The Poisoned Ink Well

Friday, October 10, 2003

The house that Eddie built

I went to my father’s retirement home yesterday, a place that he would never get to retreat to; it sits behind a veil of woods with pine trees. The wind and the clouds touched the trees directly above my head as I approached and made the whole hill rock like a serene ship on a sea of woods. My son was with me and carried a big stick to scare snakes and knock down spider webs.

My father took time off from work to build this house and then died the first month that he went to live in it. My father had to work all of his life, growing up with a widowed mother during the Great Depression. He once took a job delivering milk in glass bottles as a young teenager, and he fell out of the truck, onto a case of broken bottles and spilled milk, severing the nerves in his right hand and giving him a life long disability that he never spoke of, except to explain quietly how it happened. After this he joined the army during World War Two, anxious to serve, he hid his injury, and then finally returned home with his GI Bill in his good hand, and he got a college education, and worked to the last day of his 65th year, always dreaming of this retirement home he was going to build.

My father worked for the same two companies for over a period of 45 years; he was proud of being vested, but after his death, long before Enron, (during Reagan and the first Bush) they consolidated and re-conglomerated and made up new rules and managed to cheat my mother out of every penny of his pension, so she was never able to finish any of this and had to go to work in a near by city.

I stare at this place in wonder; standing alone for 20 years with deer, and mice, and owls, and snakes, and spiders as it’s only company; thick webs nestled in every corner of the structure, a bed of pine needles gathered at the front door; a mail box seldom used, and a road now so over grown, you have to park and hike and would never know it was there at all unless, you knew it was there.

A tornado briefly touched down on the top of the hill where his house sits and took the uppermost branches off of trees, and peeled back the siding, slightly but the shingles some how held, and it still stands alone, a solitary farmhouse built like a barn, rising from the ground like a tombstone with my father’s life written on it.

His physical grave is 500 miles from this place in the city where he worked and mostly lived, but this is the place where we gather wild flowers and cut our Christmas tree every year and still come to visit him.

I can mentally make notes of what might have been had he lived and picture the merry scene in my head of paved roads, roaring fires, black kettles, iron skillets, warm people snuggled into down mattresses and I can almost hear the echo of laughter filling the unfinished eaves and the almost attic that would have been a loft bedroom for me when I came to visit.

I climbed a work latter and sat 20 feet above the floor, on a wooden pallet, in the rafters, between the arch of the roof, in the skeleton of the building, with hard concrete beneath me. The house plans still sit in the corner of a shell of a closet space in a big brown cardboard tube, large white pages with renderings, and plans for another bigger house to be completed after this one was finished. He had planned the house long before he got the land or began work on it. He would steal away moments early in the morning drawing up his plans. I can still see how everything stopped the day he died, in the middle of boards, and 2 by 4’s, half nailed, with the hammer left where he last sat it, and the doors with rusty hinges left leaning against the walls, and now all, gathering dust and I know this is not the way he lived; he always finished everything he started.

My 17 year old son walked around in the room below me and exclaimed when he came upon a box of business cards with my father’s name, and work title, and office address, and they looked like new, still white, and black and crisp, and he ran his fingers over the imprinted words on the cards, and touched them like Braille, and held one close to his nose trying to smell it, and he smiled at me, and took out his wallet, and placed my father’s old business card in the crease of his billfold, as though it was the most important piece of paper in the world to him.

An address book sat on a counter in the kitchen by the carefully hung windows in the finished part of the house. It has a day planner with appointments and phone numbers of people dead for many years. I lie on the pallet and slowly smoked a cigarette and looked at it and turned the pages and then I watched the smoke curl up to the ceiling and I remember him and I feel safe in his house. I’ll be 40 this month and I have seen incredible brutality and violence from the men in my life since his passing. My father was never one of them.