Letter to My Children on the Importance of Home: Kathleen Stidham

The day we moved in to our new home, it was grey and cold. It was December, after all. My eyes caressed the bare walls, empty cupboards and plywood floors. My home. MY home. My first, real, owned-home. Mine. For me. For my family. For ever.

Moving wasn’t a new experience for me; before I was twenty I had lived in twenty-two places… two of them accounting for more than half my life. I lived in the middle of the peanut fields of South Carolina – that’s where my brother was born. I was almost two. For a time, in an apartment in San Antonio – that’s where the little redheaded girl stole my Fisher-Price “camera.” I was three. Our family lived in a house right next to the freeway on a military base, and then in a big (to me) house on the waters of Eld Inlet. I was four, five. We lived just north of Aguadilla, P.R., in base housing to the north of the runway and one street south of the schoolyard. I was six, seven. We lived on the boardwalk at Buckroe Beach for a month when we first got to Virginia (with the transient people, the poor permanent residents, the elderly denizens and the occasional tourist), and then the house in Denbigh – an old, proud name, that: and I was eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and almost thirteen…

And then the family moved “home.” Back to the enlarged cabin on the shore at what was once called č̓əxƛ̓əɫiw̓qʷ “emerging from the rock”, stuck to the land, clinging like limpets. But it wasn’t really my home, though I had a room with a view of the water and I got to pick the wallpaper. It wasn’t my forever home. No, it was my parents’ home, and I was just a temporary resident.

And then I was an adult, and adults – especially young adults – have to move around: for college; for jobs; for marriage; to make money and save money and hope the bills don’t get run up too high because someday it would be nice to sleep the whole night through without drunken neighbors waking you up as they try to get your door open with their key. And then wouldn’t it be nice if the children had some place to play outside where you didn’t have to be right there with them all the time?

And so nothing felt permanent. Nothing was “home.”

Until that day in December 1999.

I don’t suppose you remember the long drives we used to take, searching, searching, desperate to find a little piece of land to settle on. To get away from rented cottages with mice, and rented apartments with mildew. To build a dry, snug house with room to grow up in, with a yard to play in, and maybe a little creek nearby to watch the tadpoles in.

On that day in December, when the inspector signed off on the occupancy certificate, I was home. You were home. Really and truly home. OUR home.

I was in my bathrobe, because I wasn’t feeling well and it was cold in the house without curtains or furniture, even though the furnace was working just fine. I had a sleeping bag in the bedroom, where I was lying down when I needed to, while I stuck vinyl tiles on the plywood, just something to keep the splinters from bare feet. And he asked if I wanted him to wait to sign the paperwork, because the skirting wasn’t complete around the house, but I was clear that I would trust this contractor and yes, if he would sign I would be so grateful.

Yes, I was thinking, just sign it. Make it possible for us to bring our bed, and the children’s beds, and their toys and our books, and a few pots and pans in the kitchen. Make it possible for us to live here, to settle in and stay. We’ll finish the little things later.

Already we had spent three months working on the house, working in the yard. First tiptoeing around the carpenters as they knit the two halves together, climbing up using ladders under the steps were pounded together. At first just sitting in this room or that, learning the way the light moved through day, reflecting the bare earth outside and the wide clear path to the road. No privacy, I thought. And so I sat, revising the plans for the garden that I had started the day we learned the dimensions of the land.

I could see into the future: one year, three years, ten. I saw the first fruit trees going in, and blueberry bushes. We had to have blueberries. But where? Perhaps that low spot by the road, perhaps. We wanted a vegetable garden, we are used to fresh vegetables. And I wanted flowers. I drew in color on the plans, red for roses, blue for iris, green for the fruit trees. I bought clover and, to please convention, grass seed. We spread both right away, knowing the first rains would help them grow and send down roots, holding what soil was left behind the construction trucks. We would start with what is, and move to what can be.

It’s a small house on a small lot, only one acre. The house of three bedrooms, four if you count the office, but we don’t so the tax man doesn’t either; and two bathrooms, and just enough elbow room for four people – if they don’t stretch too often – and a dog or two. Enough room for the creatures that accompany us, if we don’t need all the corners for books.

The house feels smaller sometimes, in the middle of winter, in the long wet cold months when the frogs sleep in their dens of mud and the gulls cry long and lonely, when the flowers dream of summer; in those months the house feels small. But in the summer when we throw open the doors and the windows in the morning and again in the evening to catch the cooler breezes, when the kids and the dogs can run in and out, out and in, all day long; Then the house feels big enough and I sweep out the dust and watch it swirl away and turn to my reading or writing or painting, and I hum under my breath or sing out loud. Why not? My songs are bright and sunny then, too.

But it’s the yard that makes it a proper home for our family, an acre, give or take, a slice of land of third-growth that sits well back from the water. It was just a jumble of bog-weeds and marsh trees, the first time we saw it: willows mostly and behind them alders and behind them maples and behind them cedars, western red cedars, strong and bold. Two, three, eight, ten at least and a douglas fir or five. Did you know the people who were here before the Europeans called all trees douglas fir? There was so much of it around then and there was a hemlock, but that one died soon after we moved in. I guess it didn’t like all the shaking and movement of the ground.

It took three men three days to clear the land, if I remember right, and longer than that to haul the logs out and get the well truck in. And once the well was approved, we had the house site leveled off and the gravel driveway put in so the cement pumper could get in and lay the foundation. The septic men came and ran their cat back and forth — in the wrong direction, I pointed out, but they knew better than some “city woman” I guess and when they were done the inspector came back and told them to do it the way I had told them the first time.

When the contractor put the concrete in, not in just the right place and then he left town, we had to hire another contractor for the same amount of money to fix the problems. I guess he did his best, though the house doesn’t sit as low as I wanted, so we walk up and down steps all the time to go from the living in the house to the living in the yard. Just as well, it gives a more majestic view as the yard sweeps away toward the road in front and away toward the neighbor’s cow field in the back. I rather like being “the house on the hill.”

The day the house arrived on wheels, almost too long to make the turn into the driveway, we were so excited. It was a sunny day, and warm, in September. We took you out of school so you could be here to see the pieces put in place. And you were patient, so excited to know your room was going to go right there and you stood on the slab, looking at the view you thought you would have and pointing out the features of all the forts and treehouses you would build.

A year later you got your fort. I worked for months on a special project to earn the money to buy the parts, and your father and grandfather and some friends and I all worked to put it together. And you wielded hammers, too, learning how to avoid mashing your hands. It had two slides: one yellow from the neighbors whose own children were all grown up, and an extra steering wheel too, and a green slide with different curves to it. We put them side by side so you kids could race down them, brothers playing together. It had a climbing net and a rope, and a ladder that I used sometimes to come up and have lemonade and cookies with you as we surveyed your domain in the backyard.

I guess you didn’t mind too much the higgledy-piggledy nature of the back yard, left as wild as we could after the well was drilled and the wellhouse put in. It gave you plenty of spaces to hide, and to seek.

We put the rabbit hutch behind the wellhouse and it worked well enough until the rabbits died. They could look out at the big pile of left-over logs and stumps, things too big for a regular compost pile but too small or too old or too punky to use for anything. So we left it there in the middle of the back yard, a fifteen-twelve-ten-six-four foot pile of debris that the nettles and the trailing blackberries love.

Someday soon it will be richest soil in the yard, full of life and ready for new trees because it is rich from the cedars and the alders, and the bigleaf maple. Red huckleberries will grow up on the tops of the stumps and trillium will recolonize that spot. Just you wait: by the time I have grandchildren, that will be a magical place. I will have a little screened-in gazebo for us to serve tea on hot summer afternoons, when the mosquitoes from the back yard come up from the leaf mould, with a chiminea or a little firepit to keep us warm if we want to be out later when the cold starts to come back with the fog. But that will be a while yet.

For now, it is enough that the other trees shelter everything. The thirty-year-old red huckleberry near the back fence, and the Oregon-grape and the hollies, stand watch and keep track of the seasons. I don’t know if the hollies are native or not, I like to pretend they are anyway. There are ferns on the maple trees that cling to the bark and start off the end of spring, bright and lively but by mid-August hang limp and brittle as if they may never perk again. Still, come the first rains in October, there they are waving gaily as we run the last few outdoor chairs under cover.

And all winter long, while we huddle inside, dashing from the car to the door, or playing outside with the dog in the breaks between the rain squalls, the yard waits. The plants green up again, bathed daily in the gentle showers. I prune the fruit trees and the shrubs near the house, hoping to not cut too much, but like a haircut, I know they’ll grow back if I cut further than I intended. The flowers, safe in their bulbs, corms, tubers and seeds, wait for warmer weather to signal their release, and hope the voles and other burrowing creatures don’t find them too attractive. I have lost dozens of dahlias to the nibbling tendencies of our underground neighbors.

Every winter, branches come down in the woods, crushing the Oregon-grape or the red huckleberries, or the large swordferns that serve as groundcover in places. They always seem to recover though, and by the end of the next summer the branches have been overtaken by the plants again.

I haven’t decided which type of Mahonia we have, they don’t seem tall enough (after ten years and more) to be aquifolia, but are they repens or nervosa? One of these days I suppose I shall have to decide. In the meantime, their bright yellow blooms in the late spring and subtle berries later in the summer and fall create waves of color under the cedars, while the Vaccinium parvifoliagrow slowly taller, and lacier, with the passing years. It has been several years since they bore well, so we haven’t had red huckleberry pies in a while, but when they do bear, we get a couple good pies just from our own bushes. Otherwise, we harvest the blueberries from the abandoned commercial operation down the road, and that does well enough for us.

So we watch the seasons cycle through – the gardening season starts as soon as I have seen enough sunshine to feel it’s worth trying to put a few potatoes and seeds in the ground. Some years that’s March, some years it’s June. I try to time it for after the last frost, and before it gets too hot. We have only missed the window twice, the summer that the drought came too early and the year that I was on crutches. Planting, watering, putting fencing up around the plants the deer love or spraying my “secret concoction” on the leaves as repellent … and finally harvesting. Harvests will be much bigger this year, now that a fence is up around the big vegetable garden.

The harvest season always comes too soon – first the plum tree ripens, and then the peas and beans; strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries (the native ones are ripe much earlier, but they are so few they are easy to harvest); pears, apples; finally potatoes, carrots, turnips. Suddenly there are too many tasks for the time we have – harvest, freeze-can-cook-give away, replant – and then in a moment the summer ends, and though the warm weather lingers briefly as we watch the winter squash slowly ripen (there is no hurry to harvest, they are fine until first frost kills the stems), already the nights are longer and chill, and the mornings have that misty dewy feeling that prompts us to relight the furnace. And school starts up, and rehearsals for one activity or another, and the concert season begins and visits back and forth with friends.

All year long, for ten years, I have watched you here, watched you come up the driveway after school, or after a bike ride or walk, or canoe paddle in the inlet. I have watched you dig, climb, construct, mow, whack (you are good for controlling the non-native blackberries), run, whittle, and play. You play alone, or each other, and sometimes with friends though most of them live a fair distance away. You sit and read in the shade sometimes, or pitch a tent in the back and get a little more space between you and your brother.

All year long, for ten years, we have improved the house, fixed things in the yard, let things in the yard go. We scrub the picnic table as soon as it looks like the rain is gone, getting it ready for the new eating outside season. And the plastic chairs, with their patina of moss and lichen, they get a once-over too, so at least they don’t get your grandparents’ clothes dirty when they come to visit. We clean and repaint the front steps and do our best on the front door – but it never quite comes clean any more. All year long, as you retreat to your room for privacy or in anger, slamming the door; as you join the family in board games at the kitchen table; as we sit and watch one silly movie or another in the living room (three on the sofa, one in a chair); all year long, this house gives us space to spread out or come together. All year long, as we sweep the floors, open and shut the shades (roller shades too, on the outside in the summer); as we prune small shrubs and larger fruit trees, mow the lawns, pick flowers and fruit; as we shovel snow and scrutinize seed catalogs while we try to keep the dog entertained without going outside in the rain; all year long we make this home.

All year long, and every day, this home is growing on us. WE are growing in this home. And it will be ours – all year long, and for many years to come.

We are home.