COLUMN: Yes I Live Here

A glance in the rearview mirror

The inspirations were my grandmother’s pink and white farmhouse and the mysteries of the A. B. Seeley house, both glittering, magnificent high-ceilinged sanctuaries on the prairie of Kansas.

We looked like a family of dirt farmers, matching mother-daughter checks with rickrack for dress-up, but we didn’t live on a farm, we lived in town. Lifeless family life. We didn’t do much. A little bowling and Sunday drives in the country, my mom pointing out the occasional distant twisted tree, me looking for haunted houses. The prairies just stretch, one dusty intersection to another. My grandmother didn’t wear rickrack, approve of it, and probably never even uttered the word, but she did live on a farm. If Kansas were a resort, there would have been a postcard of the pink rocks, the pink hollyhocks lining the driveway, white fences, and the formal rose garden by the summerhouse, a subtle monument to the glories of flowers and manicured lawns, perfection in pruned apple orchards and jar on jar of green, green applesauce.

It’s only since adulthood I’ve heard references like “eccentric” creep into conversations about the little clump of a woman in navy alligator pumps and squat hats out of Best & Co. boxes. She not only read the New Yorker, she responded to the ads. I’d never seen anything like it, and yet that lone magazine elevated my existence in the same way her matching pink stove and refrigerator let me know something existed in the world bigger than me — beyond my narrow scope.

It was the same in my grandfather’s work shed. It’s only now I realize the exotic aroma I took to mean the run-off of men’s backbreaking labors was cigar smoke and whiskey. It was the incense of loving serenity. The beauty of grandparents in paradise, a frenzy free world of beautiful old people.

It put my parents through changes to take us there. To surround small children with sparkling glassware, velvet chairs, peacock feathers, a tiny piano, marble sinks and starched linen hand towels was like unleashing children in a Buddhist temple. Sing praises and exult, turn cartwheels and drink cold Coca-Cola from the bottle with the striped paper straws out of the musty cabinet. Ah, what splendor on a hot afternoon … muddy little feet sliding down the thickly carpeted stairs. We never stayed long — long enough to sit and pitch cards into granddad’s hat. Long enough to spread poker chips from the dark wooden box throughout the house. Long enough to try and untie the beaded neckpiece from the china doll in the upstairs sitting room.

Now I live in an upstairs apartment on the East Coast. I’ve dragged away what I could salvage of that beauty. It’s suffered my coast-to-coast yearnings, long years in storage or being loaned out. The velvet chairs ache of too many young bodies; the couch has suffered the indignities of my son and Saturday morning cartoon marathons. I’m holding onto tatters of another era. My grandmother would suffer vertigo at my apartment and the fragment that’s now my piece of her world.

There are times I want to sell all this. I can’t face the remains of another smashed myth. Somehow I thought growing up meant I would glide through the house filled with these beautiful artifacts of early prairie life and I would be done. Now all I want is an Airstream and sturdy boots to get me across the Southwest. I don’t want a lifeless home for my son and me. I can’t live with the painful reminder that this furniture no longer supports my weight, my needs. Maybe I will be more delicate in old age. Why couldn’t I have just accepted my fate, married some guy and lived at the farm? The house is still empty, hurting me when I think of it. We all wanted to help preserve the myth, but none was able to step in. Now it’s empty and rotting, the locks all broken by vandals.

I am willing to give up my part — I know I’m not moving back to Kansas. I am going to visit for Christmas, and feel the life force of the prairie and my eyes pulled in a line toward the horizon. I will be filled with the sheer magnificence of the space and producing land. The ache remains — why couldn’t I be the one to just stay and carry on, drive the old pink Cadillac to church? Why was a person who loves Paris and New York City plunked down in Kansas? For all the immense love I feel for the dusty roads and tiny wind-swept cemeteries, for the tumbledown main streets and towering grain elevators … Why oh why does it feel like a trap? Why did I rail against all of it? And where to now?

It’s difficult for me to be rambunctious with masses of old walnut furniture that comes unglued even while I sleep. I never managed to move fully into another life. I always felt a part of me was firmly rooted in those dusty old buildings my father loved to collect and I loved to love.

So now I’m going home for a visit and I’ve been promised entrance to the old A. B. Seeley homestead. The mansion I dreamed would one day be mine. The house my father promised I would walk down the stairs when I got married, to that boyfriend of mine he liked so much; there would be a champagne fountain and I would always interrupt with “I’m not getting married,” and yet that house would be the final draw that would pull me back home. It’s been sold and not to my family. Maybe getting in there I’ll be able to explode another myth, bend back the bars of another cage and slip on through to the thoroughfare, slide in behind the wheel and steer my Airstream for L.A., my own myth keeping time to the radio, the prairie stretching out behind me. Filch a bottle of Dr. A. B. Seeley’s elixir to keep me when the hurt gets too big. Got a dream of palatial ruins in Paris to spur me on. I’ll get some cowboy boots to match.

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I wrote this story just shy of 40 years ago, the day I quit my accounting job, walked home carrying my office chair the boss had borrowed from my apartment, and sat down at my typewriter. My grandparents, those old people mentioned, were younger than I am now. I am not more delicate so far in old age and it’s a damn good thing I found Marfa; it’s practically predestined in this piece, at least the love of dusty buildings part.

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