home is where the ladder is

Nearly two weeks away, mostly in Ottawa visiting my son Forrest and his wife Manon, with sidetrips to Montreal and Quebec City. There was the added pleasure of the arrival of my son Brendan, his wife Cristen, and their baby Kelly for two nights towards the end of our visit. So time under another roof, though a familiar one, with family new and old. Not that Forrest and Brendan are old, exactly, but they were once my babies. And the women they’ve brought into our family are very dear to me. As for Kelly, well, it’s extraordinary how a grandchild takes you back into the rich history of your own young motherhood.

In Ottawa I bought David Malouf’s memoir, 12 Edmondstone Street. It’s about houses and how they shaped him — as a child, a man, a writer. And it’s so beautifully written — I confess he has long been a favourite of mine and I wonder why it’s taken me so long to find his memoir, published in 1985? His obsessions have led me in similar directions — the notions of memory and houses and war and our pursuit (as in the exquisite novella, An Imaginary Life) of alliances with the natural world and those who might be able to teach us what it means to be other.

A limit. A wall we cannot go through. Which is in some ways where we began. Except that memory, in leading us back, has turned us about. It has drawn us through room after room towards a past body, an experience of the world that cannot be entered, only to confront us with a future body that can. Memory is deeper than we are and has longer views. When it pricked and set us on, it was the future it had in mind, and the door our fingertips were seeking was not there because we were looking in the wrong place; it was not that door we were meant to go through.

In Ottawa, in the company of baby Kelly, I kept remembering the infancy of my sons. They were born before and during the building of the house I live in now. Their childhoods took place here. Every wall has a faded handprint, every window holds the image of a child looking out in morning and in darkness. Our house was made to contain our family and even now I balk at any kind of renovation. John asked recently if I thought it was time for a new kitchen. The cupboards, built of yellow cedar, are a little battered. We don’t have a dishwasher. The dining area is narrow, because of the necessity of a bearing wall to take the weight of a changing roofline. Yet the long pine table has held every kind of meal, from first birthdays to Christmas dinners to food in celebration of graduations, engagements, and weddings. And that interior bearing wall is punctuated by three leaded windows, given us by someone undergoing a renovation in their own home. When I wake in other houses, I always have to reorient myself — where is the south-facing window where the treefrogs peek in? The west ones which receive the brunt of winter winds? And when I set a table in another dining area, I find myself looking for the window by our own, the one we sit by in February and watch the silver moon in the firs.

ladder in the dining areaIt’s good to be home now. I was able to put the vegetable garden to bed before we left but there’s still a lot to do outside. And inside, of course.

David Malouf observes, “At a certain point, you begin to see what the connections are between things, and you begin to know what space it is you are exploring.” You do, yes, and you begin to anticipate the arrival of its ghosts.

my boys


4 thoughts on “home is where the ladder is”

    1. Beth, I think you will enjoy the Malouf. It’s a memoir unlike any other I’ve read — four “chapters” which nudge at one another but are not sequential exactly. Yet there is a spatial consistency, I think. And he is such a beautiful stylist. During all the Remembrance Day coverage, I kept thinking of his novella, Fly Away Peter, and how it takes the reader so deeply inside the experience of a First World War soldier (Australian like Malouf) that you come out of it shaking.

  1. Ah, I am now adding Malouf to the list (for obvious reasons). Had two books arrive in the mail yesterday, old library copies of “Remembering the Bone House” by Nancy Mairs and “Living in the Maniototo” by Janet Frame which both deal with living spaces. Glad you had a sweet trip to see all your babies. My mom opted to not come out for Christmas, in fact I’m not sure she’ll ever come out again. Can’t seem to bear being away from home for more than a couple of days. Control? Fear? Comfort? Shrinking universe? Too bad, really, because she would have had the full scope of Christmas activities in which to partake: baking, making decorations, cutting down the tree, going to parties, not to mention hanging with the grandkids. I think she likes the idea of these things more than the ‘hassle’ of actually taking part in them. Or maybe she doesn’t like the compromise necessary when you’re with other people. Thoughts? xo

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