The Scaffolding of Childhood
I travel to my family's summer home in Maine after the death of my mother. An excerpt from Scheherazade, a serialized memoir of my first family.
I have traveled from Seattle to our Maine summer home to divide up the family pictures and letters and get them out of here before the place burns down.
The drive here is full of reverie and miniature dramaturgy related to my late mother, to the home, to my adolescence, especially when traveling alone as I am today. These long-drive fantasies are broken up by the practical relief of coming around the last road bend, seeing the chimney standing straight, the attic windows whole, the big oak upright, the porch horizontal.
I fuss in the basement to get the power and water back on, stepping over basement puddles on floppy plywood stepping stones and ducking low-hanging pipes that very possibly run septic direct into the harbor. I’m careful to avoid the not-to-code, knob-and-tube wiring and, as always, I feel the relief of not electrocuting myself getting the house resuscitated yet one more time.
I let myself into the foyer through the chipped green front-door and marvel, as always, at the time-capsule quality of her home. Everything remains stubbornly where it’s always been. The summer and winter guests play a half-hearted game of red light green light, but nothing ever strays far – not the pencils and pens, the pots and pans, the old fridge and its magnets, the strict warning instructions on the cork board about what order to light the home up and shut her down, the damp musk of the house, the boxes of ancient spaghetti, the water stains on the kitchen ceiling, the penciled phone numbers on exposed plaster where the wallpaper peeled away, the long, late afternoon shadows, the timeless lobster boats in the harbor visible through the living room windows.
I open the blinds, flush the anti-freeze out of the downstairs toilet, listen to shoe squeaks and luggage wheels on the linoleum as they fill up the quiet old house. I catch myself stopping for a second because I think I hear something upstairs, a whisper maybe, somebody hiding or held at knifepoint, trapped unexpectedly in the vacant summer home by a surprise visitor. A victim shifting terrified from one leg to the other, exchanging frightened glances with their captor.
I mask these anxieties from my face and movements as if the ghosts and robbers were monitoring me for visual signs of weakness as intently as the rest of the world. Or so I imagine, imagine, imagine, because imagining is what I do.
It’s childish to spook myself like this, but the light is dimming and I’m tired from traveling, and without the fresh energy of my wife and children charging around the home and their simple thrill of being here again, the home has an uneasy edge, and I busy myself in a flurry of activity to keep the nostalgia and mental spooks at bay.
I move from doorway to doorway inventorying the place haphazardly. I take in the familiar views and rooms, look in closets I know are empty to eliminate them as hiding places for criminals, poke softly at the crumbling plaster wall decay in my old bedroom, wonder if the neighbors will notice the lights on. I imagine their conversations...
Jesus, the place is falling apart.
I’m genetically predisposed to fantasizing on the systematic deterioration of things, and the home presents a marvelous, meditative prototype for a high-speed, time-lapse study in the Last Days, of the world coming apart writ small.
The giant oak tree tumbles onto the roof. The stained glass in the attic windows blows out, the rain melts the cardboard storage boxes down through their honeycomb sidewall. The chimney tears free in a storm on one side and a slight, but ever-widening gash lets water seep in, continent shaped chunks of plaster crash off the lathing. The wind and water find inroads and pool into the fireplace hearth, ash floats and bobs on the surface and then spills out indifferently onto the living room floor, spreading soot and bird nests from the chimney. Hard clusters of mouse scat harden and soften in the cyclical washout, soulless, high-speed, time-lapse photography shake-shake-shaking everything. Jittery buried things rise to the surface, occasional visitors flit about in spectral high speed and disappear.
I imagine my mother’s home becoming a not-so-secret high school hangout. Local kids sneak in and get high in the kitchen, sit on the dead electric stove with their boots on the countertops, flick cigarette ashes into my mother’s pencil jars and her mother’s crystal. Some stoner comedian finds my Louisville Slugger in the storage room and makes the group laugh doing a madman impression and taking out a wall.
Everyone’s mortified, and “you’re totally crazy, dude,” but they still feed it with their laughter because it is funny, and the joker continues smashing. A drunk girl urinates in the upstairs bathroom sink reading my mother’s letters out loud and says “oh, that’s so sweet” before chucking the letters and cards into the bathtub moments later, bored. They steal records that they like from attic milk boxes and Frisbee the ones they don’t.
Some teenager warring with his miserable parents starts squatting there, pulling power off the city. His cigarettes accumulate in the toilets. Strangers screw on the mattresses, spray paint the stairwell, wipe semen into our linen and towels. It’s everything my father believed money could help us avoid.
It crosses my mind yet again that I really shouldn’t come here without the children.
But I haven’t finished my arrival walkabout because I haven’t been to the attic.
Regardless of season it is uninhabitable up here. It is a sweat lodge in the summer, and bitterly cold in winter. Its bare boards wobble dangerously about the floor framing like see-saws. Everything smells sharply of dusty barn wood. Vicious roofing nails poke haphazardly through the uninsulated ceiling. Some ancient pie plate thingamajig blocks off a chimney port. On the pie plate’s colorful face, a fairy-winged 1930’s White Rock girl, a lovely, but helpless icon, watches over our attic possessions and clings to her rock so she doesn’t, God help her, accidentally slide into the family tragedy.
I see the windows have towels stuffed in holes where leaks have sprung. When I pulled up, I noticed that you can see the towels from the street, another add-it-to-the-list problem to deal with. This house didn’t miss a beat – it picked up where my mother’s health left off, a seamless transition, an old age deterioration that would not be denied by a premature death in the family.
Depletion has taken up residence here.
Like all harsh environments, the attic has its beauty, and there’s no denying that looking out from the attic’s giant cathedral windows. The attic view ranges out past our long expanse of lawn and a majestic oak; it winds along the harbor’s edge and then opens out towards Monhegan, past nameless islands and the cold curvature of open sea.
On a rainy Thanksgiving weekend long, long ago my mother stood in front of these eight-foot triangle-peaked cathedral windows – the wild, triptych fancy of the Boston architect who owned the home immediately before her – and seeing all the Heaven she was ever going to want or believe in, she invested the last of her father’s inheritance in the land, water and sky framed here.
My mother looked out these windows and saw the Future widening out to her children’s children. But these days there’s a reverse telescoping of time in this attic. If you could look back in today you’d see the Past all compressed together, piled up in storage boxes and buried beneath sprawling protective blue tarps. Old bed linen with faded 1960’s sunflower explosions cover our family things and the residual sum of what’s left of my parent’s lives and their children’s childhoods, the toys and hobbies and books and drawings and graded schoolwork – the abandoned, torn-down scaffolding of childhood.
Other than the weary Diaspora of memories and letters tucked away or carried about by aging or dying friends, the evidence that my parents worked and loved and married and divorced and fought wars and concluded peace and drank and sobered and laughed and cried and did everything at full human volume only remains here now, in this attic, under the blue burial tarps.
If there is proof that our childhoods had train sets or model rockets or report cards or chemistry sets, then it’s here. And if you want to learn anything about our unsung Indian tribe or the dying language of her people, well, then you’ve come to the right place.
It crosses my mind standing here that no matter how long I spend downstairs messing about on arrival poking here and there, or inspecting the latest structural wounds, I haven’t come home until I’ve stood in this attic on these see-saw floorboards and looked out my mother’s windows and felt the family ghosts spinning about me in this filial vortex.
This attic is our family’s ground zero, our last chance reservation, my mother’s Gethsemane, and everything that had a little spiritual gravity left in it rolled here before the End or soon after in the wake.
This post is an excerpt from Scheherazade, a memoir in the personal substack of.