The Barrel-Chested House

I’ve been trained to connect dots with words, though I wander quite a bit. But objects – that’s another thing. My sister-in-law & niece & friend joyfully, tactfully arrange colors & textures & shapes. This year, I’ve been awed by a decorator who walks through our rooms which have all the coherence of loose baggy novels, rooms confused & pointless. Then, she edits, she connects the dots, finds a pattern. I appreciate what “works” – I think we all do. But I’m not much good at achieving a “look.” (I find myself putting quotes around words that remain mysteries.) It takes a sense of proportion & mine is always unsteady: afraid I’ll either let the old – tradition – swallow us whole or that we will throw away the house’s essence, what it is, in throwing out what it was.

And so, we come to my personal problem. It is not unlike our local school’s attempt to keep the rituals of “old army” as the Corps becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of the students and women outnumber men. How true to this house should we be – how much change can we impose without destroying it, without emasculating it?

It is dated – we live on an Orson Welles set or perhaps one from some other forties film noir. It is hard and square and solid and incredibly dark. The living room, for instance, has no overhead lights and deep, dark wood on the ceiling, walls, floor. The soft pine that has darkened through the years absorbs any glimmer of light. Begun just before Pearl Harbor, it was finished in early 1942. We haven’t changed it much; neither my husband nor I are “good around the house.” This house is a weight – though often pleasant – upon us. The garage doors have never met the ground because the cement in the blue-prints wasn’t available those first years and in the next forty the Lindsays never filled it in; in the last twenty, we haven’t either. Well, we may put in a floor soon. But we’ve long passed a need for the Victory Garden so nicely laid out in the blueprints. Germany & Japan were defeated, rebuilt, grew into powerhouses, were buffeted by the nineties; wars came and went. The house welcomed Czechs who carefully toed the party line, Czechs newly liberated, Czechs less enthused at a too heady capitalism. And still the dirt floor remains in the garage.

One of the first houses in the neighborhood, old pictures emphasize its place on the rise of a hill now obscured. Then it was surrounded by cotton fields. We’re four or five blocks from the university; the lots here are an acre, smaller than those a bit farther back but larger than in the new subdivisions at the edge of town. Now, more women than men are admitted and the sleepy college of We’ve Never Been Licked is one of the biggest universities in the world. Our house was built when men ruled this house and town. It has little of the feminine. It is a man’s house: hunting lodge meets Federalist. And it isn’t pretty. The walls are soft and bear marks, the doors never quite close, it is pier and beam on clay. Cracks appear as soon as a wall is floated and painted. It is not a house that would ever appear in House Beautiful. But the play of shadows in the late evening sun is evocative. The living room is snug; the low ceiling is divided by heavy beams into nine compartments. The doors are set flush with the lintels, the stairs have square posts and sturdy, heavy railings. It has a man’s formality: square dining room, living room with huge bookcases.

Moving through our house, a visitor is not surprised it was built by an engineer and finished by him and his four sons. He was, indeed, quite an engineer. He founded the chemical engineering department and his students spread across the country, were powerful in the petroleum and gas industries. Those students, often farm kids, were served tea in the living room on Sundays. One of my friends came in, looked around and then went outside: “My father talked about this house,” she said. Her father had been dead for years. But the Lindsays had buried his beloved dog in their back yard when her father, soon to leave school to enlist with his whole class, had been a student at those teas.

So we come to our dilemma; it’s a minor echo, petty & personal & non-tragic of that of the Aggie Bonfire. How much should we retain and how much discard of the past? It is our dilemma this spring as we talk to contractors, but it is always our dilemma. How much are we willing to jettison to make ourselves free in the present. The past is never past literature tells us, but as usual its telling us something we know, really, if we are honest with ourselves. And so, we pause, how much does tradition stunt us, imprison us? And how much does it give us depth, resonance?

We live in a house that doesn’t exactly have ghosts, but it does have spirits. Buying it was complicated, even though it never went on the market. Mrs. Lindsay had told my mother-in-law, who lives across the street, that she wanted the house to have girls in it. We had our second that year and, I’m sure it pleases her to know a third one arrived six years later. But her sons didn’t want to sell it – or, didn’t seem to.

We’d ask, where is the washer hook-up and the son who would be showing us the house would fall back, his eyes glaze in memory, and explain how his mother washed clothes in the tub, there, and hung them up behind the garage, out there, he’d gesture. Well, yes, there were the remains of old clothes lines, embedded in the leaves and still attached to fallen, rusted poles. I doubt she’d hung up clothes for decades, been able to for years. We asked where the property line ran, and a son would gesture toward the room long closed in. His father, he said, had run a trolley from that sleeping porch up there, slanted it out to the property line – he gestured vaguely toward the back of the lot.

Then, these sons would say, we’re selling it to you. But we need to wait. Maybe mother will want to return. Suffering from a stroke, she’d found the two-story house hard to navigate, even with help. My mother-in-law visited her at her new house; the elderly woman looked at her and asked, “Why would they think I’d move back?” Why, indeed, did they think that? Why when I return to my village do I look at the old house that was once surrounded by a corn field and wonder about it, still think of it as home? But we do.

And then she died and they sold it to us as it stood, wanting us to sort out what was left & save them the pain. And we are not unlike them; our eyes glaze over at the specifics, we remember the past. Twenty years after we’d bought it, my children cleaned out the old shed where beakers and corks from what must have been both workshop & lab were nestled in the dust. They found lead soldiers with their molds. They boxed them up and took them to one of the sons , now retired and with grandsons.

When a few summers ago, a tall & beautiful bride, our oldest daughter, walked down an aisle we’d constructed between the trees they’d planted, I thought of Mrs. Lindsay telling my mother-in-law she’d like some girls to grow up in the house: it had its fill of boys, it was time for girls. By then, it was almost twenty years after we’d moved in; it had seen plenty of girl life, with our three (and a variety of other women who moved in for a month or six months or a year) depositing memories around the house to match the ones those four sons had left.

To older generations, it remains the Lindsay house. It has a past. And it has a certain kind of integrity; anachronistic, maybe, with its mixture of square formal rooms & soft pine paneling. Its style is that of the laconic not-very-aesthetic integrity we associate with those barrel-chested guys of the forties. Of course, that’s the problem. We don’t want to emasculate it, but in a sense, it has never become ours. Our lives are not forties’ ones nor is our world. But we haven’t asserted ourselves; we have been deferential—perhaps too deferential. We don’t want to forget what it was, but sometimes we don’t see what it is.

And so, while we may lower one ceiling and raise another, we try to keep those solid beams in sight; while we want more light, we aren’t going to paint all those dark walls, won’t eliminate the play of shadows across them. And this, I think, echoes the culture that begins on the polo field and golf range a few blocks from our house. A land grant college, traditionally it prepared farm boys (and some internationals) for life as farmers and engineers and, always, soldiers. This remains the “hick” school even though now many of its students come from urban and even well-to-do families. Traditionally this has been one of the ways rural kids could make good. That and what they learned about fellowship led them to love it passionately in a way few schools are loved.

It seems to me that all our lives we are trying to decide how we can make something ours without destroying its integrity, how we can bring it into, now, the twenty-first century, but not lose something important on the way. How much do we try to shape our children to help them or pull back to let them become who they are?

And so remodeling begins. I don’t want to be one of those people who thinks each school or each house should resemble some archetypal ideal. Those gothic buildings enclosing green squares that make up Chicago or that lovely rolling green of Oxford & Cambridge – yes, those are rich traditions. But so is a school that has sent forth soldiers & farmers & engineers to change the world – so, too, is the world of the parade ground & ag experimental stations & engineering experimental stations. Nor do I want the house to be something it isn’t – it isn’t going to be pretty. It needn’t be emasculated, not really, to still become ours. It – like the university – is rich with promise but also rich with past accomplishments. I want our house to retain memories of its own rich past, to be itself. But, of course, as the next generations of faculty must feel as well, I want it to be ours, to reflect our achievements. As Mrs. Lindsay wanted the house softened and enlarged by what my daughters have given it, the university wants to add what it is without subtracting what it was. But, for both of us, it is not likely to be easy.