broken into pieces inside me; a room here,
a room there, and then a piece of a
hallway that doesn't connect these two
rooms, but is preserved as a fragment, by
itself. ... It is as if the image of this house has
fallen into me from an infinite height and
shattered upon my ground."
-- Rainer Maria Rilke,
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Today, I spent the entire day in a room I wanted to escape. My eye strayed beyond the window to the golden outdoors. I made up excuses to leave this room and visit another -- a glass of water, the telephone, a cat at the door. On one escape, I opened a book to this passage and remembered that rooms stay with us long after we have left them for good.
I like remembering life as a succession of rooms. It's a way of recalling time past without all its baggage. There are rarely, if ever, people in the rooms we remember, just walls and floors and windows and maybe some sticks of furniture. Still, from just those bare bones, fully fleshed memory can sometimes be born.
Of my family's first living room, I can remember only a built-in bookcase of blonde wood below the front picture window. Of my first bedroom, I remember the corner window where, in the summer, a huge fan roared constantly, sucking hot air out into the night. I remember the kitchen floor was covered with black speckled linoleum, waxed by my mother so that when I ran to answer the telephone on the kitchen cabinet, I skidded half-way across the room on sock feet.
The basement fireplace of another house was a frightening, sooty cavern. I imagined intruders shimmying their way into our house and creeping through the silent basement while we all slept upstairs. One month, a family of sparrows took up residence in the chimney and I listened to what I imagined were the baby birds' terrified chirps, enveloped in darkness.
I remember precisely the kitchen of my teenage years with its abominable mint green cabinets and the table where I commiserated with my mother, my sister and our cousin, Judy. We had the same conversation every night, and I dug my fingenails into the soft, built-up finish on the table, leaving furrows of concentrated boredom and worry.
The bedroom of my first year of college was a stone and pine room that looked like a cottage in Grimm's Fairy Tales. The low, modern living room of my first apartment featured a large picture window that shook from side to side like a cockeyed cartoon window in the first, and only, earthquake I've ever experienced. I think of the glassed-in sun porch of a later house where my son's first crib fit perfectly against an inner wall, and the bedroom of my current house with its three-sided window which lets the full moon in through the Venetian blind slats all night long.
The memory of one room inevitably leads to another. Strange details leap forward, like the exact location on the shelves of the phonics book our family used to help my sister learn to talk.
On the street where I spent my first ten years, in a small Kentucky town, all the families who stayed have added rooms to the backs of their houses -- a guest bedroom, an extra half-bath, an extension of the kitchen, a family room. Did they grow too large for the rooms they have inhabited for 40 years, or did the rooms become too small once they were totally incorporated into their lives, inch by square inch? Was there nothing left to take note of and remember after so many years? Are the new rooms added-on memories for the second half of life?
On a visit to the Petersons a few years back, two doors down from our house, I left the crowded kitchen and wandered back to the central hallway connecting living room and bedrooms with the bathroom in the original part of the house. I wanted to step on the furnace grate, a squeaky metal grid that dominated the space when I was a kid. I remember jumping across it for fear of burning the bottoms of my feet. It smelled like hot dust and the backs of closets. The distant thundering of the furnace's aluminum walls was followed by a whoosh of warm air which rose and billowed your dress out if you stood directly above the grate.
The grate was covered over now with wall-to-wall carpet, a new heater installed at some point over the years. But standing in that dark hallway, I could hear the rumble, smell the hot breath, feel the sharp metal bars against my bare feet. That room, remembered, remained unchanged, and I could visit it or escape it whenever I wanted.
-- First published in October of 1997