Wednesday, August 25, 2010

If These Walls Could Talk

"If these walls could talk." You won't be hearing that phrase very much anymore.

When I was a little girl my father held up a coffee mug and announced that, in fact, the very mug in his hand was made up of the same molecules that made up me. It was a profound thought for my petite brain to comprehend, but the memory stays with me.

My father is a master of these odd and often whimsical pronouncements (though some would call them meanderings because he does tend towards rambling.) We spoke yesterday about houses and he delivered to me another observation, though this time hundreds of miles of away, that my fully matured brain - according to a story I heard on NPR our brains peak at 25 - understood.

"The problem with the housing market is that people started thinking about homes as a financial investment," he said, "rather than a place to raise a family." He reminded me that aside from Mary St. where I was conceived (I can't make this stuff up!), every one of the Warner brood grew up in the same tiny cinder block home. And now, my father pointed out, his granddaughter crawls along the same terrazzo floor we used to eat Cheerios.

My parent's house is nicer than it was when we grew up in it, mainly, my mom claims, because she "couldn't have anything nice because we were always breaking stuff." There are plantation shutters where we had vinyl blinds; a sparkly oven in place of the hot box that was better at heating the kitchen than baking a cake; and I heard they recently finished a bathroom renovation that's replete with natural stone glass full doors. And now the floor, my dad says, you can see your reflection in it.

I point out all these changes not to belabor the conditions in which I grew up - honestly, one bathroom was all I knew so I didn't care about it unless I was standing in line doing "the dance" behind two more of my siblings. Rather, I'm suggesting that our houses reflect a society that demands instant gratification, not works in progress whether they be websites, art, people, or the very fabric of society - relationships.

I'd almost say that my parents' house is a compelling mirror of their union. There were those years when my mom encouraged my dad not to spend so much time in the back yard, that instead he should spruce up the front yard, put in grass, hedges, flowers even, but often despite his best intentions, the grass would eventually die, the shrubs would get, well, shrubby, and my father would return to the backyard to tend the rambling garden he hid behind our home. My dad, you could say, is private and I now see how he treated marriage: it was an oasis, hidden from the prying world.

I finished Elizabeth Gilbert's book Committed, and while I know some readers are perplexed by her writing, I took away from it a better understanding of the rules of engagement, namely, there aren't any. It is, rather, this prying world or the one we are trying to impress that labels "works in progress" as somehow unworthy. If this is true, then we are all unworthy because not a one of us is perfect.

Neither are our homes. Twenty-eight years later, the lawn remains mostly brown but my dad has these rich memories of all six of his kids making an effort to help him pull weeds, scatter seeds, or rake the autumn leaves. There was a triple homicide just up the block from my parents' house a few weeks ago, a testament to the despair the neighborhood (but not my parent's freshly painted house) has fallen into over the years. A wave of homeowners left and rented to people whose respect for the idea of a home is dwarfed by the chromed out idols (read cars) they park on their over grown lawns. But my parents won't leave their "investment" because to them a price could never be put on the memories they have from creating a life together within those humble walls.

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