Overheard by fly on wall at the old house, mid-October 2012: Steve, are we gonna be those old people with the dusty couch and the dated tiles and outmoded color schemes? It’s been eleven years and I have absolutely no desire to change our décor.
Steve agreed, not because he’d ever been excited by my slightly beachy, simple, warm-toned style, but because his not caring allowed him to continue to support my anti-change non-agenda. And the longer I let the hardwood floor remain, the scratchier it got—and the more likely it was that when he dragged an empty box across it, and I yelped, “Don’t!” And he responded, “It’s an empty box!” And I replied, “An empty box can still drag a little piece of gravel across the floor and scratch it up!” he could prove to me that indeed it had not. Or at least, I couldn’t prove that it had.
These were the old conversations regarding the house. So simple, so innocent, and about such small things. Flood Plain Elevation, for all we knew, was something we’d snapped a picture of in 1999 while entering South Dakota in my purple Cavalier.
I did understand that our bathroom needed updating. I knew there would come a time when we could put it off no longer. We had renovated the kitchen in 2004 and finally redone the siding, windows, and patio in ’09 after saving for years. The last straw had been when Steve was helping me plant a shrub and for leverage, put his hand on—and through—the siding at the front of the house. It was old and brittle, and we had held out for so long. We slept in winter hats beside drafty windows. That was our solution! Hats! Not a loan. I would always cite how my parents waited years before each update. They did not move in and fix everything. They waited, they planned, and we would wait and plan too.
After Hurricane Irene two years ago, we spent $8,000 on a drainage system for a basement that as of next week will be completely filled in. At the time, we were happy with such an unsexy upgrade because we believed we’d be protected from anything like Irene that might come along again (the precautions we bothered to take for Sandy had seemed so unnecessary in light of the drain investment, but we were being extra cautious). We were really tight after that pricey installation, and we prayed we’d need no urgent repairs anytime soon, as Steve was going back to school.
In our single small bathroom, the plumbing under the sink was corroded and the toilet was cracked and our shower clogged regularly and the counter was cut to enable entrance and exit using a door. But we’d lived with our sort-of lovable 1960’s mauve/pink bathroom for eleven years—why not three more? We made our first school payment, and kept our fingers crossed for no major problems.
We uncrossed them in horror on October 29, 2012. Sandy was going to demo our bathroom for us, wasn’t she.
One year has passed since we peered through the darkness from Chuck and Joy’s second floor window across the street, watching as the ocean took its violent tour through each room—some renovated and some, well, historic. The house had become such a part of me that this viewing from afar felt like one of those uncanny dreams where you watch yourself from outside of yourself.
This was one of the three true homes of my life, along with my parents’ ranch and an old family house in Brooklyn. As I watched four feet of ours disappear under waves of ink-dark water, I knew that much like my childhood spaces, this would always be a home of my dreams. In dreams, I’d still sit in my easy chair (yes, it was the wife who occupied the special comfy chair—and also “manned” the grill and watched the baseball games). I would survey life around me in the house (you could see most rooms from my seat), and hear street life out the door to my back. For more than a quarter of my life, most major decisions had been discussed and made from that chair. My letters, poems, famously wordy birthday cards, and books had all been composed in its arms.
In dreams, Lucy will still signal with a single bark that she wants to join me inside, and I will rise reluctantly with a sigh and then be melted by her crookedly raised ears, hopeful tail, and front feet happy-stepping. I will let her in, and the faulty storm door will hiss and bang shut behind her, and her nails will skitter across the wood floor. In dreams, I will still open trap doors in the floor and wide, deep built-in drawers that fit 15 sweaters. My window frames will be hand-carved and scalloped, and to get to the attic in dreams I will need to grab onto a metal bar, swing my leg up and sideways, and hoist myself. The little girls who live behind us will jump and play on our steel cellar doors. Delighted squeals will complement that deep metallic drumming, and I’ll smile through the vibrations, home again.
It is one year and I still remember every horizontal penny-colored scratch where the futon butted up against the guest room wall; the feel of eggshell paint over bead board; the location of each nail to be avoided when I descended the stairs to the basement; the wool-and-wood smell of the front closet, and how far back on the high shelf an umbrella could be reached; the rounded-square give and slightly warm glow of the buttons on our office phone.
It is one year since I made the last call on our home phone and sent my last text on my old cell phone. It read something like this: “Water has not breached. Too windy to evacuate at this pt. No rain yet. Storm pushing N to S now, should help LB. Stuck here now. Still have electric. Will head to neighbors’ up high. Hope everything holds out!”
Of course, at the time, I could not have realized that the house itself would not hold out—and that I would need to, for a year and more.
I miss my house. In this room, I miss any house. But I can say now that what I would not have wanted to miss was this experience. I will wax poetic about my beloved bungalow for the rest of my days, even while surveying our brand spanking new digs from my armchair (thankfully, we saved it—it is one of two pieces of furniture in the studio we’re renting). My psyche will live in many memory-rich houses at once, exploring or resting in each, looking for meaning. Rooms reveal what basements hide, stairs invite upward and hallways guide. Though I seek in a spiritual realm, there have existed a series of things that have grounded me, things that sounded and rusted and represented and worked and beautified over years. Some I have saved, others I’ve documented. Some will be forgotten, many remembered. All have been treasured, because they are the signposts of my life here on earth. They are the blazes on the trail, the breadcrumbs on the path.
I know that the journey is all. But I have often known where I am, I’ve known where I have moved to and from, by these things. In dreams, it is by the symbolism of things that I understand my experience. Oh, this is familiar—a tree. It digs into the ground and reaches for the sky. So must I. Oh, this is familiar—a bed. It is warm and comforting. Now I know I am safe.
Oh, this is familiar. A closet. An oven. A house. In my waking life as well, these things helped me orient, ground, and secure myself, and the ones with specific memories attached were scattered specialized wormholes delivering me direct to my own inner world.
Things, to me, were always alive. Animated. Sentient. I traveled on them, through them. They connected me to others, to common experience. Things themselves might even actually have experiences! As a little girl, when all things felt really real, and also when we still threw bottles in the trash, I would try to feel them first. Not with my hands but with my heart, I would feel the bottles and their caps. In this way I determined whether they wanted to be screwed back together for all eternity—or not. Some wanted to be free of each other; others were soul mates. It was easy to feel, if you tried.
Likewise, I felt our house—and our house felt us. We belonged together; it was true love. Thankfully, the strongest bones of her still stand, and give structure to a new love story.
The new story is many-fold. It honors our house, our renewing city, our families, and our friends, new and old. Our new love story is driven by hope and gratitude. It is open-ended. It searches for meaning in things and experiences, but it does not cling. In a flood so powerful, there was nothing to cling to. But there have been buoys on the water, like the breadcrumbs and the blazes on the trail, marking the way of the journey. Many were unfamiliar: several new bedrooms in succession, a few different cars, hand-me-down clothes, and helpful gifts. A foundation, a roof, and most recently, a door. These are new signposts along the same way. They make it easier to tell the story.
But the way is the way, with or without things—or enough money—to make it comfortable. My life is still my life and my love is still my love. Today, I am still publishing this rather rambling piece to remind myself of all that I know—even though I really want to rant and rave. Later in the week I will be sure to update you on New York Rising’s broken promises, the still unbelievable process, and the astonishingly disappointing results. Politicians are making appearances everywhere we look, saying they are coming to the rescue, but we have been left in the dust again. I am so tired of taking action, but with your support I may find the energy to continue. It is going to take a village to make this right.
In the meantime, I will start redecorating in my mind.