Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Ghosts & Vibes of Old Houses

Flowers explode atop a rainbow of geometric patterns, the rainbow itself 
buoyed by a fountain of flowers. A door knob cast in brass - grabbed and 
turned by thousands of hands, tens of thousands of times. 1890s hardware
 taught me that Peter Max's psychedelic art of the 1960s was not so original.
In Wallace Stegner’s novel, Angle Of Repose, the elderly, cranky, handicapped protagonist is writing a book about his grandmother’s life in America’s late-Victorian era.

Sitting in her old house he speaks out loud to his long dead grandmother: “There is a physical law that teases me: The Doppler Effect. The sound of anything coming at you–a train, or the future–has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But [grandmother] I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you. I would like to hear it as it sounded while it was passing.”

People think preservationists are trying to save beautiful, old things. That’s simplistic. I think we’re reacting to America’s amnesiac culture, and like Stegner’s protagonist, we’re trying to hear the sound of the past and hold it close.

It’s said that the past is a foreign country. I feel a yearning to connect with the lost language and customs of that foreign country. Just one example: the lives of my great uncle Chalk and great aunt Ruby who lived in northern Indiana along the Tippecanoe river. It’s a foreign country I see through the veil of childhood memories.

Their home was from a long gone era. Born in the 1890s and children of Victorian-era parents, they were living a little like their parent’s generation. In a simple house at the edge of Talma their living room was sequestered like a Victorian front parlor –dark, shades pulled when not in use. I’d sneak through the heavy drapery that hid it from the dining room to steal chocolate non-parriels from a cut glass bowl. There was a primitive kitchen with a big cast-iron sink, free-standing cabinets, and a well-used root cellar filled with canned vegetables from their garden.

On an autumn day when the big kids had kept me from their games, I found purpose helping uncle Chalk in his garden. We pressed the pitch fork into the ground together, then pulled on the handle with our combined weight. A tangled root ball of potatoes was unearthed in one row and peanuts in another. He’d rinse the peanuts, soak them in salt water, then take the wood-framed screens from the house windows and lay them on saw horses in the sun, spreading the peanuts to dry, making a snack that would last him all winter long.

Peppers growing in my garden. Composting. Planting.
Harvesting. Composting. Planting. Harvesting. Comp . . .
His wife, Ruby, though legally blind, cooked large meals in a kitchen most people today would think hardly better than campfire cooking. I recall her passing a plate of beets. The 7 or 8-year-old me shook his head no. She replied, peering through thick glasses that freakishly magnified her eyes, “You’ll have to say out loud what you want. I can’t see what you’re doing with your head.”

Dear woman.

I strain to hear that distant sound, receding in tone, no longer bright and clear, trying to connect with their traditions enough to amplify it. Maybe if I tend my own garden with sufficient love, refinish enough 120-year-old woodwork, can enough of my own vegetables and maybe if I polish enough intricately cast hardware, maybe then the sound will be clearer, that I’ll hear their world approaching bright and new, instead of deep and receding as history accelerates far past their memory.

That works for me and I feel connected to something bigger than the mindless bleating and shouting of modern pop culture from television, computer and phone screens.

What is it we get from running our hands along a newel post and stair railing polished smooth by 120 years of hands? Thousands of hands, touching it tens of thousands of times. In our houses babies were born and people died. Weddings and funerals were held. Over a century of Christmas trees decorated and that many Thanksgiving meals cooked and eaten. Little boys grew up and left our front doors to wars suspiciously spaced one each generation: Spanish/American, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars. Our homes have known personal tragedies, joyous victories, thousands of moments of passionate intimacy, and no doubt many, many arguments. I’m just nutty enough to think all of that can’t happen in a house without having an effect on how the place feels – you know, like your favorite chair or most comfortable pair of jeans.
All that living makes a house feel different. We love the fish-scale shingles in the gable, the shaded porch, the brick sidewalk, but there’s something else. We’re trying to shed that American amnesia, we’re trying to take the past with us as we fill our houses with blue-tooth sound systems, flat panel TVs, and phone apps that control our lights and high-efficiency furnaces.

The handrail outside my buddy Greg's apartment in downtown Noblesville:
Oak paneled stairwells, the steps polished by leather and handrails polished
by palms and fingers since WWI.
In my 2nd novel, The Salvage Man, the protagonist, Dan Reynolds is a silent middle-aged guy, for whom sharing emotions is painful. He's not much interested in seeking some textbook notion of history or hearing its receding sound amplified, but with a heart aching for things lost in the past, it happens to him inspite of himself. The book was inspired by getting vibes from the houses where I did architectural salvage as I looked to replace things previous owners removed from my own house. Sometime you get good vibes and sometimes bad. In my novel, Dan Reynolds discovers where the vibe come from. And the vibe is either the approaching or the receding sound. The more well-worn detail you remove from an old house, the more history accelerates and the quicker the sound recedes.

As I’ve gotten older, like the grumpy old man in Stegner’s Angle of Repose, it does seem like history, like all falling objects is accelerating. And I don’t want to be a typical American amnesiac as the speed increases, I want to listen for the past, keep the sound strong and bright and take as much of it with me as my heart will hold.

 “A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”
Sherri Wood Emmons, author of The Seventh Mother

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of The Flying Circus