On Buildings

The house next door to ours is empty. It sits in a great location overlooking the lake and the mountain behind it. It’s a small house with a fireplace, hardwood floors and big windows that let in lots of light. There’s about an acre of land around it with great trees and a lot of flower beds. Here, in this quiet community, it’s a peaceful looking home.  But it’s been empty for just over a year and a half now.

            The lady who used to live there is in a care home now. She’s in her mid seventies and unable to really take care of herself or maintain a rural residence anymore. She lived there a long time. She buried a husband while she was there and the house mattered to her. She loved her flower beds and she always made sure that her lawn was mowed and that the bird feeder was filled all winter long.

            Now it’s in the hands of her children and all they can do is squabble over who gets what. It’s actually up for sale and I’ve seen a few carloads of potential buyers come out to see it. It’s fallen into some disrepair. The shed roof collapsed and it needs to be rebuilt or replaced. Her car is rusting out in the breezeway and the once adored flower beds are weedy and thick with dead or dying bushes. Even the lilac bushes seem sad somehow.

            I cut the grass when it got really long this past summer. Moving across that yard felt odd knowing that the windows were empty and there was no one around to appreciate the smell of fresh cut grass and the simple joy of a well tended yard. There wasn’t going to be a long evening spent on the patio taking it all in. There wasn’t going to be a late night walk along its borders looking at the lights in the windows and that special feeling of knowing a place intimately.

            It’s funny how when you take the person out of the building that it quickly becomes just a building again. It sits in the darkness or in the early morning light like a cold and an abandoned thing and it seems to me that’s what missing is spirit. Bodies take up space and create clutter and the look of busyness about a place but the spirit of the people who live there is what gives a home life. When they’re gone and all there are is walls, a house is just a house again.

            The old lady had gumption. She was a tough old bird. She battled great loneliness and bouts of heavy drinking but she always seemed to fight back. When she was right she was spry and lively and she really liked to laugh. She had a girlish streak to her and enjoyed teasing and playing games. I remember that her eyes always seemed to have a hint of mischief in them. That’s what I see missing in the house she once lived in.

              She came to our wedding when we got married in our yard. I remember the wistful look she had that day as though she was remembering her own wedding day and the husband who was gone long before we ever met her. That story is in that house too. So is the story of the children who wrangle over it now. So are the stories of the dogs and the cats and the friends who once filled it.

            I think that what makes a house a home. What takes it beyond being just a building, is the spirit and the energy we bring to it. The lives lived there grace it with the power of change, growth, evolution and the walls contain all of that. We build it. We construct it with our dreams, hopes, triumphs, small joys and losses. We fill it with stories and the power within them imbues a house with magic. That’s what’s sad about the house next door. The magic is gone.

              It sits now, old and alone. It’s just a thing to her children. It just represents money. What they can get from it. There’s no reverence for the touchstone to their own history that it is. There’s no recognition of the fact that it contains their mother’s energy, her verve, her swagger, her joys, her peace and eventually her loneliness. It contains the truth of her. Even I, standing in the yard looking at it as the sung goes down, can feel that.

When the old lady left, she left a huge part of her story behind here. It’s in the walls and always will be. There’s not enough money in the world to replace that. I know that. I just kind of wish her children did.

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About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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