House Thoughts

New age loonies say well water and septic tanks equal bad mojo. The house in Noyac where I used to live had both, and while I never saw a proper spook, I would sometimes feel the pressure of unnatural shadows gathering at the foot of my bed. On paper, the house really has little to complain about. It was built in 1947, and some newlyweds bought it. At the time it was painted pink with white trim. They must have been scared off by the commitment to happiness a pink house demands, because they sold it to my great grandmother in 1949. She painted it olive green. The great grandmother I knew subsisted comfortably on martinis and Kit-Kat bars for ten years and ruled the Arizona desert in a golden 1963 Cadillac before the desert took its vengeance. The great grandmother I never knew was the prettier of two sisters and married a coarsely handsome man 20 years her senior when she was 19. She had a daughter one year later, lived in Jackson Heights, worked at Otis Elevators in Yonkers, and eventually bought the beach house on the East End to stash her aging husband in. About the thirty-something who fell restlessly in love with my great grandmother I know very little. He was purportedly the bastard son of a burlesque roller skater and never wholly invested in any one line of work. I guess he probably had secrets because my grandmother remembers that midday trips with her father to the movies often included a female third party, and on his deathbed he asked for someone named Lester, a secret son as it turns out. As my mother’s grandfather, I know he painted by number, kept a pet parakeet, drank beers and chewed cud in front of what was once McErleans and is now Noyac Liquors, and fashioned acorns into dolls. He died in his 70s from liver failure. When my great grandmother moved out to Arizona to retire, she gave my mother the house in Noyac. She might have lived to 100 if it hadn’t been for the desert. Living in the desert is like living on the back of a sleeping dragon. In the height of summer my great grandmother accidentally received a neighbor’s letter. When she went to deliver it, she suffered a heat stroke and sizzled on the sidewalk. Then the fire ants came. For over four decades, between my great grandfather’s death and the two years I lived there after graduating from college, the Noyac house didn’t have any fulltime residents. During that quiet time it was filled with chairs by my great grandmother, divested of those chairs by my mother, and then filled back up again. The house had little to chew on aside from transitory furniture. A house that is truly abandoned goes crazy, but a house that is looked after and empty becomes nostalgic and melancholy. Where an abandoned house can only rage over nature’s inroads and prattle over past injustices, an empty house has the luxury of stewing on its memories, good and bad. Aside from creaks and groans, a house is largely silent. The lives it surveyed and shepherded are mostly lost to me and absolutely lost to my future children. The snippets of family stories I am privy to represent a small fraction of the whole, and that fraction writhes and shifts as it moves from mouth to mouth. After we die the strings that bind us to this earth weaken and snap with each passing year. In the house at Noyac all that remains of my great grandmother are some bowling trophies she won for her performances on the Otis Elevators Women’s League and a sink-side frog that holds a sponge in his mouth. My great grandfather’s relics are a paint-by-number of the seaside and two acorns painted blue I found in an ashtray. It is a comfort to know that a house tucks away memories for itself, inscrutable as its language may be to us. I welcome the ersatz shadows.