Where I Write #23: The House My Mother Built

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The night I saw my house for the first time, I dreamed my mom had left me a note in its dated 80s kitchen. I read her familiar handwriting as I leaned against the pine cabinets, the white tile countertop dotted with brown flowers.

“That was not me,” she wrote. “The woman who killed herself—that was not the real me.”

It was the first time I had heard my mother’s voice, her true voice—calm, reassuring, not strained with paranoia—in a long, long while.

I woke knowing we had to buy the house.

 ***

Michael and I had been house hunting for the better part of a year. Every weekend, we visited a handful of properties in Redlands, California, where my daughter went to high school, twenty miles from our home in Riverside. We were hoping for one of the cute bungalows in town, a Craftsman, maybe, or a mini Victorian, but the pickings in our price range were dispiriting. Some places had potential, their character hidden beneath years of paint and questionable design decisions, but we didn’t have money for the serious renovations needed to restore the homes to their original glory. Over the course of our long search, our yellow Hummer-driving realtor got a boob job, met a man and got married. Over the course of the search, Michael and I got married, too, and moved to a small mid century rental house in Redlands so I wouldn’t have to spend two hours in the car each day taking my daughter to and from school, a task that had grown more cumbersome with my pregnant belly. Our son was born in that house a couple of months later, in a dark bedroom with a high narrow window the owner had shaded with cloth napkins clipped to a dowel. The house was the last place I saw my mom alive, the place where we learned she had hanged herself one week after Asher’s birth.

 ***

We toyed with the idea of trying to buy the house from the owner, who was in foreclosure, but decided against it. The bathroom had cool vintage blue tile and my office had French doors that looked out to a lovely, deep back yard, but the laundry room smelled like cat pee, even after we removed the linoleum and doused the floor boards with enzymes and vinegar, and the dishwasher made the whole house shake, and the sewer had a nasty habit of flooding the side yard, and sometimes bubbling up the shower drain. Plus, grief had become synonymous with the address, had seeped into the very walls of the place. Post-traumatic torpor led us to neglect the back yard, where the weeds grew taller than our heads. It was remarkable to watch nature take over, to see what human entropy wrought, life growing lush and unchecked around us as we sat on the couch, but we received a nasty letter from the “Buena Vista Beautification Committee”—likely a solitary neighbor hiding under the first person plural—threatening to report us to the city if we didn’t mow everything down.

When my daughter moved back with her dad and transferred to a high school in Riverside—a move that gutted me at first, but ultimately bettered our relationship as mother and daughter—we realized nothing was keeping us in Redlands. I started to scroll through Riverside listings and found one that began: “Are you sick and tired of the same old humm drum tract house? Bored with cookie cutter details and flat walls? Have you ever dreamed of being different than all of your neighbors? Then THIS is the home for YOU!” The ad went on to describe an open floor plan, a sunken living room, a vine-covered trellis, an abundance of fireplaces. The house was at the far reach of our budget, but we were intrigued. We made an appointment to check it out.

Michael and I found ourselves on a quiet, tree-lined street in a little neighborhood I hadn’t known existed; there was no mistaking the house when it came into view—it dwarfed all of the smaller ranch style homes and cottages on the block. A big boxy mountain lodge plunked in the middle of the city. We unhooked Asher from his carseat and walked beneath the wisteria vines that dripped from the arbor-framed driveway, amazed that such a place could be in our reach. The original 900 square foot Streamline Moderne house was built in 1939—the year my mom was born—but a local fireman had more than tripled it in size, turning it into the cabin of his dreams in the late 70s and early 80s. The whole house had a funky, homespun vibe, full of quirky touches—the lectern inexplicably built into a wall, the giant photo murals in the living room and bedrooms, the bathtubs up on platforms—that only added to its charm.

The seller had played up the mountain retreat feel of the house—a “Welcome to Camp Runamuck” sign was nailed by the doorbell, and she had peppered the wood and brick walls with fishing rods, canoe paddles and the like. A plaster bear swam at the bottom of the first floor bathtub; an animatronic deer head jutted out over the living room fireplace, ready to come to life at the touch of a button. The air was filled with cricket chirps and other outdoorsy sounds from a machine in the stairwell. Under all the kitsch and god-awful brass-and-glass fixtures, though, the bones of the house were grand, the beamed ceilings high, the use of space generous and modern.

Michael and I were stunned and giddy as we drove away, me next to Asher in the back seat.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“It’s pretty awesome,” he said, grinning.

“It’s pretty wacky,” I said. “It’s a pretty wacky house.”

“I kind of love it,” he said.

“I kind of love it, too.”

I watched Asher fall asleep with the movement of the car and imagined him learning to walk in the house, running around the balcony that ringed the second floor with friends, asking to live in the basement apartment as a teenager. It would be a fun place to grow up.

Michael and I told each other we should take some time to think about it, but the house had already lodged itself someplace deeper than our brains. When I dreamed about my mom’s letter, the deal was sealed. It was as if she had given us and this big crazy house her blessing.

 ***

“It’s a lot of space to fill, energetically,” our friend cautioned when we invited her to see the house after our offer was accepted, but that didn’t worry me, even though most of the other houses we had looked at could have fit within its main floor; one of them, which we had unsuccessfully bid for, could have fit in its living room. Inside this house, I knew I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic, trapped with my grief. Inside this house, I would have the room I needed to breathe—and, I hoped, the room I needed to write.

I had been wanting to write about my mom for years, but she had asked me to not write about her while she was still alive. I pretty much honored that; I didn’t think she’d mind when I wrote a mostly-celebratory essay for a mother-daughter anthology, but she honed in on the one negative sentence and threw the book away, refusing to speak about it again. That’s what we did in our family—hide away from anything that showed us in a less than flattering light. After she died, one of my first thoughts was “Now I can finally write about her.” I was able to cope with sorting through the chaos of her house by telling myself I was doing research for a book, putting on my detective hat, looking for clues and connections. I felt driven, on fire. I couldn’t wait to get to the page. Until I did, and then I froze.

Be gentle with yourself, my friends and family told me, don’t expect too much of yourself right now; maybe it’s too soon to write about her. I tried to heed this advice, but I wanted to capture the experience while it was still white-hot, and when I couldn’t, I felt like a failure. I blamed sleep deprivation. I blamed post-partum brain mush. I blamed myself for not being brave enough.

***

I threw most of my creative energy into the house. My mom had left me some money, so we were able to make some changes, make the place our own. We found reclaimed hardwood flooring on Craigslist and gleefully ripped out the hideous shag carpeting that blanketed the place, including the strange skinny master bathroom with the his and hers toilets. The owner of the wood estimated he had about 1700 square feet, so we figured we could take care of the downstairs, but the haul turned out to be enough to floor the entire 3,000 square foot house and then some. The guy had been storing it in his workshop for over 50 years; his father had salvaged it during a renovation of one of the oldest middle schools in town, and had floored his home with it, as well. Supposedly the wood came from the cafeteria. I told myself that if I ever wanted to write another middle school novel, all I had to do was lie down on the floor and soak in its memory of lunchroom angst.

Down came the pine cabinets and white tile in the kitchen, where my mother had spoken to me in my dream. I found locally made recycled glass countertops on Craigslist, which had become our main source for all things house, along with the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. The style we chose for our kitchen, speckled with watery shades of glass, turned out to be named Oceana, the same name as the community where my mom had lived in Oceanside. Our kitchen was clearly her new domain. Then Michael’s mom died unexpectedly a month before we moved in to the new place, four months after my mom’s death, and the kitchen became her domain, as well; we took the money from selling her modest furnishings and bought the light fixture that went over the kitchen island. It felt right to take the double suckerpunch of mother loss and use our moms’ legacies to build a place of nourishment.

 ***

I wasn’t writing much, but I told myself I was learning about revision through renovation. Tearing rooms down to their studs, moving walls around to make the space more usable, choosing sustainable materials, updating switch plates and doorknobs and pendant lights, bringing an ever-changing vision to life–all of these things felt applicable to writing, and offered their own creative gratification. Still, my lack of real writing had left me with a gnawing, growing sense of guilt and unease. When Asher was 17 months old, I hired a babysitter to come a few mornings a week so I could attempt to seriously dive back into the world of words.

My downstairs office has no door, just an archway, problematic with a mama-seeking toddler, so I would retreat to my daughter’s rarely used second floor bedroom and park myself at her Parsons desk on her fuchsia velveteen chair. I wrote little bits about my mom, although I could only approach her death in a sideways way. I wrote short fragments of a novel. Mostly, though, I responded to my students’ work and watched the blue jays dart in and out of the wisteria vines outside the window and futzed around Facebook, “liking” things, not having the energy to comment or post any updates of my own.

***

Then my 92-year-old dad broke his hip in March. This new family crisis forced me into some needed detachment from my mom’s death and I found myself able to write about her more freely. As I attended to my dad’s care, words about my mom bubbled to the surface, and I would scribble a few down in my little notebook when I took a break to use the bathroom or grab a bite to eat. Perhaps the path for this was cleared the day before his fall, when my dad gave me his blessing to publish work about my mom, something I had worried would hurt him. “Maybe it will help me understand why she had to leave us,” he told me. I hoped it would help me understand, too.
Things are more stable now—my dad has made great strides with his physical therapy and is adjusting to an assisted living place ten minutes from our house, and Asher recently started preschool—so I’ve reclaimed my metal tanker desk in my office downstairs as a place to work, not just pile mail. A large French educational poster leans against the wall at the back of the desk—“La Multiplication Vegetative,” with drawings that detail several growing processes—”Les Metamorphoses Florales,” featuring the growth cycle of a rose, “La Greffe,” showing how to graph one tree to another, and “La Taille des Arbres Fruitiers,” illustrating how a pear tree bears fruit. I bought it the day before my novel Delta Girls came out in 2010; the book is set on a pear farm, and I thought the pears were a good omen, plus I knew it would be nice to have a reminder of organic process in my writing space.

When my sister saw the poster the first time, she pointed to the word “ligature,” where a cord binds a graft to a branch.

“That’s the technical term used in a hanging,” she told me, and I couldn’t help but flash on the electrical cord listed on our mom’s death certificate. My sister has happened upon some obscure hanging trivia since our mom’s suicide—because of her, I know that asparagus grows well beneath gallows, fed by the urine and semen let loose by the hanged, and that weeping willows, our mom’s favorite tree, are associated with that kind of death. She flinched, her face full of apology. “I hope I haven’t ruined the picture for you.”

She didn’t ruin it, but she definitely changed my relationship with the poster. Now when I look up from my work, I am reminded by that word, that image, to look my mom’s story straight in the face. The reality is always there; I don’t want to shy away from it.

I write in the house my mother built, the renovations all around us made possible by her generosity, but also the house within the house—the house of my body; my body that formed within hers, that learned equivocation from hers. I think of the reclaimed flooring we bought for the new house, covered with years of different shades of varnish and stain, and how our floor guy was able to sand it down so we could see its original color, its true grain. That’s what I want to do as I write: break through the varnish my mom helped me shellack over my truth, the stains we both used to deny our imperfections, hide our dark places. I want to lie down on the stripped naked floor of myself and listen for the stories beneath the habitual stories, the stories that remain.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her essays, poems and short fiction have appeared in such places as The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Salon and The Nation. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She teaches for Sierra Nevada College, the Incarcerated Student Program through Lake Tahoe Community College, and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. More from this author →