"I suppose you'll live here one day?" Aunt Dot said. A statement; a question.
But how could I answer when I wasn't sure what the question was?
She was sitting, that night, on the wooden chair with the woven seat, near the oval painted table. We --- she, Ned (my late husband), and I ---were in the living room, at the farm, her summer home in Vermont. Also present were those other apocryphal living room residents, the elephants being ignored. As is usual in families, the three of us were studiously overlooking them.
The living room was exactly the same as it had been since
shortly after Aunt Dot bought the place, in 1957. I, age 5, had come with her when she first looked it over for
possible purchase. She was then 48. She was
an indulgent if not exactly warm aunt; married, childless, a career woman, a
beauty, reasonably well off, a Wellesley grad, accustomed to getting
her own way. (I'm guessing the portrait of her, above left, was taken when she was
in her late 30's; just look at the no-nonsense set of her mouth. And that's me, to the right.)
I was the daughter of her younger sister, her only sister.There had always been love, jealousy, and tension between them, as I think the picture below, taken by Ned in about 1985, shows (Dorothy, left; Charlotte, right). In our family, as in all families, there was much more happening than was talked about.
The house, and the acreage on which it sits, had been part of both Dot's life and mine
ever since that first visit. By the time of the conversation I'm describing, that had been over 35 years.
Part of the charm of the place, I think to both Aunt Dot and me, was (and to me still is, in some ways) its changelessness.
decorated once: when she first bought the place. After that (other than
the time in 1961 when it was broken into in the winter, and all the
better antiques were stolen, to be replaced by inexpensive
reproductions, less-good antiques, and remnants from her apartment in
New York including two very uncomfortable Danish modern chairs) it
remained as much the same as if it had been trapped in amber, like the
tiny insects in Aunt Dot's necklace, which I used to examine as a
The wallpaper on three walls of the living room was mustard-yellow with a dark brown scroll, very New England. It, like so much about the farm, had been there for as long as I could remember. It had been lighter but grown incrementally and unnoticeably darker, shabby, in fact, as had the matching cafe curtains. But you could count on that wallpaper and those curtains, just as you could everything about the old house.
You could count on the row of milk-glass chickens on the window sill of the mullioned picture window in the dining room. You could count on the smell of old wood, old paper, when you opened the thick front door. You could count on the sleigh-bells affixed to their long leather strap, hung against the inside of that door, their definitive, distinctive jingle-thunk each time the door was opened or shut. You could count on the balsam-stuffed cat made of calico (from the Vermont Country Store, where we made annual pilgrimages), sitting on the black rocker. You could count on the two hideous imitation Danish modern chairs, one each on either side of the fireplace.Though occasionally Dot would have the upstairs bedrooms papered with new wallpaper, and though she did eventually add an upstairs bathroom, you could count on the downstairs of the house, especially the living room, being the same.
But, it wasn't. More accurately, it changed by such slow increments that it appeared the same.
For instance, the parts of the living room that Aunt Dot had once had picked out in clean, bright white: she'd never had them repainted. By the time she said she supposed I'd live here one day, the white was no longer white. The old wooden mullioned windows, unsteady in their frames (Ned, the preservationist, said they needed "sash conservation"), the wooden mantle and surround of the brick fireplace, the built-in bookshelf with its carved trim, the baseboards, the ceiling and the one unpapered wall --- they had grayed. Time and particulate from the many fires lit in the fireplace left their slow incremental graffiti, dinginess.
The living room, like all of everyone and everything, showed its age.
Those fires were lit on every chilly spring or fall evening. Their elemental comfort gave rise to numberless
conversations, equally comfortable and rarely significant. There was no TV; no charades; maybe a board game or puzzle if there were small fry, but mostly just talk, punctuated by the occasional pop of
the fragrant apple wood logs. My aunt loved to burn apple wood, but hoarded it, adding just one log of it to each
evening's fire, the better to induce pleasure as we (a "we" that changed all the time) sat around talking.
I had been part of these conversations as a child (I had read my Uncle Joe, Dot's husband, the book A Fly Went By in front of that fire one night; he never forgot it). I had been part of them, unwillingly, as a bored teenager (raring to get away from the adults, to get upstairs alone or sometimes with my visiting best friend, Karen, and see if we could pick up Murray the K with the Swinging Soiree, from New York, on the transistor radio).
But by the evening of Aunt Dot's supposing, I was a participating adult, and had been for some years. I had grown to appreciate the gentle inconsequentiality of most of the living room talk, so unfraught compared to most other conversations I seemed to be part of (especially back in contentious Eureka Springs). The Vermont conversations usually included Dot, and her boyfriend (the kind and gentlemanly Jim Cherry, pictured left, the man who succeeded her husband and remained her companion for the last 20 years of his life, until he died at 93). Ned would take part when he was here, as well as other guests: friends of Dot and Jim, friends of mine. Dot loved to have company (in part because everyone who ever visited was simply knocked out by the beauty of the place, and told her so, in one way or another. And a compliment to any part of the farm --- the view, the house, what had been served for dinner --- made her glow.)
What was the content of those talks by the fire, as the white parts of the room gently faded to gray? How extremely sweet the corn seemed to be
that summer. How much better the current chef at the Grafton Inn was than the previous one. Dot, who had been an editor at Macmillan, might say how aggravating she was finding it to caption the photographs for the three-volume series Strong on Music, on the history of music
in New York, which she was editing. But we all knew that despite her complaints, she was engrossed by and immensely proud of this work. Not only was it her last real project, but she was actually completing its writing, not just editing it. The author, her best friend, Vera Brodsky Lawrence, had died before she could finish it, and when it became evident to her that she would, she had extracted a promise that Dorothy would do so. Yet though Dorothy and Vera had met once a week for years in New York, at the farm Dot never talked about her sadness at losing this old friend, only the book and how it was going and what a good job Vera had done.
Knowing how much Dot enjoyed my, or anyone's, enjoyment of the farm, I might comment on how extremely vivid a blue the sky had been that day, and how especially astonishing it was set behind the silver-white birches. "I left them, you know, " Aunt Dot would say, proudly. And she had, back when she had decided to clear an overgrown pasture, to "open up the view." I'd tell her she had foresight, and a good eye. I'd thank her for leaving them. Aunt Dot would make a tssk sound of self-deprecation, but it pleased her no end that her vision was recognized and appreciated.
Some topics, and what would be said about them, were certain. Every fall, without fail, you could count on Aunt Dot to say, "I don't think the leaves have ever been more beautiful, do you?" And if we happened to have had dinner earlier that evening at the home of her favorite neighbor, Dot would unfailingly say, at some point, "Well, the view from Peter's is certainly very nice. But I prefer ours."
As if there had ever been any doubt.
Why, given all these gentle satisfactions, should I, or my aunt, have noticed the white woodwork graying?
What reigned was comfort and familiarity, not interior design. Just as when we remarked on a particularly bright full moon rising over the forest-edged meadow, or, a few weeks later, the delicacy of a particular crescent moon, and, each fall, the changing of the leaves and the way the dark pond, mirror-like, Escher-like, reflected the orange-red maple that grew beside it while a few bright leaves floated on the surface --- it was beauty we were noting, the loveliness of the place, not the passage of time.
But time passed anyway.
The cafe curtains in the living room tried, like the wallpaper, to stay sprightly. But 30-plus years is a long time to remain perky. Bitten on the top by vicious-toothed brass rings which circled the brass curtain rods on which they hung, they were taken down every two or three years to be washed, pressed, and starched. Each time, they grew slightly thinner and lighter. Eventually they became fragile, almost translucent, letting more light into the living room. Did we notice? No.
What was Aunt Dot was asking, that night?
Was she saying, do you want me to leave the house
Was she saying, am I correct in thinking you are the one person in the family who loves the farm as much as I do, and might actually reside here?
Was she saying, I am in fact leaving the house to you?
life in another state altogether; opacity
If it was the latter, with what joy and confusion Ned and I would have received the news! We loved the place, and had often talked about living there, but always in a vague, to-be-determined future. For at that present moment, we were utterly involved in our lives in Arkansas. (Ned and I high-fiving, left, in 1998; we had just announced that we were closing our inn, and co-founding a non-profit writer's colony. We had been innkeepers, community activists, passionate preservationists, wholly enmeshed in the politics, culture, and social web of our little town, Eureka Springs).
We also didn't have nearly the financial resources that Aunt Dot did to maintain such place.
But she had said "someday." Is there a word more wide-open then "someday"?
What would actually happen didn't remotely occur to any of us. That young, handsome, healthy Ned would die before either Dorothy or me, killed when the yellow bicycle he rode with such joy intersected with a pick-up truck on an Arkansas road. That by the time Dorothy might have been ready and willing to leave me the farm, she had outlived her money, in large part due to an embezzling caregiver, and she had nothing left to leave me or anyone else. Thankfully, by that point, she was incapable of knowing, or worrying about, this.
I believe, given all this, that I am also thankful for the opacity of the curtain which divides us from our future. How would we bear what lays ahead for us were that division as fragile as the old curtain fabric which hung at the windows of Aunt Dot's living room?
By the night when Dot "supposed", she was in her late 80's, Jim in his early 90's. Vera was dead; the presence of that had to be in her face every day as she worked on the books. At Aunt
Dot's last Wellesley class reunion, only 6 of the "gals" (as she always described them) with whom she had graduated were still alive. How is it
possible that we neglected to speak, directly, of these things? Yet we
did: when Dot had told me about the reunion, she'd described it triumphantly, as delighted as a girl. "Everyone else
walked, but they loaded us into a Model-T Ford and when we drove down
the street it was just lined with young graduates and they cheered us,
and cheered us..."
Fall is beautiful, especially in Vermont. Its magnificence, though, marks an ending. Aunt Dot never once saw the farm in the winter; she left long before the last leaf turned from red or gold to brown.
I tried, in the seconds before I answered Dot that night, to suss out what her subtext might be.
I knew there was one, but I couldn't get it.
I knew assumptions are dangerous. Talking about the dispossession of one's property after death is delicate and emotionally fraught, when the death or the property is yours or that of someone you love. There were those ignored elephants in the room. Several of them I can name more clearly now than I could then: aging, money, fear of impending, inevitable change.
Next to me, on the couch, Ned remained silent. But I could feel the quickening of his interest, hope and curiosity and amusement --- how would I answer this? what was Dot actually saying? --- rising off him like heat.This was, we both assumed, about our future. This was, possibly, big.
"Well, Aunt Dot," I said, fumbling cautiously. "I love the
farm, and we've --- well, you know we've always thought we'd like
to live here someday..."
But she was no longer looking at me. Her gaze seemed to stretch out, far past the room, to a middle distance.
Then she said, with the utmost mournfulness, "I suppose you'll... redecorate."
Redecorate? All this supposing was about redecoration?
I told that story for a lot of years. I thought it was funny, and I still do. My aunt's wish to control the future, even a future she might not --- would not --- be in. My own utter inability to imagine where she was going with that odd remark, and scrambling to answer appropriately.
But I also think, now, that there was something tragic in the exchange. Not melodramatically so but in a perfectly ordinary, normal way --- that two people who loved each other, who loved and had shared a particular place, who had traveled through so many revolutions of the earth around the sun together, were unable to give voice to their hopes and fears.
Now I think I understand much better what Aunt Dot was grappling with, but could not articulate. Not to herself; certainly not to us. Wallpaper and the arrangement of furniture had nothing to do with it, though even she may have thought it did.
I still see the funniness. I also see terror, A terror, unexpressed, that lay beneath "redecorating." A terror that is existential, inherent in living a human life, which one knows will end. Especially when that ending (and what, if anything follows that ending) is and must be wholly unknown.
It would take years for me to get that that's what this exchange was about, though.
And although I wish now that we had been able to speak openly that night, neither of us were able to. We each did the best we could.
I think I probably barked out a an astonished laugh, as I felt Ned, next to me, also shake with laughter. I probably shrugged and said something like, "Aunt Dot, I have no idea, we've got a lot of bridges to cross before we come to that."
I think it is less terrifying in actuality than was its anticipation, which she bore alone.
Dot lives in the moment now. Some of these appear to be very happy moments. (Dot, left, on her hundredth birthday).
Dot, now, is the one who lives in another state. And I do live here, on the farm, in Vermont, as she supposed.
But sometimes, especially late at night, I think about those bridges, and how many of them it is necessary to burn in order to simply go on living.
Sometimes, I swear I can still smell the smoke.