Dispatches

Signs of Life

CONNIE KUHNS

Does a house that has been home to four generations of one family still hold their electricity?

My house came down the other day. A neighbour emailed me about the great big jaws that bit into my roof. But I already knew—my friend Susan had sent me a text, and my son had called me in a panic, Mom our house is gone.

One afternoon a few days earlier, when I was back in town, I had looked down the street toward the house and glimpsed the orange fences they use to protect city trees. I knew its time was short. I wanted to go back and dig up the rose bushes I had left behind, cut down some lavender, uproot the rosemary I had planted outside the basement window to make my son’s bedroom smell nice.

There were bodies in that garden, too: our cats Panna and Vienna and Coco and Rosie, and four gerbils, and my daughter’s first goldfish, Bert and Ernie. My mother-in-law had dusted the ground around the plum tree with her husband’s ashes (all of them) when she returned from England as a widow with a very young son. A bit of her was out there, too, somewhere—I think near the holly bush, now completely plowed under without a prayer.

I have stood close by as people died and felt their energy, their essence floating in the room, hovering, until the charge that was once their soul evaporated into space. Does a house that has been home to four generations of one family still hold their electricity, even when all that is left is dusty marks on old carpet and dirty shadows where the pictures once hung? Is their DNA in the smudges left by their hands on the pink wallpaper when they tore down the staircase late for school or work, or toddled down for breakfast?

Our daughter was conceived on the floor of the living room under the Christmas tree, Harlequin romance-style. I know. But it happened. Perhaps that kind of love erases the other sounds, of parents yelling or the cries and screams of angry teenaged hearts. Families are so many things. Do years of little-kid birthday parties around the same dining room table cushion the sound of a grown-up child, crouched on the front steps late at night in the snow, crying too hard to come inside, abandoned by love? I hope so.

A hundred years ago, a boy was abandoned by his mother to an orphanage. When he became a man he brought his wife and four children into this home. He painted landscapes in the basement and planted roses in the garden. He brought ghosts. Some family members think he had affairs on the road. The truth will never be known. He ruled his family with the confidence and force of those times.

His oldest daughter, one day to become my mother-in-law, ran away to be an actress. She returned as that widow who had no choice but to move home and care for her father. At his insistence, she sent her young son away. When he was a teenager, my husband tried to come home, but his hair was too long and his music too loud. Is there a place in the crawl space just for hurt? I suspect that as an adult my husband continued to hear his grandfather’s voice late at night, when the TV was turned off, coming from inside the walls.

In time, my husband’s mother carried out the bodies of her mother and her father and her sister and her great friend Sam. I was with her the day the paramedics tried to get her up the front stairs into the house on a stretcher, to be cared for at home in her last days. We joked about how unusual it was for a body to be carried into the house instead of out. Up these same stairs had come babies and boyfriends and girlfriends and trick-or-treaters and dinner guests and kids selling cookies and chocolate bars. And many Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was the only address Santa knew. When it was her turn to leave, I walked around the block while her body was taken away.

It was dark and cold the night I decided to climb behind the blue construction fence and stand on the empty ground. I couldn’t find where the front stairs had been or the back door or even the plum tree. I sobbed loudly and tried to take pictures. I found a broken tree stump, not even sawed off properly. What tree was this that I had come across? I didn’t know.

The ground was uneven and full of flecks that looked like bits of cloth. Had I left behind a tea towel? And where was the basement, the rooms that kept evolving as children grew and furniture was moved around? One day just a few years ago, I came home to find all of the doors and windows open and the place smelling of paint, as my son had invited a graffiti artist to come over and create a major mural on a basement wall. Where was it? Broken and shredded under the frozen earth? This was dirt not worthy of resting on a grave. I was married back here, in some shadowy space that I could not recognize.

As I stumbled around that night I thought of the mantelpieces that framed the stone fireplaces and the rounded corners of the ceilings, the built-in bookcases and small closets decorated with Thomas the Tank Engine. Suddenly they took on human characteristics. Did the wood and plaster and lath call out for me? Good god. Sadness can take you places.

On our last day in the house we walked around together as a family. I photographed the kitchen wall covered with lines and dates that proved my children had grown up there. It was just so empty. We thought of Grandma. On the basement floor I found a few pieces of Lego that had been under a shelf, and a tiny old plastic cowboy horse. I put them in my pocket. These were the last things to leave before everything was smashed to smithereens.

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CONNIE KUHNS

Connie Kuhns has a forty-year history as an essayist, journalist, photographer and broadcaster. Her essay “Strange Women,” (Geist 95), about women in Vancouver’s early punk scene, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award;  “Last Day in Cheyenne” (Geist 84) was named a “Notable Essay of 2012” in The Best American Essay series and a finalist for a Western Magazine Award;  and other essays have been finalists in publications ranging from the LA Review to Prism International to the New York Times Modern Love column, and the Southampton Review Frank McCourt Memoir Prize.  

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