“Nothing in your house is new.
It is a museum
of other people’s pasts”
–Tom Atkins, “Not a Museum”, in full here.
The big aluminum saucer waited for me at the top of the hill, shimmering in the cold. I had placed it carefully on the most compacted patch of snow on my hill, to ensure the fastest ride down. These days, the saucers are usually plastic and come in an array of colors, but in 1978 my saucer was a utilitarian silver, and the metal made your butt cold.
I stepped carefully in front of it, preparing to lower myself into it. This was a delicate operation; if you weren’t careful, the saucer would begin to slide before you were completely in, and you might fall out sideways, allowing the saucer to escape and go on its way without you. It was, therefore, critical to place yourself firmly in the saucer at the outset. The key was to keep both feet anchored firmly on either side of the saucer, and at the last minute, pull them on board. Then you could shove off with your hands if needed. Technique was important.
I squatted down clumsily and planted myself into the cold metal, heels dug hard into the snow to prevent my ejection. Before tucking in my feet, I pulled my blue knit cap down over my ears. When everything was in order, I thrust a snow-caked mitten into the side of the hill and pushed. The saucer began to spin immediately, sending frigid air screaming through my nostrils. The saucer rode the bumps of the hill like a speedboat on a wake. I clutched the rope handles with glee as my spine bounced on each impact.
At last, the saucer came to rest at the bottom of the hill. I turned around and saw that it had left a satisfying indentation in the already packed snow. I stopped for a second to catch my breath, and I heard my father’s voice from the top of the hill where I’d begun my adventure ten seconds before. The sound was slightly muffled through my blue knit hat, but he was calling me inside. I was annoyed, and I briefly considered pretending that I hadn’t heard. If the voice had been my mother’s, as it usually was, I might have been able to squeeze in another ten minutes of sledding before being wrangled into the house. But it was my father, and that was unusual. So I grasped the rope handle and began to trudge uphill, dragging my saucer along, muttering to myself. This better be good, I thought. What did they want badly enough to call me in after telling me to go play half an hour ago? Probably something big, I figured. They’re probably getting a divorce, I joked to myself.
I didn’t know it then, but the reason my father was the one who called me inside was that my mother had refused to. For her, this would be an involuntary conversation, a kind of forced march. When I pulled the sliding glass door open, she was sitting at the kitchen table, her back to the wall she’d covered with cork board, and on which she pinned everything that mattered – all of our schoolwork, notes to herself, recipes, magazine clippings, good report cards, drawings. She was sitting in front of the sea of tacked-up papers, holding a newspaper conspicuously in front of her, as if to hide her face. I peeled my coat off warily. My father had that look he’d get when there was a monumental task at hand and he was struggling to keep things under his control. I slid quietly into the chair opposite my mother.
Amazingly, I was right. My dramatic speculation while climbing the hill had been right; it was big, and they were getting a divorce. Did I know beforehand somehow, or was it just a coincidence? Dad would be moving to an apartment immediately. I would finish the school year, and then the rest of us would leave this house too, the only place I could remember living.
This was a Sunday afternoon. I had just been sledding, and I didn’t understand this at all.
Before I knew it, I was sitting in the front seat of our van looking out at my abandoned metal saucer, still waiting at the top of the hill where I had dropped it on my way to answer my father’s call. In an instant we were driving toward the new apartment where he would be living, because he wanted me to see it. I wanted something entirely different; I wanted him to peel away the events of the last half hour and return me to my saucer, as innocent as I was before he had called me inside. Halfway there, still wearing my blue knit hat, the mask of shock slid off and I began to cry. I pulled the fold of my hat down over my eyes, either to protect my hurt from being seen, or to protect him from seeing my hurt. Perhaps both.
I’d just had my first experience with one of life’s seismic changes, when the space of a single second changes everything down to the tiniest level, and the world is utterly re-ordered. I was eight years old at the time, and entirely unaware of the fact that “nothing in your house is new”, unburdened by the knowledge of how my parents’ own past – and their parents’ before them — would shape my life, and even the life of my future child.
The world went gray for awhile after that Sunday, but I was never again unaware of the role of the past in shaping the future. For many years after that I became fixated on history, as if trying to remove myself from the present and ensconce myself elsewhere, perhaps back before all these troubles had started. I sensed something radically messy about my fragmented family, and I buried myself in novels about girls and women who lived a hundred years ago, when roads were not paved and dinner was not microwaved, and fathers did not leave families and mothers did not have to go to work downtown – or so I thought, with a child’s sense of simplicity.
When I was twelve years old I acquired The Little House Cookbook, and I became the only preteen on the block who knew how to make butter. I was the only kid my age walking down the country road on a summer morning to the farm stand to buy fruit to make my own jam. The fruit complemented the dill, cucumbers and tomatoes I coaxed from the tiny patch of ground in front of my mother’s condominium. There was something deeply stable about these activities that provided a counterweight to the schism that had opened up in my family. These timeless pursuits were the roots of what would later become my connection to the natural world. Today, I wonder whether my interest in wilderness has something to do with reaching back to the time when my family — and myself — were still whole, and my own life was as innocent and pure as an old growth forest.
My jam-making and butter churning were more than precursors, though; they were my first attempts at coping with the wildly ungovernable nature of life, my way of planting a flag in a world run by others.
I’ve called on this skill many times in my life, even when I didn’t know I had it. The time would come when I would be sitting in my mother’s seat – and this being the digital age, there would be no newspaper to shield my child from my expressions. Some wounds are different — they’re an assault on your house, on your very self. If there is, as poet Tom Atkins says, nothing new in our houses, then we must at least choose how we will arrange things.
(This post also appeared on a public Facebook group I manage called The Watershed. The idea of The Watershed is to showcase writing and photography about potent and impactful moments. Feel free to join us and share yours.)