St. Francis Leaves the Bluff

When we moved to Bainbridge two years ago, we wanted to make sure the move was right, so we didn’t sell our house, but leased it. Planning to visit often, we kept access to the guesthouse, the Buffalo. But the universe conspired to prevent visits, and time has come to put the property on the market. (I recognize this as a tale of privilege. Several times that’s stopped me from writing, but the blog began on the bluff, and now that part of the story ends.)

Only 900 square feet, the Buffalo is still a complete house with the utensils, bedding, linens, art, photos, books, and furniture of a house. And, because of a big closet, extraneous things got stored over the years – all our photo negatives packaged in labelled shoeboxes, beloved aged backpacking tent, sleeping bags, extra kid equipment. An empty file cabinet became the repository of my mother’s things when she died, her purse, her files and photos, and little stacks of expired passports and driver’s licenses.

In her book of essays, titled “Everywhere I Look,” Helen Garner quotes a clergyman’s wife on changing houses, “Every time you move you have to work through your whole life.”

Because we never really lived there, the Buffalo’s emotional weight blindsided me. In the first few of many trips to clear out, I thought it would be just sort, give away or toss, pack. But things speak of their provenance to a person packing up, voicing memories and original hopes.

A lot of the things I hoped for came to be. We built the bigger house and a garden and moved there, our sons came willingly to visit, and one married there in a beautiful ceremony. Eventually the Buffalo sheltered their growing families, and always it made it a pleasure to have guests.

In the drawing below, done early in the garden’s life, it’s orderly. But this spring, nature occupied every available space. Thuggish plants crowd and engulf plants once cosseted. Buttercups invade the beds, water suckers ruin the shape of the enormous Sambucus, the paths are clotted and choked by grass. I used to fantasize it was “contained abundance” – no longer.

My friend the wordsmith (who has been the most amazing help and support, making a sometimes hard thing cheerful) says it looks like the garden of an abandoned English estate. Kinda. The realtor will have it cleaned up for listing, and I’m hoping for a new gardener to love it.

The wordsmith’s husband muscled our statue of St. Francis (it stood for years in the center of the foursquare garden) into my car. I remember the first time Lady Baby spotted him and stood nearby, seemingly shocked he was taller than she. He looks contented now, in his tiny pretend Tuscan courtyard, surrounded by rosemary and welcoming hummingbirds who visit a nearby fountain.

 

The Naming of Things

These days I move furniture around rooms in the new house using a marginally accurate graph paper drawing or a map in my head. The rooms have pragmatic by-purpose names.

By labeling book boxes to indicate destination, I hope to direct the movers to the bookcases on the landing, in the living room, or my workroom (more a space than a room). The upstairs bedroom will be my husband’s study, a guest room, and the television space (known in some circles as an adult lounge). For now I write “upstairs bedroom” on the boxes.

And there are so many boxes of books – my new neighbor came one afternoon, and we filled 19 boxes, a number since doubled. Piled up in stacks, they surround little islands of ever-shrinking comfortable regular life.

In a recent adjustment to my mental map, Granny Trudy’s desk will go on the landing. My father-in-law shipped it to us in Alaska, and it became the place for family business. The slanted, drop down desktop made a good place to write checks, back when we paid bills with paper.

Thinking about that desk being forever Granny Trudy’s desk made me consider how families identify things. We had “Jake’s cabinet” in the house in Anchorage, glass-fronted shelves with drawers below, built long ago by Jake the carpenter. In that house, ownership of bedrooms shifted around so many times that names changed frequently (sometimes rooms are identified by cardinal direction no matter who occupies the south bedroom).

A wicker chair, always Frances’s chair, is now downstairs, substituting for an armchair gone to a clever seamstress to be slipcovered. Inspired by Mrs. Hughes’ advice and the designer Anna Spiro, the newly covered-in-ticking chair might be called after Spiro or maybe Simone for the seamstress!

Traces of the past will remain in the garden nomenclature here – the Buffalito bed, the bride’s garden, the quad garden. Front and back of this house has always been difficult to label – is the front toward the drive or toward the bluff? There is a clear front to the new house, car parked right near the front door.

Some impulse to fill the new house in comforting familiarity operates on me, but it is countered by reminders to enjoy the chance to rearrange – and rename!

Deconstructing My Workroom

In my small workroom two mismatched and battered metal file cabinets form the base to a desk. They want painting because in the new house, my even smaller work space will be right off the kitchen and much more in view.

So for several days (encouraged by the inviting blue plastic banker’s boxes provided by my new neighbor), I emptied the file cabinets. Paper, each piece once deemed important enough to archive, seems manageable and orderly when contained, but multiplies into a mess when liberated.

Some disposal decisions are clear. I don’t need years of sales reports from the gallery on Bainbridge (but they are nice to encounter), don’t need every greeting card ever received (but keep anyway). It’s hard not to keep a handful of airletters from my landlady in England with stories of my time there, or copies of emails from our sons, written from Antarctica or South America, or a marketplace in Nepal. Rereading slows things down. But the recycle pile grows.

So much paper, torn out magazine articles about houses or writing or artists, a file of little notebooks, worn and bent, once carried in a purse – it’s tempting to dip in to see what times they record – small originals of paintings, old show invites, newspaper tear sheets of garden articles, rejection letters dashing hopes, and happy words of acceptances.

A stamped envelope, addressed to my painter friend, makes me think I should stop and send her something. I discover an idea for a Christmas present, and walk in a little circle in my room, wondering where to safely put it.

One drawer contains the files from when we built this house, they should remain, but I debate the fate of the wrinkled-with-raindrops original drawings of the garden layout. Then I wander to a window to see hellebore, snowdrops, daffodils, and a ribes pink with blossom – that garden drawing come to life.

Approaching the rest of the room I realize that, over the years, things belonging together (office, framing, and sewing supplies, paintbrushes, tape, scissors, ink, rulers, colored pencils) have dispersed and migrated around this small space. Gathering them together with their kin is my goal as I assign these tools of the trade to their transport boxes. I put off tackling framed things squirreled away here and there.

And I’m derailed from this task in the same way I get distracted from real work – phone calls, appointments, things needing immediate (or so it seems) attention. I’m happiest the days I make a list full of small requests that, with focus, become accomplishments by the end of the day.

Isn’t that always the way, moving or not!