An empty house brings its own set of worries.
I go back to the house in Mattapoisett when I can to check on things and to loot the place for household goodies and/or family heirlooms.
The last time I was there I encountered quite a surprise.
I had gone there to meet with a fireman. The fire department had to do a final inspection of the new boiler we had installed back in August. My aunt had it put in because she knew I wasn't going to be coming there as much after she passed, and she wanted to make sure that the pipes wouldn't freeze due to the old boiler shutting down, as it was prone to do. So we plunked down seven grand and got a new one. It seemed to work fine. I was happy, my aunt was happy, and we got a $500 rebate from the Massachusetts department of energy for upgrading. That, she was most happy with.
But the firemen called a couple of weeks back to say they needed to check the boiler out to make sure it was installed properly. I said "no problem," and booked the appointment for last week.
Well, on that day upon arriving, I decided, for a reason I can't pinpoint, to enter the property through my aunt's side rather than my mother's. The place isn't that big, but it does have two driveways.
As I approached the front door I noticed the ground was unusually wet over by my mother's entrance. There were big puddles which had never accumulated before. I couldn't be sure but I didn't think there had been any rain there recently.
"Weird," I thought.
I went into the house and didn't think too much more about it.
The fireman was scheduled to come at 1:30.
It was 1:15--a half hour after being home--that I decided to go out and get the mail from my mother's side. As I rounded the corner I heard a strange noise: "Sssssssssssssss ... "
A blown pipe!
The goddamn outdoor hose plumbing was busted. It was busted, and gallon upon gallon of water was streaming out of it and onto the ground, running down in rivulets all the way to where I had noticed the odd collection of puddles.
So, I ran inside and searched the place for a shut off valve. I could hear the circus music in the background as I high-stepped it all around the place saying "Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit!" like my dear mother had taught me to do as a child. She would deny it with a red, embarrassed, guilt-ridden face if she were here today, though she would clearly know where I picked it up.
I finally found the shut off valve in the boiler room and breathed a heavy sigh of relief as I heard it close off the water with a mighty "ca-chunk."
And then I remembered the freaking fireman who was coming in ten minutes to make sure the place was in good hands; to make sure no disasters would happen.
Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit!
And I took a look outside and saw that not only were there puddles still clearly visible, but there was a mass of ice that had formed on the branches around the former geyser. I kicked them free with my foot and then went around front, back to my aunt's side to pretend I was checking the mail.
You know when you know your timing isn't going to be perfect, but you want a certain thing to happen a certain way so you wait in an unusual place, doing an unusual thing, for an unusually long time? Perhaps it's reading the nutrition information on a bag of sugar ten times while you're at the grocery store, waiting until the person who you want to "casually" happen upon gets close enough. And then you put the bag down and say,"well, look who it is?"
That's what I did.
I waited at my aunt's side of the property standing in front of the mail box for twenty minutes until I heard a car approaching--a big car with light blue plates. I then reached into the box, slowly, and grabbed the mail that I knew was in there--mail I had already opened twenty minutes prior with my index finger and read and put back in the envelope--and waved for the fireman to come down to that end; my aunt's end: the end away from the disaster. I did my best to look pleasantly surprised.
I showed him in the other way and he checked the boiler and told me everything seemed to check out fine. I did my best to not flap my mouth too much and look super-suspicious. It's not easy for me, but when I have to do it, I can.
And I showed him back the other way--opposite the disaster--and he was off the way he came and I had averted an uncomfortable situation. I didn't want to have to go into explaining why the pipe burst, and why I wasn't there to catch it in time, and how he didn't have to worry about the place because I'm there as much as I can, and on, and on, and on, and never shutting up and looking more and more suspicious every syllable that exits my mouth.
And I know that I'm not doing anything illegal. There are plenty of properties on that street that stay vacant for any number of months, waiting for the warmer weather to come, bringing tenants who inhabit the premises while the bricks relax, the clapboards breath, and the pipes meditate.
My insurance company knows that I'm not there all the time, so I'm in the clear there.
But this minor emergency is one of the things that could have only happened because the two people who have occupied the house for fourteen years are not around anymore. This has probably never happened in all the time they have lived there. But neither one was there two weeks ago watching the news to see that the freezing weather was coming; to alert the other one that they had to shut off the water to the hose and open up the other end. It was something and nothing--a five minute job--but there wasn't anyone there to do it, and so it froze, and broke, and made a mess.
And I ended up with a fireman on his way, in his big car with the blue plates, the circus music in the background, and me, yelling, "Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit! Oh-shit!" while flapping my hands and running around like a chicken being chased by a fox in a henhouse.
And I suppose it could have been a lot worse.
There's a piece of paper on the fridge at their house that is titled, "Things to do before the weather gets too cold."
You can guess what is in the top five of those things.
But something that isn't in that list is something that I did yesterday, which I guess probably wouldn't have happened if I hadn't bought my new, wonderful, home ...
... I brought the family Christmas ornaments back here.
I brought the old, browned, corrugated cardboard boxes that are covered with stickers and scribbled with markers denoting which box contains the fragile stuff, and which box contains the really fragile stuff--stuff that's been in the family for a few generations. One box contains the angel which has sat on the top of every tree that I have stared at through the Christmas season. One box contains the blown glass ornaments that are in the shape of little people, some playing instruments, some marching, some wearing--inexplicably--space suits. And one box contains the old rugged styrofoam ornaments that are adorned with hundreds of sequins, stuck through with hundreds of ball-end pins. It was a style of ornament that you don't really see much today, but was all the rage back in the Seventies. One box contains a little christmas village that my mother had brought back from Poland when she went there in the Eighties. It had gone missing a few years back, but I found it for her that first Christmas we had after she got her final diagnosis. I searched and searched in amongst hundreds of other boxes of things to finally come to one box that was clearly labeled--in big marked letters--"Christmas Village."
She was so unbelievably happy I found it she cried hard for fifteen minutes straight. It was a moment I won't soon forget.
And this begins another phase in my life: the understanding that only one house will be decorated for real--my house.
Over the next few days I will go out and get a tree. I'll bring it back and find the best spot for it, then I'll spend twenty minutes trying to decide the best side to have exposed. Then I'll hang the lights, the ornaments, and then the angel will go on top. Then I will spread out the lengths of red velvet that go underneath. Many presents have lived their short lifetime on that velvet. It is soaked with mojo.
All of this will be incredibly emotionally draining for me. I can almost guarantee I will get an occasional headache from the dehydration that comes with the intense crying that runs in my family. But surviving and thriving through this holiday season is the most important and most symbolic act I can, and will, accomplish at this time in my life. I have made a choice to settle in (not settle down) in Florence, and this is how I shall stake my claim: one browned, corrugated boxful of ornaments at a time, with the Christmas music playing on the stereo, and perhaps a batch of brownies in the oven.
And I'll make sure that the Mattapoisett house is taken care of. I'll make sure the pipes don't freeze and the mail gets taken in, and the bills get paid. It is my duty to preserve the homestead which my family was so proud of. But, little by little, each time I go back, I will be packing the memories up in boxes and bringing them with me so they will be safe. I can't be there all the time. I can't call the fire department if there's an emergency. I can't even tell if a pipe has blown in one end of the place if I'm at the other. It's a bit overwhelming, to say the least.
But at least it all has a place to go; a place that is growing and breathing and becoming stronger with each successful hearth fire and each new coat of paint applied. A place that is only left empty for so long when I leave it, and each time, leaving out the door, anticipating my return. I can't wait to discover new sounds it makes, to discover something new about the floor or the cupboards I hadn't noticed before. I can't wait to be part of it, to move through its halls, up and down its stairs, to peer though its old panes of glass, as so many others have before me during its hundred and twenty-five year life. And to bring my memories, to share with the ones that are contained within the walls made of horsehair plaster, and floors made of wide-plank pine.
An empty house brings its own set of worries.
You have to keep the pipes warm, the grass cut, and the bills paid.
And then, eventually, you have to let go and fill another one up.
And you hope it carries on.
And that's about all you can do.
Thanks for reading.