This moment right now is the first time I have ever been alone in the house my father was born in, the first time ever I have had the run of it, on my own, with no layers of generations between me and it. My sister and her partner left yesterday to return to Brooklyn. Joe just left for what will probably be a four-hour adventure to ride the famous Col du Tourmalet if the road is clear of ice.
So it’s just me here at the kitchen table, wearing a Lowell High School sweatshirt of my father’s, grabbed as much for warmth as for yet another layer of family history to wrap around me, walking around inside it, wearing it, inside and out.
My son says this house is haunted. My aunt on my mother’s side asked if we’d seen the ghost who once came and sat on her bed when she visited.
I have felt no such thing. Since childhood, I have felt only happy here, embraced, held. No ghosts, just presence. Just generations of family on my father’s side – treasures tucked away in drawers, like my grandfather Pierre’s straight razors inside their carved wooden case, my grandmother’s worn religious medals, piles of photos of my aunt Pauline as a fresh-faced fashion plate in the 40s, my father as an adorable round-faced child. And us, too: my parents and sisters and me, from 1959 through the 90s, snapped or mailed here to keep in touch and kept, treasured.
So I’m surrounded by my grandparents, and my parents’ generation, and my own, sifting through family history, delighted at every turn.
It’s true that I am on the verge of tears a lot while I am here, so grateful to my parents for giving us the keys and allowing us to occupy Maison Assibat as the house is called, to stand in this precious spot combining past, present and future, appreciating the many charms of this ancient dwelling while making plans -- for heaven’s sake -- to bring in le wifi.
I’ve been trying to get back here my entire life, really.
When I was a kid, 1973, age 10, winter approaching, there was no heat in this house. We’d huddle around the diesel-powered stove in the big kitchen, then take hot water bottles to bed with us. There was no shower or bathtub. We’d flush the toilet (indoors at least, but not much warmer than outside) with buckets of icy mountain water. We’d go fetch fresh bread in the mornings, and fresh milk which we’d boil on the stove before adding it to our café au lait or chocolat chaud. My grandmother washed our clothes in the river up the street. We hung them to dry on the gallerie, the covered porch along the barn. One morning I remember taking down jeans frozen stiff and carrying them gingerly into the house. There was no refrigerator, either, just a cold room off the kitchen with a mesh-sided cabinet in which we’d store the cheese and butter and meats, milk and eggs. Also a cold cellar in the entryway, le cagibi, in which more food was stored, and sometimes live chickens, hung upside down, waiting for my grandmother’s knife. Potatoes grown in the garden were stored in a big bin just inside the door to the barn. There had been livestock kept here, but by the time I was 10, only chickens remained. And feral cats, of course.
Now of course, thanks to my parents, it seems deluxe. There are wall heaters in every room, a wood-burning stove in the kitchen replacing the diesel. There’s a washer *and* dryer, a shower, a half-bath where the potatoes used to be, and that brand-new second bath. My parents modernized the kitchen, thank goodness, so that now in place of what always seemed like a glorified two-burner camp stove set against a wall lined with newspaper to catch grease spatters (safety first), we have a four-burner gas stove, an oven, a dishwasher, microwave and tall fridge. Deluxe.
And from every room, from every drawer, the past spills out, creating this amalgam, this gorgeous alchemy, knitting the past to the now to the future in a way that makes me want to jump around.
Seriously, I have been trying to get back here my entire life.
We’re engaged in projects in the house, too, while we’re here. We installed, and already half-filled, a compost bin in the yard which once housed a beautiful, edible garden. We’ve pruned the climbing roses and stood around thinking about what we will someday cultivate here, where we will place the hives. We’re cleaning the barn, moving out decades-old corn husks from the hay-loft, cobs completely emptied of their kernels, discovering and cataloging old farm implements, putting them away carefully and out of sight. We’re checking out the new bathroom my parents had put in recently, and considering how we could make one side of the house – the once and future apartment – ready for summertime lodgers, considering how we might defray the costs of keeping this asset in the family, bring it more fully functional into the present.
We’re counting every day that we’re here, making lists, plotting our return, dreaming up a future which includes being here more, in the seat of my family, rooted, at home. It’s such a dream for me, really, something I’ve always, always wanted perhaps above all else.
And now I’m off to see about my twenty daily minutes of wifi access at the tourist office down the street, walk around in the winter sun and take pictures, soak it in, maybe take some flowers to the family grave in celebration of La Toussaint (All Souls, Dia de los Muertos), read the names of my ancestors while standing in their footsteps, watched over by snowy peaks. This, right now, this is bliss.