The Architecture of Life

“There are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality.  It is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.” -John Ruskin

“I’m…a ponderous house.” -Sylvia Plath


“This will not be the last cup of tea that I drink.”  Angie sat in the darkness, rocking in her chair.  She was alone and singing fear into the air.  But rocking chairs have rocked for centuries and this thought made her feel secure.  She felt she could endure whatever made it through the door—even if it were a crack of light.  And the light did come, riding on the peaks of wooden floorboards, deepening the grooves between them.  In the histrionics of darkness and light, she saw herself being played.

“This will not be the last cup of tea that I drink,” she sat thinking.  She was looking away from the light, not ready to make its acquaintance.  Last night was the longest she’d had in a string of long nights.  It was long enough to forget about the Sun and think it an enemy, or at least an unwelcome guest.  The Moon was more her friend now.  She misses the dark-blue sky that was its backdrop.  She misses the gentle, white light that settled like fresh snow on everything within its reach.  She does not miss the firelight, now only faintly glowing embers.  But she does miss the crack of burning wood.

Pressing her foot against the floorboards, she’s determined to hear the crack of wood again.  Whether it takes moving the floorboards or her rocking chair, something’s going to creak.  And something does.  It didn’t sound like wood.  The twinge of pain, which shoots its way up her leg, makes her curse her knee.  She continues to press the floorboards.  Even with all of the creaks it made as it was settling, this house has stood firm.  Maybe her bones will do the same.

She remembers.  Her father built this house when he was a young man “wearin’ nothin’ but a holey pair o’ Levi’s.”  Every day was alike to him in those days.  His hammer would swing on Sunday afternoon as if it were Monday morning.  But he knew the Bible; he knew that its most important event involved a hammer and some nails.  This was church enough for him.

Fresh from the sanctuary, some of the young ladies would bring him their offerings.  Usually, it was a hodge-podge of morsels, scrapped from supper the night before.  It was never so much that the otherwise keen mothers of these young ladies would notice.  But with the generous number of offerings, the young man made out just fine for Sunday dinner.  On some occasions, there would be enough left over to eat for a couple of days into the week.

Soon the house neared completion; it became clear that only one of these young ladies would be able to join him in it.  That is, this became clear to the ladies.  It was always a clear fact to him.  “I knew all them always showin’ up ‘as gonna be a problem sooner or later,” he recounted, “But it ‘came a habit, e’en a rit’yal so that I cou’n’t stop it.  Cause, there’s only one way t’ stop a rit’yal.  That’s by doin’ another’n in its stead.”

He got married to the one girl who refused to bring him any food.  She was, to be sure, the prettiest of the girls.  But he noticed something else.  She was the smartest.  She would have been the town school teacher, save the mayor’s daughter being the same age and fresh out of finishing school.  Vera—the smart girl, not the mayor’s daughter—taught him how to read and to do arithmetic enough to make some corrections to his house.  For this he was grateful and maybe a little awestruck.

Angie knew all of this by heart, of course.  She was just remembering it a second ago.  But this is the first time that it felt distant.  She was sitting in the same rocking chair that her father sat himself in to tell this story.  Well, the chair was mostly the same.  One of the arms had been knocked off some years back.  It was fixed by wood glue and a few nails, more or less right after it was knocked off, but the years had freed it up to wobble.  The wobbling might have caused her memory to sway a little.  Maybe that was the cause of the distant feeling.  Bits of Thom seemed to slide in where they didn’t belong.

Thom and Angie were born the same week, late in the spring—Thom on Monday, Angie on Thursday.  They were baptized together, the following Sunday.  The minister poured water on each tiny head, speaking the Triune name over each hairless bundle of humanity.

They played under the table when they were young, five years old.  They used to notch things on the underside before they could read or write in English.  They made their own language; the vocabulary was limited, but they knew all the words and all the letters.  That was the important thing.

One day, before all of this sketching started, Angie and her mother went out for a walk.  The creek near their house would often overflow during the early spring rains.  It was early spring.  A very old Willow tree used to sit prominently on the bank of this creek.  Now, it was in the creek.

The next day it was clear that the Willow had seen too many springs.  Its roots became branches, and its branches became roots planted in the creek bed.  It was a major event in the town.  Angie watched as men from the town gathered.  And she watched as they started to debate one another: “What’re we gonna do with this thing?”  Angie’s father and Thom’s were, as usual, on the same debate team.  The three other men, who also lived along the creek, were, as usual, on the other side of things.

Angie’s father and Thom’s father, who was the minister who baptized the two children, were artists in a town of pragmatists—and not the John Dewey kind of pragmatist.  The most creative thing these other men had ever attempted was to paint some of their wheelbarrows red.  And that was only so they could tell the difference between their manure wheelbarrows meant for gardening and their other wheelbarrows meant for carrying tools and chemicals to repair things.

No, these men wanted this tree to be firewood.  The altar looked fine, never mind the broken legs.  It still stands.  “Just keep those boys o’ yours off it, Reverend.”  They were referring to the well known event when Thom and his older brother, Walther, had knocked the altar over.

The boys were attempting to fly.  Being boys and not birds, they knew that they needed some kind of advantage to overcome the defect of not having wings.  They needed height.  The altar was not only high; it was long enough to provide three, maybe four, running steps for takeoff.  Removable pew cushions would break their fall, just in case they weren’t able to fly right away.  All was now ready.

But Thom developed a habit of running too closely on the edge of the altar.  The altar wobbled and, when he leaped, it was set completely off balance.  It fell.  If it weren’t for the curvy Victorian legs, it might have gone down with only a dent or two.  But the legs curved at their top, making them wider than the flat tabletop.  Both of the front two legs cracked off on impact.

Angie’s father fixed the altar, though the legs were damaged enough so that it still looked a little broken.  The deficiency wasn’t due to any lack of craftsmanship on the part of Angie’s father, only to lack of materials in town.  They decided to turn the table around with the back legs now becoming the front.  The engraved “Do This in Remembrance of Me” now faced away from the congregation, which was okay because it felt a little too Zwinglian for a Lutheran church anyway.

But with a newer, sturdier, perhaps more beautiful altar, Angie’s father could engrave: “This is my Body.”

While all of the finer points of theology were being discussed around the recently fallen tree, perhaps the most typical thing of all happened.  Angie’s mother showed how all of the men were right, but how they were all a little wrong, too.

“This is quite a bit of lumber in the making—and it’s pretty fresh.  Now, it’s only spring; we have all summer to gather up wood for our winter fires.  Of course, we don’t want to be blind to God’s provision.  So, it’s best if we do store some for firewood.  But we should be thankful to God for this provision and return some to His service.  That altar is a bit shameful, I have to say.  My George could make a fine new altar,” she gestured toward Angie’s father.  “And if we’re speaking practically, my kitchen table is lit’rally on its last two legs.”  It was true.  They’d been using two old broom handles, which were made sturdy by two notches in the wooden floor where the handles could slide into.  The notches are still there.

“Our Luther was once asked what he would do if our Lord was to come back the next day.  You know what he said?  He said he would plant a tree, ‘cause he knew that our Lord would uphold that tree into eternity.  That’s what God does, He upholds his creation; he lifts the fallen things.”

This settled the issue.  The Willow would be divided for these purposes: firewood, an altar, and a table for the Blumhardt’s.  “Vera’s got us all again, fellers,” said Thom’s father, the Reverend.

When Angie and Thom first started sketching under the table, not more than a month after the Willow event, Angie transcribed two things right away: one was the symbol for her father’s name, George; the other was the lesson her mother taught everyone that day: lift the fallen things.

Angie blinks.  The light that cracked through earlier, the light that rode across the floorboards, had been travelling up Angie’s leg for some time now.  It came from a window to the left of the door.  Most of her body was covered in the light that covered most of the house also.  The light rose up to her nose, until finally it streaked across her eyes.  She grumbled something barely audible, sounds that’re unintelligible to most.  I’ll tell you that they were angry words.  I won’t interpret.

She rocks and creaks her way upward to get above the light.  As her eyes adjust back to the lesser light, the door stands in front of her.  It isn’t unhinged, just slightly crooked.  A grin, a quick survey, and a shake of the head show her empathy.

Achoo.  And she turns around to Thom’s eyes peeking over the back of the couch.  I wipe my nose as I stare at her.  She pauses for a moment as her mind moves through two generations.

“Lilith, come out of the shadows.  You’re too old to keep doing such things.”

“But Grandma, you had your remembering face.  I was just watching.”

“Well, do you mind watching a pot of tea boilin’ for us instead?”

She isn’t mad at me for standing in the shadows, mostly just sad that I wasn’t my grandfather at the moment she first saw me, sad in realizing that it couldn’t have been him.  We sang “I’ll fly away” at his funeral a week ago.  It was the only time it had ever been sung in Saint Paul’s Lutheran church in Breechesburg.

And it was only sung as Grandpa’s last earthly stunt this side of the second Advent.  I heard him tell my Dad to “take care in telling the Lord’s flock that we will all be flying back to earth with our Lord as the Lord will make earth into his celestial shore.”  As my Dad conducted the funeral ceremony, he was happy to do this.  But he was also happy to see Grandma’s knowing smile as we sang it.  Anyway, we all knew that the wooden box couldn’t contain Grandpa, now or in the future.

As the water heats to a boil, Grandma and I decide to pour the water over coffee grounds rather than tea leaves.  It’s early enough for coffee, probably too early for tea.

“Lilith, you’re my eldest grandchild,” she starts to say.  She taps her finger on the top of the coffee in her mug to test the temperature, and wipes the residue on the table in a quick sign of the cross.  The table is stained at that spot because of her liturgical fervor.  Though, she doesn’t seem to recognize what she’s done.  “I feel as if this house might lose its soul.  It has been the material protection of this family for some long years, a thick skin.  Though, with your Grandfather gone and with me being…”

“Grandma, you’re breaking your momma’s rules.”

“What, what do you mean?  You shouldn’t interru…”

“I mean you’re writing on top of the table. You were only allowed to write underneath.”

I point to the wet cross.  She smiles and settles more onto the bench, resting her head against the windowsill.  I trace my fingers on another of her momma’s lessons, the one my Grandma carved under the table some long years ago—85 to be exact.

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