Life is a river, everything changes
An old lady knocked on my door.
I said “Hello”
She said, “I hope you don’t mind, my husband built this house.”
I was confused and left space for the explanation.
“It was the first house on this section” she continued, looking back to the road. “We bought it from the farmer.”
I wondered whether she was still talking to me.
“I hope you don’t mind but I see that you have been doing a lot of work on the place.”
We had totally renovated, an 8 month project, I was still titivating.
I remembered my manners. “Would you like to come in?” I put the roller in a plastic bag and tapped the lid back on the pot of paint.
“My daughter is waiting in the car so it wouldn’t be for long, would you mind?” she looked a little nervous.
“Not at all,” I assured, shifting my body to the side and opening the door further. I felt the house soften, and release memories.
She drew in her breath. “My husband made that handrail.” The wood kissed her hand as she put her foot on the first stair.
“Yes. I love it and wanted it to be part of our new home. My husband has spent hours sanding it, and the builders put new brackets on and…….” she was already moving forwards.
“Oh, my goodness the stairs, the stairs are the same!”
I followed “.. yes we have had them all stripped back and………. ” She had reached the main space. My explanations were not needed.
“Welcome, welcome we remember” the rooms whispered as she passed, trailing memories, “we had paper” the walls cried.
“It was an ivy print. It was so expensive,“ she answered them.
My husband and I had laughed at the ivy and birdcage design and wondered how anyone could have eaten their dinner in such a space. We had torn it down.
“And you have kept the fireplace, it was built with tiles made to look like brick” I nodded silently. I had insisted that we keep the fireplace, despite a rework of the plans and expensive repairs. I had replaced the tiles with black granite.
“I was sitting there once with a cup of tea and a possum came down the chimney and gave me the fright of my life.”
“Wow,” I said. I wanted to be part of the conversation, I wanted to ask her if it climbed back up, or ran out down the stairs but remembered she wasn’t talking to me.
She moved to the spot with her younger self and gazed out of the window. “Oh, you used to be able to see the sea from here. It was right here, where I am standing, the chair where I had been sitting when the possum came down. You could see the horizon from this chair, a 360° view.” She ran her hands down the front of her navy linen trousers, an attempt to iron away the creases.
I stood and looked behind her, I could see a peek of the sea, many rooftops, many trees, and the primary school my children had attended.
“And look at my garden!” She moved to the new bi-fold doors. “We had a little sunroom here.”
My husband and I had removed large pieces of slate from a disembodied rectangle in the room, originally covered with red brick tiles. We had wondered why it was lower than the rest of the floor. We had also found a door in the wall, which had been covered by plasterboard and scratched our heads for its meaning. I now realised it must have led to the sunroom.
“May I?” she gestured.
“Oh yes, sure,” I said and unlocked the doors and folded them back. The garden was even more excited to see her and the old liquid amber, which does not belong on this side of the world, showed her how well she had done.
I watched the private conversation between the old lady and the trees she had planted as a young bride. I lent on the new weatherboards, closed my eyes and let the sun soak into my T-shirt.
“It was always a suntrap,” her words dragged me back into the strange encounter.
“We were so very happy here,” she told me back at the door. “I am so glad you have kept this house, I was worried you would pull her down when I saw the builders.”
“No, we love this house. Are you sure you do not want a cup of tea? You could invite your daughter in.” I looked to the car, the engine was idling, the window rolled down.
“Oh no, we were just passing I wasn’t expecting to come inside. It was just a fancy.” The old lady put her hand to her chest, I traced the blue lines with my eyes.
“Well it was nice to meet you and if you are ever in the neighbourhood again just knock.” I smiled, it was a genuine invitation.
She looked past me, “I am glad you are still using the rail. No. I will not be coming back.” A car horn beeped. She turned to leave.
“I loved that wallpaper.” she bent down to stroke my skinny little black cat.
“I…we….I saw it, the paper, when we, I had to take it down.” I stumbled over my guilt.
“Everything changes, it would be terribly old fashioned now I expect,” she laughed.
The car door opened and a young woman lent across from the driver’s seat smiled slightly at me and beckoned to the old lady, who started up the path towards her. I heard her say to her daughter as she passed the old oak tree ” It’s so funny how big the trees are , they were just saplings.” I did not catch the rest of her words.
As the car drew away I wondered about my future, would I come back, and tell the owner that the walls had been painted white, that there were downlights and wood. Would I tell her that my husband had sanded that rail and I had spent weeks cutting up the old framing that burnt in the fireplace that I had saved and rebuilt in granite. That the landscaping to the front had taken months of digging and years of composting. Would I explain that I had filled the nail holes, sanded painted and repainted the entire house to save money and that the process had left me with no fingerprints for two months.
I felt sad and closed the door, I didn’t want to think about that. The house smiled and told me not to be silly. “I am yours now” she soothed and reminded me that the wall I was painting, would not paint itself. She told me she had had many owners and I would not be the last, but that lady, the old lady she had just spoken to was the first. One day, the house told me, I will belong to another, but for now I must enjoy this space. I should live and laugh so that she could hold the sounds in her bones, for that she explained is what makes a home.
To my children. Everything changes and so to hang on to something, to get attached, is foolish and unhealthy. You must learn the ability to flow with the changes. The ability to release and move on makes us wiser and more content.