Signs of Life: Sunday Photo Essay

The dark finish on the steps and handrails was elegant and dressy once upon a time, you can tell. But over weeks and months, then years and decades, it collected scuffmarks and even a few deep gouges, call it a patina if you wish, from the traffic in the house: you can see it clearly now. Sixteen steps march up, up, up, while the open great room on the first floor disappears at about the halfway point—it’s the one place in the house where you can get close enough to one of the giant beams that stretch across the broad ceiling to reach out and caress it, before the ceiling vanishes out of sight as you continue on your way. That is on your left; the varicose surface of the massive stuccoed wall on your right (it is the real thing, applied by a true craftsman in the 1920s) will draw blood from your knuckles when you venture too close with a heavy laundry basket. You’ll be out of breath by then, coming from the far reaches of the basement one full floor below, where you went around the corner, down a hallway, and around another corner, just to run a load of wash.

At the top of these sixteen steps, had you taken the time to notice in the first place, you’d have found the flooring nails on the one step to the right (and another to the left, leading to the master suite) that were pounded through the rounded piece of wood trim forming the lip of the step, but were never bent up or clipped out of harm’s way by the carpenter wielding that hammer all those years ago. When your child reaches middle school the delicate underside of his high instep will somehow find one of those nails, leaving a deep laceration that insists on a trip to the doctor and a tetanus shot right away; for a little while you’ll silently curse a nameless carpenter who is probably long dead.

At the bottom of the steps stands a solid newel post topped by a perfect, round finial that wobbles, although it will never come off in the sixteen or so years you live in the house with your husband and child, like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life. And on top of the finial is a perfectly round wood plug that once covered the nail holding the finial in place, flush with the finial itself; the nail has emerged about an eighth inch out of the plug, and you mean to countersink that dang thing and cover the tiny hole with putty. You mean to, but never do it, because a piece of you knows that finial has been grabbed onto by hands large and small through the decades, happy hands off to an adventure that won’t wait, or busy hands, purposeful hands, angry hands, and even grieving hands. And now these hands, yours, feel the play in that post every time you climb or descend those sixteen beautiful steps. If you countersink the nail, the finial won’t wobble anymore, and somehow all those stories might be forgotten.

The last time I grasped the wobbly finial was near the end of August in 2012, the night my grownup boy and I slept on makeshift beds in the empty great room, the same empty room where, on the eve of moving in, he and I ran joyously back and forth from the massive fireplace to the bottom of the steps when he was two, again and again, until we were both out of breath and finally collapsed in giggles. This long chapter in a special house drew to a close without much fanfare, and certainly without giggles. Still, there was hope on the horizon not yet realized by either of us.

There is something organic about occupying a structure, working in it, or living out your life in it. One has only to glance at an abandoned house to see this truth: the vibrancy reaches beyond the rudimentary things, the electricity and water that make the place habitable. Blood coursing through the veins, air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs by people and their animals, these things bring life to a building or home. David and I are glad to step across the threshold of our new-old Vermont home, every day: it represents so much more for us than mere bricks and mortar, but like any home, is transient—we were not the first to inhabit it nor shall we be the last.

Where is the wobbly finial post in this home? I’m not yet precisely sure, but have only just started looking.

A note about these photos: my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister gave me a wonderful hand-me-down for Christmas, her Nikon D300s—she calls it my ‘big girl’ camera. These images represent my first efforts with a decidedly more sophisticated instrument (that has a decidedly sharper learning curve to go with) than my old Nikon D70, which I’ll keep on using as the situation demands. We witnessed some spectacular goings-on in these parts over the last few days owing to an earlier than usual January thaw after our last deep freeze, then a mini-mud season that lasted for a single day (Vermonters joyously broke out shorts and T-shirts in mid January), but then dangerously high water in local rivers and streams and serious local flooding, followed by another deep freeze which has more or less stopped everything in its tracks. The Walloomsac River defines one boundary of our property and is majestic and imposing just now; I tried to capture a little of its somewhat terrifying intentions in my quest for a wobbly finial.

the view across the Walloomsac, as seen through my writing room perch

the gate that will not latch, has wobbly finial potential

ancient window glass has a satisfying wobbly texture, distorting the outside world

Roiling Walloomsac I

Roiling Wallomsac 2

Roiling Walloomsac 3

yes, we have a barn, whatever the chef may call it—we live in Vermont

whose small hands these were we do not know; we see them in other places, too

one must celebrate the basement philosopher, even if his spelling was wobbly

our house is alive

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