The word “essay” springs from the French word that means “to try” or “to attempt.”  In this essay I am attempting to describe the atmosphere in my home where domestic violence took place.  I have attempted many times to describe the darkness that pervaded our family home, but I never seemed to be successful.  So I decided that perhaps if I wrote about this from the perspective of the house itself, I might be able to capture the atmosphere.  The people to whom I have read this essay have told me that it works for them.  I hope it works for you!   

Old timers in Centralia, Washington, call me the “old Winters house,” for I have sat here on L Street since 1920, the year Mr. Winters had me built for his new bride.  At the time, I was the only house on the street, and through my front windows on the west side I could see open fields all the way to Tower Avenue

Through my windows on the south side, I could see the creatures living in the gully—the voles, the raccoons, the beavers and opossums, the skunks–and see clear past the rolling hayfields to the SkookumchuckRiver.  From my back porch, I could see the fields and the railroad trestle where during the Great Depression the unemployed and the bindle stiffs gathered around their campfires as they paused in their journeys looking for work or simply looking for life.

 And through the windows in my dining room I could look north toward the railroad tracks and beyond to the little corner grocery and watch the children as they gathered after school and swapped secrets and stole puffs from the cigarettes somebody sneaked past the cash register.   Yes, for such an ordinary old two-story white frame farmhouse, I’ve seen a lot of history, a lot of just plain living.

To begin my tale, I was built right about the start of World War I, a time of turmoil and bloodshed all over the world, and especially here in my town, Centralia, Washington.  Just before Mr. Winters finished building me, in fact, Centralia had a massacre right over on Tower Avenue.  Seems some of the businessmen in town didn’t like the IWW men, those union men, so during the Armistice Day parade on November 11th, 1919, they opened fire on the IWW headquarters.  The shots, the screams, and the bloody pool in front of the union headquarters lingered in people’s minds and fed their nightmares for decades. The fact that I owed my very existence to loggers and mill workers, some of them caught up in those horrible events, gave me pause to wonder back then if I, too, were destined to witness violence and suffering within my rooms.  I pondered that thought as I moved through my life.

 However, the first forty-some years of my life were peaceful enough, and I began to forget those dark thoughts I had about my origins.  Shortly after the Massacre, Mr. Winters and his wife moved in, and I was glad to have a purpose in life, the job of sheltering and protecting my family.  Mr. Winters worked hard farming the acres around me, and his wife kept herself busy keeping my rooms clean and making pickles, canning applesauce, making jam with the strawberries from their fields, and awaiting the birth of their first and only child.  After he was born, life inside my rooms became a little livelier and a little noisier.  And then one day the boy was grown up and off to college, never to return.  Mrs. Winters took sick in the 1960s, cancer I think it was, and died in 1969.  Mr. Winters never could get over her death and decided in 1973 to sell me and move somewhere where he didn’t have to work so hard and where he could leave the memories behind.  And by that time, I was no longer the only house on the street, and Mr. Winters was feeling the squeeze of population. 

So in 1974 I was sold to a nice couple with two young children, the Kimble family.  Only problem was that they lived someplace called Crete, and they couldn’t move in until they retired.  I was empty for a few months, and then one day in late 1974 something happened that I had hoped would never happen: I became a rental.  And over the next few years I deteriorated something awful.  Bikers rented me and tore up the linoleum on my kitchen floor when they monkey wrenched their bikes.  Not only that, but they burned holes with their cigarettes when they stubbed them out on my counter tops.  And if that were not enough, they built huge fires in my Ashley Airtight in the dining room and sooted up all my nice white walls, the walls Mrs. Winters had worked so hard to keep clean for company. 

And then, after the bikers had been evicted, came little Johnny and his mother and father. Johnny was about six years old, old enough to go to school though young enough to need a good home.  But Johnny’s parents were the drinking sort, and many a night they locked Johnny in the attic and went off downtown to the bars and taverns, leaving Johnny without access to the bathroom or to food and water.  After the adults had slammed the front door on their way out, Johnny would lie down on his urine-stained mattress on the attic floor, and I would hear him cry himself to sleep.  One evening somebody from the neighborhood saw Johnny crying at my front attic window and called the welfare people who came and took him away. Soon his parents moved out, and I was empty again.  I thought surely the next people who moved in would be a nice family.

 Alas, the next people to find shelter in my rooms were a young couple and their four big dogs.  By the time these people moved in, I was a shambles and had sunk to a pitiful state.  Most of the panes in my windows were shattered from having been the targets of beer and wine bottles, my walls and woodwork were coated with soot, my toilet had been torn away from its plumbing and people were urinating and defecating down the hole in the floor—I cried to think of what I had become.  And the dogs—although I never have liked animals in my rooms, I felt sorry for those dogs, for their owners shut them in my front bedroom every morning with no food or water and left them all day long while they went about their business. The animals, frantic to get out, left claw marks all over my window sills and door.  And then one day, early in the morning, the man and woman left and never came back.  When the real estate agent came to look me over before the next person moved in, he found the bodies of four dogs in my front bedroom.  I could hear him retching as he walked back to his car.  Somebody came to clean up the mess, repair the damage, and again I was empty for a few weeks. 

Then one steamy hot day in August of 1978 a mother and her eleven-year-old daughter came through my front door, and I heard the mother tell her daughter that they were moving into the new house they had bought.  I would be their new home for the rest of their lives.  Oh, I was so happy!  And I was even happier when the woman and an old man began hauling junk away and setting off insecticide bombs to kill the fleas left behind after the dog carcasses were taken away.  After the fleas had been killed, the woman and the girl painted my walls and ceilings with an undercoat to cover the soot and grime, and all my rooms were treated to a fresh coat of white paint.   And then I was deliriously happy the day the woman and her daughter were joined by a man and a boy.  Once again I had a real family to shelter in my rooms, a family that would grow old with me and sleep in my bedrooms, cook and eat in my kitchen, relax in my parlor, entertain guests in my dining room—oh, the joy of once more sheltering a real family!

About a year after my new family moved in, however, I realized I had been hasty in thinking that we might grow old together, for certain of my rooms harbored secrets, not the sort of happy secrets that people share before Christmas and birthdays but sad and fearsome secrets of the type that thrive in darkness and are nurtured by despair in the human heart.  In the little girl’s attic bedroom, a room where the freshly painted walls once had beamed a sunny yellow and the ceiling a brilliant white, these dark secrets drained away all the color and light and left the room bathed in a murky grey. The little girl no longer danced and sang; instead, she cowered in fear on her bedroom floor in the evening, waiting for her father’s footsteps on the stairs.  And to the little girl, even my outside grew dark and menacing, for she told her mother that the sight of me as she walked home from school no longer brought her comfort; instead, she was afraid to open my front door.  Furthermore, when she stood in the hallway and looked up at the stairway going to her room, she saw on the steps triangular disembodied heads, fearsome sights that caused her to awaken screaming in the night.  Her mother listened quietly and with love but did not understand.   

The girl’s brother also did not understand and spent as little time as possible in my rooms, preferring instead the company of his friends or the routine of his work at the grocery store.  One day he went out my front door with suitcases and boxes.  I heard that he was attending a college on the other side of the country, as far away from me and his family as he could be. 

And then suddenly one spring day during the week before Easter of 1981, as if the drapes on all my windows flung themselves open, secrets cracked open, the darkness lifted, and life in my rooms became transformed.  I do not know exactly what happened, but I do know that the girl’s mother called the police that day. Early the next morning, the father loaded boxes and suitcases into the trunk of his car, and I never saw him again. Later that same day, I heard words such as “abuse,” “felony,” and “hearing” as the mother talked on the phone.  Just two people lived in my rooms, now, the mother and her daughter, and I sensed that something had happened that day to bring about a total change in their lives.

Yes, just as life for my inhabitants changed, events of that day before Easter in 1981 set in motion my own transformation process. And at some point in this process, the girl’s mother and some workmen walked through all my rooms, strolled around my outside, poked and prodded me and talked about numbers and plumbing and wiring and paint and plaster.  And then what do you think happened?  My roof was fixed, I got new bathroom fixtures, the neighbor put a concrete foundation under me and removed all the rotten wood that was just barely holding me up, and workmen gave me a brand new kitchen with a sliding glass door out to a patio and new countertops and new appliances AND I got all new floors and electric baseboard heaters AND a new Ashley Airtight in the dining room.  Oh, I was ecstatic! 

And one night after all this work was completed, an Episcopal priest friend of the girl’s mother, who was also the girl’s Godmother, and a lot of other friends came to see me, and they walked from room to room, all holding candles to light the places where there had been so much darkness and so many secrets and such fear.  They paused for prayer and sang in each room, and when they had finished, they returned to my dining room for a meal and wine.  Oh, it was wonderful to hear the laughter once more! 

The next day, after the little girl came home from school, I heard her say to her mother, “The house is different now.  When I walked down the street today, I felt the house welcoming me home and smiling at me.  And I don’t see those things on the stairs anymore.  They are gone!”  The mother smiled, for she finally understood, and she, too, felt comforted by my rooms and their light. 

Does my tale end here?  No, but the woman and her little girl no longer live in my rooms.  The girl became old enough to have her own apartment, and her mother went away to graduate school.  Before she left town, she sold me to a wonderful family, a mother and father with two little boys.  Since then, I’ve sheltered two other families, and each new family has given me gifts and cared for me and thanked me for keeping them cozy and protected from the elements.  I’m getting old and showing my age, but despite this, the families care for me tenderly and appreciate living where they can see the fog lifting from the meadows in the morning and hear the bullfrogs croak-croaking in the gully at night.  My latest family has even painted my outside a sunny bright yellow with green trim, has given me a new green roof, and has repaired the rail and steps of the porch that runs past my living room. 

No, my days as “the old Winters house” are not over yet.  So long as my siding, my roof, and all my internal workings remain intact, I will be here, sheltering and protecting my inhabitants from the elements.  And I have learned that as the conditions and the fortunes of the people I embrace twist and turn, my job in life is to give them shelter as best I can and wish them well; more than that I cannot do.  For I know now that the violence and suffering into which I was born are as much a part of the human condition as the love, kindness, and tender care that humans have shown me in my later years.  To live is to embrace it all. 

 

 

 

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