Following a 10-day sojourn to the East Coast to visit family and the friends of my youth, I return to Tacoma with home on my mind. It’s a complicated thing, home: an idea, a time and a place, a collection of experiences. Like the experience of rounding the corner and seeing your lawn, two-weeks neglected, dandelions knee-high and facing the sun, and wondering if your neighbor with the addiction to mowing and leaf blowing sees in those yellow faces a children’s choir heralding your return. He certainly does not, and your knowledge of this fact forces you to reassume the weight of ownership. You’ll have to mow your lawn today, and you’ll have to stock your fridge, and you’ll remember that the windows need washing–but how do you remove storms, and does OxyClean leave streaks? The trim needs painting and the fence needs scrubbing and probably some painting of its own. And don’t get me started on the room that is not well lit enough to serve much of a function at all and so is both catchall and eyesore.
That stuff is more house than home, but the two intertwine. One morning several summers ago, the year after my husband moved out because I asked him to, I stood at the sliding glass doors in my kitchen and watched a squirrel rip out the fiber fill of a cushion on my patio furniture. I had seen the table and chairs throughout the seasons before, of course I had: I had walked past them to take out the garbage and recycling; I had observed my dog peeing on them in the dark before bedtime; I had seen them cleansed with rain and dusted with snow. I must have thought, “I need to put that furniture in the garage,” but I had never followed through. And then in early July I saw the squirrel busy itself with my cushion, and I felt angry, offended even. That creature was making its nest out of the remains of my own. I shooed the squirrel and put the patio set away, and then I looked around. For a year my house had stood stagnant. The back yard was overgrown. On the floor of the guest room laid the detritus of the moving-out day: empty shoeboxes, hangers, stacks of papers, some books. (When we’d divvied up our possessions, had we determined that those were mine?) On two walls of our bedroom was the green paint selected by me and, because I was pregnant at the time, applied by my husband and mother. “Happy Camper,” it was called, but it was always too dark.
Toward the end of that summer my mom came for another visit, and together we cleaned and repainted, for one cannot thrive inside a tomb.
Olivia Clemens knew this. She was Mark Twain’s wife, and, oh, how he loved her. When I was a research assistant in graduate school I visited the Bancroft Library and read their correspondence. In the letters, he calls her “Livy” and “Dearest Livy,” and he suffers from how much he misses her and their children.
While back east I visited The Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. Such a house. According to the docent, it was a house for entertaining, a house intended to shine at night: the walls stenciled in metallic paint would have danced in the light of the gas lamps, he said; fireplaces would have been lit, their flames refracted by candelabra crystals and reflected in giant mirrors.
It was a house for the daytime, too, for the Clemens girls grew up there. You can see their bedrooms, their school room, and their toys, and you can touch the banister against which they used to crouch when eavesdropping with glee upon their parents’ conversations with guests, their father performing all the while because he knew the girls were listening in. The docent asked my daughter how old she is. “Seven,” she said, and we learned that all three of the Clemens daughters had been seven inside that house. “What do you think of their toys?” he asked. My daughter shrugged and said, “Good,” too shy to tell him what she’d told me, that she’d like to play with those toys.
She couldn’t, of course. Aside from the banisters, we were not allowed to touch anything in the house. Here were the children’s possessions–blocks, a massive doll house, a baby carriage–scattered and stacked as if recently used by the Clemens girls and ready to be taken up again, but in truth long forgotten, unearthed solely to form a tableau of life as it might have been, as it must have been in the Hartford house.
In Twain’s billiard room I felt an urge similar to the one my daughter had had. I wanted to sit at the desk in the corner where Twain had written most of his great books. Across the lawn in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house I had dared to touch three fingers to the table at which Stowe had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the Twain docent was more austere than the Stowe guide had been, and besides, Twain’s table was out of reach. It was in the billiard room–the final stop on the tour–that the docent told us the story of Susy Clemens, how at the age of 24 she had contracted spinal meningitis while her parents were touring in Europe, and how she had died in this house. Livy Clemens had tried to get home in time to tend to her daughter or else to say goodbye, but travel was slow then, and she did not make it in time. According to our docent, Olivia Clemens never entered the house again.
At the Twain house you can see Livy Clemens’s nightgown, mildewed and yellowed yet preserved, and you can buy a crisp, white facsimile for yourself to wear at home. You can stand in the doorway of Susy’s bedroom and see, I suppose, the very bed she died in. You can smell pipe smoke. In your own home, too, you can find remnants of those who left the place behind. You can leave them untouched, or you can rebuild.
*Tiffany Aldrich MacBain teaches American and Native American literature at the University of Puget Sound. She is writing a collection of essays on her experiences with motherhood and personhood in Tacoma and beyond. She has recently started a blog: http://amerethread.blogspot.