The house was white with a peaked roof. It overlooked the road from a slope. My mother had dark green shutters put around the windows. She planted the Christmas tree on the slope. You could walk down the slope to the road, but there wasn’t a real path. Later, when there was a paved driveway, that’s how you usually went down, and walking across the slope, on a diagonal, past the dark almost black branches of the short Christmas tree firs – two or three of them, planted randomly – felt like something from the past.
The door to the basement opened onto the slope, a wooden door with two panes of glass, set inside the stone foundation of the house. It was a dark cold damp basement, the furnace in one corner, the washing machine and dryer side by side. There were steep steps leading down into the darkness of the basement from the dining room.
This house that seemed part of us, a member of the family, as if we all came from the same gene pool, making room for each other, invisible to each other because we were all of the same cloth – house, sisters, me, parents. All part of the same club.
My father brought a flowering azalea bush in a flower pot to me in the dark the evening of my fifteenth birthday, him coming home late from the office in the city, me already in bed at the top of the stairs in the attic room, he climbs the stairs, still in his overcoat, leaves the flower pot on the floor at the top of the stairs, leaves it without coming all the way up, says, “Happy Birthday.”
My mother planted it later, somewhere near the old Christmas trees, on the slope that overlooked the road. I did not see if it flowered again.
Part of the house too was the sprawling maple tree that stood just a few feet away. When we first lived in the house and I was very small, my mother hung a swing from one branch, a plain board hung from two fine chains. Later, when we returned, and left, and returned again, the swing was gone, but I felt the presence of the tree, its branches reached to my attic window, and it too was part of us. Like the stone walls that criss-crossed the other slope, behind the house where the woods were.
We lived in other houses over the years, but they were other people’s houses. The white clapboard house was the one we returned to, the one that was ours.
It didn’t look like other people’s houses. It didn’t look like the houses of other people in my school or the places where I babysat -- houses and homes that their inhabitants took for granted. But I knew I would never live in smooth places like that, places that seemed to come out of a mold – appliances and wall-to-wall carpeting and ease and comfort softening every rough edge. Those places did not look beautiful to me, but they marked their inhabitants, defined them as people who had been included, people who were part of something I did not think anyone in my house could possibly ever be part of.