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Plein Air
by Deborah Fries, Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org



Taking Possession

The house was ready to occupy in the winter of 1952. Now, when I look at photos of the just-constructed house and large lot, it seems an embarrassingly raw intrusion of the built environment upon that slope at the foot of Dunning’s Mountain. There are no other houses, the road is unpaved and unlit, and our frozen, seeded lot is covered with straw. Spring, the softening curves of landscaping, the infill of neighbors—lie beyond the focal range of imagination.

But I’m sure that my parents, still energized by post-war optimism, could picture how their new home might someday grace the top of the new subdivision, a vision no doubt fueled by its description in the L.F. Garlinghouse book of plans: “No. 5100 – This is one of the loveliest of our Colonial homes. The entrance is impressive and dignified, yet there is an air of warmth and friendliness that invites one to enter and enjoy the spacious rooms.”

House: front view, black and white
House: side view, black and white

They were in their early 30s, with one child and the hopeful projections that a young couple brings to their new home. But for my mother, the house was more than a house: it was a psychological façade, an expression of personal ambition, an imago. She had grown up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, and the house they built in Pennsylvania was her response to being the girl from the Mill Pond Road. It was, for about $30,000 at the time, if not Tara, at least impressive and dignified. It was the second house built in Doc Shimer’s collection of developable lots known as Meadowbrook Terrace. And it was literally all that—an old farm meadow, gently terraced above Shover’s Run, a place name that rolled off her lips like Waldorf Astoria.

I’m not sure what the house in Meadowbrook was for him. A way to demonstrate his success in sales, and to keep his wife happy, perhaps. And it was a solid, forward-looking materialization of who he was, larger than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart he’d earned in the Harz Mountains of Germany seven years earlier. He was the sole bread-winner, a man who remained oddly removed from his bricks-and-mortar demonstration of success in love and work. He let us know, in many subtle ways, that he would have been happier in a hunting shack. In those first years in the new house, he took on a collection of projects that would outlive him: planting trees, building a brick retaining wall, framing in and finishing a basement bathroom and storage closets for his hunting gear. He took on each task as a burden, a stoic farm boy who has to head out to the milk barn in the cold, pre-dawn.

I have only one retrievable image from the earliest years in the house: I am wearing my little quilted robe with matching fur-trimmed moccasins, and my father and I are standing at the window in my parents’ dark bedroom. He pulls back the curtains to show me our snow-covered lawn filled with the gray shapes of deer, a dozen or more, their heads down, grazing in the moonlight. And I sense in that moment an odd kind of magical possession: that they have arrived and circle the house is a gift, unbidden, but for a moment, because they have chosen us, they are our deer. From the start, it seemed that we had taken ownership of everything we could see from the top of that hill—the big house and the woods around it. Every new house that would later be built on our street would subtract more woods from our world.

The archetypal image of that house as home coalesced around my later memories of a time after the landscaping had filled in, other houses had been built, and our home life had become a predictable routine. Routine in that house meant adhering to a comprehensive set of rules that favored process and property over people. There were the rules of frugality and preservation, rooted in values shaped by the Great Depression, yet so specific and deeply ingrained that I still hear them: don't leave a damp towel on the footboard of the bed; use a coaster to protect the end table; don't spill anything on the wool carpet; don't slam the screen door; don't shower in the upstairs bathrooms; don't get fingerprints on the wall!

And there were rules of conduct meant to shore up my Southern mother’s sense of the dignity that the house demanded. She believed that expressive children’s rooms with toys and bulletin boards were tacky, and so my bedroom was appointed as a guest room, decorated for an anonymous adult, with only one stuffed animal or doll on display. We lived in a state of equilibrium that met her fluid standard of formality. No fires could be built in the living room fireplace. Cozy fires, like play and art projects, were relegated to the pine-paneled basement rec room. We ate in the dining room only three times a year, used the living room only at Christmas and on the rare occasion that we had visitors. And even though we kept the footprint of our daily lives small and neat, she believed that such a large house required professional cleaning and laundry services, several days a week. At one point in my childhood we briefly had a live-in housekeeper, a decision I’ll never understand.

As she imposed her will upon the house and its inhabitants, the house became increasingly an extension of her person. People told her that she had a flare for decorating and she agreed; the way her home looked was her most reliable source of self-esteem. Her family could disappoint, her anxieties threaten to swallow her, but a neat, clean house, with ironed sheets and polished silver grounded her, kept her connected to its immutable grace.

Hanging On

In spite of its primal importance, home was a place I kept leaving. I never lived there year round after I turned 16, yet I would continue to think of the house as my home for the next five years, even as I bounced around from one new start to another. When I married and moved 700 miles away, the house became lovelier, a place I would return to annually, my heart pounding as I drove up the hill and it rose into view. Home, I’d soon be home.

Seeing it again after a year, I’d get a rush from the way it rose into view and, as I opened the back door, took in its signature scent: blended notes of Pine Sol, Wisk, furniture polish, hair spray, spray starch, cedar, moth balls, and various cooking smells of things bubbling into brownness in the oven. The house produced a singular, familiar scent that was immediately identifiable, portable, and eternally imprinted in my psyche. Things I took away, things that were sent to me—all bore olfactory evidence of home.

House: front view, color
House: front view 2, color
House, side view color

In a small town where there was little wealth, the house seemed impressive, an outward display of success and a good life. But by the end of their 50s, the house had become collateral in my father’s failed business venture. He borrowed against it, heavily, unable to unload his other investment. His lack of business acumen had jeopardized her very core and she could not forgive him. For years they lived in anger and depression until he was able to sell off the other property at auction. But even after the sale, they were still in debt. When he broke the news to her, she countered with a heart attack.

They had another 15 years together in the house. She recovered from her heart attack and grew stronger. He slipped away into what at first appeared to be a retirement funk but became an increasingly obvious form of physical departure: a huge neurological maelstrom that consumed him, with diagnoses of Parkinson’s with multi-infarct dementia, coronary artery disease, carotid artery disease, and probable Alzheimer’s. He began to think that his home was elsewhere, the farm where he’d grown up, and he would wait in the den, dressed in hunting clothes, believing that his brother Richard was coming to get him, that they had to bring in the hay.

One cold February night, sure that he was trapped in unfamiliar surroundings and threatening violence if he was not freed from his unrecognizable bedroom, she called the police, who took him away. He was 77 years old, and would never see the house again or even recognize it as his home when shown pictures.

She lived alone in the house for the next eight years. For the first year, he was in a VA hospital 30 miles away. From 1997 on she was a widow, who had enough money to sustain a modest version of the life she’d always lived: she had a housekeeper and a lawn service, and could afford weekly hair appointments and snow plowing and basic home repairs when they were needed. In her 80s, she reached the point where she began to talk about selling the house. She even listed it for a few months, but wouldn’t leave when it was being shown and seemed to be looking for compliments more than a sale. She’d call me and report that the young couple who’d come to see the house had told her it was beautiful or that some smart-ass doctor who’d had a showing had insisted on going up in the attic, which she found ridiculous. I knew what the doctor didn’t: he’d had a chance to pass through her museum, a visitor to an opened house that was not for sale.

She was 86 when she fell and broke her hip and wrist as she was getting out of the chair at the hair salon.  After surgery, she went to rehab in one facility and then was moved to a nursing home two blocks away from her house. From there she would be released to navigate the rough terrain of the familiar; a woman who could barely walk would be sent home to fend for herself. In mid-March, they told me she’d be discharged in two weeks.

The house was three and a half hours away from Philadelphia, where I live. Weekend visits from me would not ensure her safety or compliance or nutrition or transportation during the rest of the week. The system was going to dump an unsteady, barely ambulatory and often difficult woman into independent living. I expressed my concerns to the nursing home and began to plan for taking family leave from work.

It was the raw spring of 2004, daffodils pushing up, forsythia leafed out but not yet blooming, an early Easter around the corner. I bought a bunch of irises and headed out to western Pennsylvania to prepare us both for the transition. Expecting her return to the house to be a long, tragic denouement, I opted for short-term goals: I would surprise her with a day pass the following week—brunch, prepared by me and served to her in her own dining room.

That brunch never happened.  She died of a massive stroke a few days after my visit, her housekeeper of 35 years at her bedside in the emergency room. The woman who had kept my mother’s house immaculate shepherded her to her next home, while I drove west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and my sister, in Los Angeles, said goodbye through a telephone pressed to her unresponsive mother’s ear.

On the day of the funeral, noticing perhaps for the first time the threadbare wool carpet, the out-dated wallpaper, and 1950s-era bathroom fixtures, my daughter said the house had lost its magic. And she was right, without the house-proud presence of the woman whose identity had become enmeshed with its rooms, the house had become an empty shell.

Letting Go

The deconstruction of the house began immediately after the funeral, with my sister’s surgical removal of all clothes, belongings, and household items, as well as a large locust tree, within two weeks. Only the furniture and a few decorative items meant to use in staging the house for sale were left behind. What felt like her heartless erasure of my parents’ lives actually spared me the sentimental deliberative process and potential hoarding of their stuff. It would have been harder for me to let go.

After my sister went back to L.A., my daughter and I returned to the house for Memorial Day weekend to prepare it for sale. The 17-year locusts had arrived, and their eerie metallic whine rose and fell, a surreal backdrop for our tasks. We cleaned the house as if we were preparing a body—cleansing, shrouding, all that final touching. I had chosen not to see my mother at the mortuary. I wanted instead to hold onto the image of how she had looked and behaved the last time I visited her. I can still see her in her gray slacks, green top, coral lipstick, holding my arm lightly as we walked the nursing home corridors. Two months since her fall and she couldn’t wait to get out of there. In an uncharacteristic expression of gratitude, she was thanking everyone, including me, for contributing to her recovery.

Deborah Fries with her mother in the 1960s
Deborah Fries with her mother in the 1960s

In August, I took on the last phase of divestiture alone. I had accepted that the house was a piece of real estate, but as its remaining contents were auctioned off, the furnishings of the life we had lived there were dispersed in a wrenching display of devaluation. A woman standing near me in the crowd said she wanted to bid on my parents’ bedspreads for her dogs. End tables that had been protected for 50 years with coasters sold for $40. The entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica, dusted weekly for decades, sold for a dollar. Nothing that had meant so much to my mother proved valuable under the auctioneer’s mallet.

The woman who was buying the house attended the auction. Her children ran giggling through the empty house and found me standing in my bedroom, where I had gathered the things that I’d bought back from the estate at their appraised value. There was my mahogany four-poster bed, two dressers, a nightstand, mirror, Windsor chair, an odd picture of my father as a toddler. The five year-old told me that my room, with its perfect hotel charm, was going to be her room and that her mommy had said she could paint it herself. Dear God, I could feel my mother spinning.

I never saw the house again after the auction, except in a bird’s eye view on Bing. People have told me that the new owner has made drastic changes to the property in the past seven years, and from the emotional safety of my laptop, I can see that’s so. The asphalt driveway, where my father parked his station wagon at the end of a long work day, is now occupied by a new building the size of a Cape Cod. The house itself has morphed into something Garlinghouse would never have imagined: a windowless third floor vaults out of the center of the second floor, willfully reaching higher, wanting to get more out of the house than even my mother might have wanted.

Before she died, and maybe for the first months after, I imagined how I might live in the house. I would change the window and floor coverings, remove all wallpaper and choose a new color palette. I would hang paintings by local artists in the living room and install glass doors in the fireplace so that I could entertain friends there on a winter evening. I’d plant deer-resistant species and welcome the sight of deer on the lawn from a bedroom window. I’d make no structural changes; the house would still feel like home, but redecorated and refurnished—a place my sister and daughter could still have access to. Yet every time I took my fantasy to the place where I begin to rip up the carpets or paint the walls, my imagination would freeze. That house had been her home. It had not been my father’s or sister’s or mine, although in various installments of time, we had occupied it with her. We’d made small claims on it, but in the end, we had lived in someone else’s home.

I held on to the furniture I’d bought from the estate, paid to store it for six years, then in December 2010, gave it away. The bedspread that draped the highboy in my storage locker still smelled like home.

Today, I still dream of the house as it was, even though I know that evidence of our family’s life there has been annihilated. But the majority of my dreams of home or longing for home are set elsewhere. I dream of going back to the Georgetown, a 1910 apartment building on Milwaukee’s East Side that went condo in the 1980s, and where I bought Unit 2, the first home I’d own as a single adult. It was charming, with high ceilings and a balcony, a departure from the suburbs and a bold new start for me and my daughter after a protracted divorce. And, having married at 21, without any single adult time, it was the first space where I could make authentic choices about how I wanted to live, without external direction.

Home is a chimera, a need-based image. It is a memory of the Mad Men era of prosperity and ambition, the expansive sense of possibility that building a house on three lots gave my parents. It is the place you try to get back to when you are 86 and broken. It’s the asset that gets leveraged when times are tough or the pile of sticks and drywall that the tornado leaves behind. It is as real as a For Sale sign and as phantasmagoric as the memory of a toddler’s birthday party. It’s what you make for a new family with loans and dishes and chairs, bowls of tulips and breakfast on the patio, without knowing how they will remember it. It’s a place that was never fun but you still love how it looked, how those white columns were lit with spotlights at Christmas, how for a moment, even 30 years after you’d left it, your heart would flutter as you made a turn into the driveway.


Deborah Fries works in multiple genres—including poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimmaron Review, Valparaiso Review, and Terrain.org, where she has been a contributor since 2000. Her first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published in 2004 by Kore Press, Tucson. Her second book, A Field Guide to Temporal Habitat, will also be published by Kore. She is the editor of the online publication, New Purlieu Review.
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