Your elevator pitch—tell me, she said. What’s your book about in a 3-4 sentence summation? I didn’t have an answer at the time, but this is what I’ve come up with so far:

Mine is a story of being the second of seven, each born within 9-years, and raised by an impervious single-mom. (That three-tent circus alone might be “worth the price of admission,” as my dear friend Nan would say.) I’ll also revisit the impact of my father’s compulsions, which resulted in unprecedented consequences by way of his genius, albeit deviant, manipulation. And I’ll explore faith vs. folly as they pertain to my mother’s independence, which was often at odds with her installation of the LDS church as patriarch by proxy of our home.

So this blog may be a forum for wordsmithing—pounding out, if you will—some of the memories that are trying to make their way into my book. On top of that, I might stomp in the puddles of parenting, wrestle in the reeds of politics, or sit on the dock musing over the inner-workings of the universe. Whatever I’m writing, this blog is my pond to play in, and you’re welcome to swing by for a friendly splash.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cathartic Construction

Left: Joe & Mom, 2000 
Right: Rob & Christjen, his son, 1996
The walls in my mother’s house have moved again. I’d like to say that’s merely a metaphor, but the frequency at which she tears down and reconstructs the walls within her home has been a barometer of her strength and resilience since 1999.

When I was a child, paper and rubber threads of overzealous erasing littered our dining room table fairly regularly. After reconciling an empty bank account, or waiting on something baking, or while the little kids were playing in a bedroom or the backyard, my mother would sit at the table, pencil in hand. Some days she wrote. Other days she drew. But her mind was always occupied.

One particular Sunday afternoon in what may have been 1982, I found her at the table while something savory was simmering in the kitchen behind her. She had a look of deliberation as she drew a reconfigured landscape that in her mind, and on the paper, was situated around the house my Aunt Lois owned, which my grandfather built in 1948.

The house on Benson was just under 900 square feet and sat deep on the lot. In front, there was a long narrow driveway that led to a shed, which I always imagined housed black widows and gardening tools. In the front yard, there was also a plum tree, generous with fruit; which often fell to the ground in the summer heat, spoiling the birds and bees in the area.

From the front porch, the door opened directly into a family room, and the house was divided into six unequal sections. Most notably, there were no hallways.

At the back of the family room, you could continue straight into the kitchen, or turn left into the master, which doubled as a pass-through to the kids’ room at the front, and a bathroom at back of the house.

If you went into the kitchen, you’d find a mud-room that opened into the alley-way and led to my grandparent’s house. We used this door most often, and the boundaries between the two homes often seemed blurred.

This was the house my mother was drafting that day.

When asked what she was doing, she told me about visions of pouring a shapely driveway. She imagined a full garage replacing the shed, and a pergola and water fountain replacing the plum tree. She also envisioned a black wrought-iron fence replacing the chain link.

Her ability to convey her vision on paper was impressive; but more so, I was taken with the softness of her eyes and the upturned corners of her lips, and the elegance of her hands as she sweepingly described what each shape on the grid-lines represented.

She told me about how her father built the house with a handsaw and a hammer—no power tools. And how he was fortunate to have used real wood. She recounted that building materials were sparsely available in the 1940s, and most of the neighbors built their homes out of clapboards reclaimed from fruit boxes that nearby canneries had discarded.

It didn’t matter that this was her sister’s home, or that it was in a run-down neighborhood, or that she had no income to speak of to purchase it, let alone enact the changes. 

When I asked her why she was drawing it as though it was her own, she said, “If I imagine it, it will happen. God will provide—maybe not this house—but he has something in mind. I just have to envision it and then ask.” And she meant it.

Mom asked without abandon. Not just about housing, but everything. She asked with an embarrassing amount of faith, entitlement, and confidence.

And he did. Her God provided. Every. Single. Time.

On May 31st, 1999, my brother Robert was promoted to Executive Chef. As a high school drop-out who found passion and success in the culinary arts, to him, it meant a future. After an evening of excessive celebrating, Rob went to bed. And then he was gone. 

I won’t try to describe the devastation.

Pain shifts time and memory. I don’t recall if Mom purchased the home on Benson right before, or right after this happened; but I do know the walls started moving almost immediately after Rob’s death.

And then, on August 10, 2000, my brother Joe was killed by a drunk driver. And the walls went up and down even faster.

At one point, Mom hired an unemployed neighbor who worked for a few dollars here and there; but she was never satisfied, and she redid most of it. Over and over again. On any given day, a new drawing could be found on a random beam or piece of scrap wood, depicting her new vision for the space. And a month, or a week, or a day after it was completed, the cycle would repeat.

Mom was capable of anything. She sought advice from the “do-it-yourself” advocates at the local big box store, and she learned from trying, and trying again.

Some days the only place to wash your hands was the kitchen sink. Other days, the kitchen was dismantled and dishes had to be washed in the bathroom. By the end, and somewhere between the third and thirtieth iteration, a hallway had taken form, and the kitchen moved from its original southeast corner of the house to the opposite side of the structure—plumbing, electrical, and all.

The changes only stopped when she listed the house; and she was fortunate to sell it at the top of the market in 2006, before the housing bubble burst. Shortly thereafter, she purchased her current home in Utah, and it wasn’t long before her catharsis continued.

It’s been nine more years of construction, and with each cycle of tearing down and rebuilding, she says it is the last.

My mother turned 70 in September, and plans to retire from her career as a high school English teacher this year. When I arrived at her house Tuesday evening, somehow I allowed myself to be surprised that another wall had been taken down. 

And then we talked about her health. And I was devastated to learn that this cycle really may be her last.


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