Close to Home: A House, Too, Can Be a Lifelong Companion

The New York Times, April 18, 1996

 by Honor Moore 

I am amazed at the irony that my deepest relationship is with a house. And sometimes I wonder how I ended up in this oddly shaped Connecticut antique set so primly on a rise above the Housatonic River . I like to think of its lack of symmetry as evidence that it has housed spinsters and sculptors, laborers and widow, but rarely, in its long history, a straight-ahead family.

I’ve known the house since I was 8 and my parents bought it as a weekend escape from Jersey City , where my father was an Episcopal parish priest.

It was a keystone of my childhood that I lost for nearly a decade, a sometime witness to the storms of my 20’s and, for the last 12 years, my home and refuge.

The house was built small in about 1740 as a saltbox—the front upright, a long roof sloping down the back almost to the ground. But sometime in the 1920’s, the low part was cut off and another big room was added, so that from the side, it now looks like two saltboxes jammed up against each other.

At the foot of the lawn out back, a brook runs down to the river, which flows east along the mountains you see from my bedroom window. In front stand two giant maples that were probably planted as wedding trees when the house was first built.

I and my five younger brothers and sisters loved the house because it seemed built just for us, We didn’t notice how small the rooms were or how low the ceilings. My father noticed, because he was more than six feet tall and often bumped his head on a door frame on his way upstairs. We knew when that happened, because his curses resounded through the precarious walls.

The living room had a tilty floor and a fireplace with a Dutch oven in which my mother tried, unsuccessfully, to bake bread. I :patchily liked the tiny front room be- cause it had an addition with windows on three sides where a woman who was a silversmith once hammered out her church vessels. There my father built a ?-size window seat where we played Monopoly.

Everyone but me slept upstairs, and to get there you had to walk through the first floor bathroom where, two or three at a time the little ones splashed like otters and seals in an enormous claw-footed tub.

My room, off that public bathroom, had its own door to the outside so that I could escape the bedlam: my brothers and sisters were a gauche tribe of which I wanted no part. They seemed always to be crying, always grabbing my mother’s attention, always throwing food that got ground into the floor. In my cell-size room, I could sit alone, serenely reading Nathaniel Hawthorne or the legends of King Arthur.

No sooner had I begun to cherish my little room than my father got a promotion that took us to the Midwest . We kept the house, but the huge Indianapolis rectory made it seem very far away, and I found that I missed the chaotic intimacy that kept everyone in view.

We came back once when I was 13, but by then my mother was pregnant with her eighth child and the house was more work than she wanted on a vacation. I didn’t see it again until my 20’s. It was rented, so I didn’t go inside, but I looked up into the wedding maples, and two years later, living in New York City , I thought of those green leaves. By chance the tenants were moving out, and I asked my father if I could replace them.

I moved in for the summer the year I was 24, with my first live-in boyfriend, a man nearly 20 years older than I was. Tim wasn’t as tall as my father, so he didn’t bump his head, and he was a writer, which I wanted to be. Almost before we unpacked, he set up his work in the room at the top of the stairs where my sisters had slept in a double bed.

I had a lot more trouble than Tim did settling down. I tried writing poems in my old room, but when I showed him what I’d written, all he said was “Keep at it.” I attacked the garden. First, I cut away the honeysuckle outside my old separate entrance, futilely looking for my great- grandmother’s pearl bar pin, which I suddenly remembered I’d lost there as a child. Once, Tim helped me clear brush, uproot saplings, kill poison ivy and seed new lawn all the way to the brook, and when friends visited from New York , I proudly served salad from our vegetable garden.  

Years later, when a friend asked why on earth my house had so many beds, I realized, with a start, that my frenetic activity had had a purpose. I was lonely without my family. When I finished making the house beautiful, as it had not been when I was a child, I would invite everyone home; maybe then I could be part of things, rather than cordoned off in that tiny room. New appliances would make life easier for my mother, and my father would be impressed with how I’d redesigned the stone wall near the driveway. But by then Tim and I had parted, my mother had died. my brothers and sisters had begun to marry, and I was alone.

When my father remarried, I bought the house from him. Was a country house the best use of my inheritance? Was Connecticut where I wanted to settle? I considered none of these questions, and as if in protest at my lack of practicality, the house took revenge. Immediately, I had to replace the furnace, and then one of the huge maples lost branches in an ice storm. Next, a friend and I bailed the cellar to keep water from the new furnace. And there were decisions: Could I afford to lay bricks over the cement floor on the old back porch?

When the house and I finally made a bargain— that I would make improvements in my own time—I came to relish its quiet. In the early 1980’s, two years into my first book contract, I found I could write only there. By now, my summers extended deep into fall, and a few friends had become a community. I could sublet my apartment and move to the country easily, I thought.

But as soon as I moved in, my neighbors, who had promised evenings by the fire, announced that they were off to California to make a film. It was a beautiful summer though. The carpenter built a desk for my computer in the silversmith’s alcove, and I set to work.

Only as the leaves turned did I begin to dread the winter. The house seemed a flimsy shack, its heating a roaring fire barely contained by the small dark basement, and a love affair fell apart. Each time I felt a cold blast. I called the carpenter, who arrived, cheerfully sprayed or stuffed insulation, and sent me a bill.

My old summer friends became earnest, tight-faced creatures with winter expertise that I lacked in long underwear and window quilts. I had a recurring nightmare: I’m standing on the back lawn. The house is in ruins, beams fallen, glass broken, screens torn. Water has risen to the ceiling. and a gang of rogues has taken up residence.

One evening, the naked squares of glass in the curtainless bedroom window vibrated with an Intensity that matched my terror and loneliness—a feeling like the chill I imagined the Brontes had died from. I took to my bed in tears.

When my sobbing receded, I began to hear the silence, and once in a while, in the distance, cars passing on the road. The darkness seemed to notice me and take pity. I felt comforted, as if something inside had let go. I’ve often wondered it the presence I felt that night was a ghost— the silver-smith, perhaps, or my mother—but I really think that at last, after the years of building and repairing, of imagining and caring, it was the spirit of the house I felt, returning something to me.

I’ve lived here now for nearly 12 years, and I’ve never lost that sense of comfort. I go into the city a few times a month; something has always changed there, but the old maples I come home to seem no larger than they did when I was a child. I’ve knocked out a few walls. The kitchen is now one big room, not a misshapen “L” with a lot of closets, and the old public bathroom is part of a wonderful dining room where friends gather at a long pine table. I have turned the room where my sisters slept into a reading room, and recently an artist friend painted some of the dreary floors upstairs with bright geometric patterns—reassurance for those long winter weeks when the sky isn’t blue and the leaves are gone from the maples.

The valley has changed, too. This part of Connecticut has become a weekender’s retreat of renovated farmhouses that a decade ago crowned acres of corn or hay. But among the new arrivals are people like myself, New York emigres with a need for quiet; my life here is rich with friendship.

Of course, there are times when I imagine moving back to the city, to a less solitary life, but more often I feel immensely privileged. Recently, I had a dream that seemed as real as a vision. I’m In the tilty-floored living room, and around a corner, to my surprise, I find a room I’ve never noticed, a room with high ceilings and gleaming white walls, windows and open shelves, and extraordinary brickwork. The light is clear, and I draw back to marvel at the beauty of the shadows it casts across the wide pilasters, the graceful soaring ceiling.