This Old House

2014-05-03-13

“It’s got good bones.” That’s what the inspector said when we visited the house we had decided we wanted to buy. I liked that phrase, liked the idea. The house as body. As a being. Maybe it was this metaphor that sold me on the place. Despite the inevitable decay of flesh, there remains the permanence of bone.

For a house, I am told, good bones are essential for an easy rebirth. Remove a wall, change out the windows, update light fixtures, switch out a pink toilet or sink, strip the ancient wallpaper, add a few coats of paint, and—voilà!—the dead can live again. It’s a humbling process, something worthy of reverence.

Opa—my grandfather on my mother’s side—had been a contractor. I wonder what he would have thought of our new place. The house he shared with my Oma in Thomaston, Texas, sprawled like a body at rest along the banks of the Guadalupe River.

Really, theirs was not so much one house as a series of interconnecting homes that lived and breathed as one. It had started as nothing more than a modest single-wide—two tiny bedrooms (one on each end), a kitchen/dining area, a bathroom. From that center, it grew to extend out into a palatial sitting room overlooking the river. Each summer, when my mother and I visited from Alaska, it seemed a new limb had grown: a wing or walkway or deck or room or carport. From my Opa’s wise and weathered hands, the house was constantly being reborn. Even now, I can’t begin to recall how many forms it inhabited over the years.

When my mother and I returned home to Alaska at the end of each summer, it stayed with me, that house. It lived on in my dreams as a living entity, so that I spent my days exploring the expansive reality of the north and my nights within my Opa’s southern subconscious. In this way I often lived between two worlds—a habit or predisposition for contextual schism that followed me into adult life.

When I was in high school, it became necessary for my grandparents to move to a small suburban home in Kerrville. I remember sipping sugar-sweet iced tea and watching my Opa—a builder of worlds—trying to repair an old, broken telephone. He sat at the kitchen table for an hour, plugging the phone into itself over and over, listening expectantly into the receiver after each try. His hands worn, but no longer wise.

“Strokes take things away,” explained my mother, later. My Opa, by then, was having several episodes a month, maybe more. I imagined his Guadalupe River house, his architectural masterpiece, but in the reverse—a room or a corridor collapsing again and again into absence, into nothing.

When Opa died and then Oma a few weeks later, I was in my mid-twenties and at the center of my own terrible collapse. A world falling in on itself. When I finally woke up, I lived in a new country, in a new context entirely. I felt that all my original houses were erased forever. It was then that I first began to feel free.

And that’s okay, I think. It’s okay to let go. To burn it all down and rebuild from the ground up. But lately, in this new old house, I am beginning to see my Opa in every square angle, in every raw beam. “Good bones,” they say. From loss, within impermanence—the persistence of memory.

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