying will swell into wailing. To wail: to utter a prolonged, mournful cry, usually high-pitched or clear-sounding, as in grief or suffering.
Fifty years from now, my mother will die and my father will have been dead for three years. Fifty years from now, the house at 807 will pass into the hands of my sister and me, and we will disperse its contents, taking what we deem valuable because it is a memory. We will put a For Sale sign in the front yard, and I will not go there to look at it. And though I will live through divorce and death and experience devastating losses, this will be the hardest thing I will ever do because it represents the greatest loss—it is home. It will always be the constant in my life, the fixed point in my universe. The house I was born to, the house I grew up in, the house where my dead pets are buried in the backyard, the house where graduation gowns and a wedding gown will hang in a closet, the house I will always go home to, the house I will bring my babies to, and my grandchildren. I will always know that I can come here and feel safe and cocooned and secure. Here, all is right with the world.
Farewell, dear solid house.
And when I sign on the line to give up my lifetime home, I will not be able to do it with dry eyes or a heart at peace. I will walk through its rooms one last time. I will touch each wall of white paint and knotty pine. I will stand in its kitchen and still see Mama standing over the white stove next to the pantry stuffed full. I will stand in the family room where we have eaten big Sunday dinners, the living room with its white lace curtains Mama has sewed and sixty Christmas trees that have stood in there over time, the “piano room,” with the upright Mama antiqued white, the hall with the floor furnace where I’ve sat on cold nights, and my bedroom where sun has come through window blinds and glow-in-the-dark stars have shone down from the ceiling.
I will walk through its backyard where roses and zinnias and morning glories have grown, where pecan and walnut and fig trees have stood, where tomatoes and squash and beans have been plucked from vines, were sandboxes and swingsets and sliding boards have stood, and where children have played badminton and croquet and mud pies and hide-and-seek and Red Rover. I will think I see my cocker spaniel Blackie and the cat Ginger and my canary Henry who died one Thanksgiving and my parakeet Pluma who died after breathing all my hair spray, and I will remember my old clubhouse, The Termite Club, snuck away in an old chicken shack on the lot adjacent, and instead of the wooden fence that is here now I will remember the old hedges that surrounded the house, the ones that Dad trimmed every Monday because he was a barber and needed to cut something, and I will even remember the “stickers” on little weeds in the backyard that blew in one year after a Texas windstorm and I could no longer go barefooted in the Bermuda grass, and I will remember the day we planted the two pecan trees and how big they grew and then how they died after the Great Ice Storm of ’94 and how Dad filled the holes their roots left with twigs and dead leaves instead of dirt and how sinkholes kept forming and Mama kept falling in them, and I will remember Dad’s electric lawn mower and how I mowed the yard once and ran over the cord, and I will remember my basketball goal on the back of the carport storage room and how many hours I spent there dribbling and shooting free throws, and I will remember how we put the little swimming pool at the bottom of the sliding board and how we’d polish the board with Johnson Paste Wax and slide down fast and wham! splash into the water.
Farewell, dear solid house.
God bless the roof.
God bless the floor.
God bless the oven
and the door.