Friday, November 08, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 8

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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I am living in my uncle's house; it is I who live here, now. When I first moved here, I thought my life would be regulated by the comings and goings of the tides as the seasons and their changing would regulate everything else on a grander scale. But being far enough inland, even if only four miles as the crow drives down several roads winding to the end of Cape Edmund, I am not so aware of the sea from the house, neither visible nor audible but a presence that, on some days, I can smell more than feel. Yet, driving into the village, I still find a comfort in its constant ever-changing sameness. It is the tide of years, instead, I sense, this search of lost time.

My father was born here as was his father; his father-before-him was four years old when he moved into the house his father had built. This was after the Civil War, in the woods below Mount Agamemnon. It is a long history, this legacy, of which I feel so far detached that even my neighbors cannot believe I'm related to Old Father Hemon who died over forty years ago.

It may be the house Adam Kadmon grew up in but he could not wait to leave it when he was a youngster, going off to college and never coming back, at least to live. He returned for his first extended visit shortly after he had married and I was a baby still carried in my mother's arms. A later visit, when I was almost five, was more successful, less cautious and a little less cool in the ways prodigal sons' returns are not always welcome, according to what my mother told me, years later.

It was the first visit I remember, seeing the old house, its white clapboard sides and black shutters looming up as we drove through the woods, with the two old people standing in the doorway waiting for us.

"Those," my mother said somewhat icily, "are your grandparents, so you'd better behave."

Father Hemon was an old, gnarly gray-haired man though he was, if I figure it correctly, only in his early-sixties, only slightly younger than I am now. He stood aside and let us through the door as if inspecting us and finding me, especially, wanting. In the vestibule stood a slightly younger, barely less gnarly version of him – my Uncle Junior – who, after nodding curtly at my father, turned and walked wordlessly into the kitchen.

The stairs, broad and steep and a challenge for my small legs, seemed to climb to heaven for all I could tell. We had steps in our house, of course, but this was a staircase: Father Hemon announced I would be sleeping in the back parlor.

Later, when my father was growing old and tired himself, he began to talk a little more about the house he grew up in. They were not pleasant memories and he detested the winters.

"I did not like going back there to visit and I doubt my dad would've missed seeing us. You know, Junior and I hardly spoke even before Dad died."

The funeral was the last time all of us visited the Homestead. I was in grad school at the time but I could still imagine Father Hemon ascending the steps into Heaven and wondered if St. Peter viewed him and found him as wanting as he'd found me.

The front parlor – what most of us would consider the living room, today – was not the large, spacious room we normally think of and was used mostly for more formal occasions, primarily on Sunday. My father remembered seeing his grandfather, Grampa Khronos, laid out here, the body lying on a makeshift bier in the center of the room. The furniture had been pushed to the sides and flowers in vases crowded everywhere there was space. Dad was probably 8, then, and Grampa Khronos was probably only in his late-60s when he died.

The family, dressed in their stiff and unrelenting Sunday best, stood and watched, prayed and sang hymns for what seemed like hours over the old man's casket. His widow, Grandma Ananke, her twin sister, Aunt Tyche sat beside it, weeping, and around them stood Father Hemon and his family and Aunt Moira with hers.

Their pictures, what few of them existed, remained hanging on the walls of the parlor until Uncle Junior took them down not long after Father Hemon died. Most of them he stored in a box in the attic which I was able to find when it came my turn to enter the house. I'd also found one of Khronos' father as a wounded soldier barely alive when he arrived home from some place called Gettysburg. But he must have recovered well enough: Grampa Khronos would be what might be called a Civil War Baby Boomer. The one of Great-Aunt Moira, Hemon's ill-fated sister, was taken by the fireplace: poor woman, she went crazy one winter and fell from the roof, as I remember the story.

Even today, it is an uncomfortable room, dark between the sombre if faded paint (it might originally have been a deep red), a cross between a museum and a mausoleum. Sometimes, late at night, I'd have the feeling Grampa Khronos' casket was still there. It was the room for history and hallowed as it was, their names mean little to me. I rarely enter the room except when some rare visitor is curious about the photographs.

The dining room was the focal point of the family, where generations gathered for their daily meals regardless of tides, irrespective of the seasons, always returning to this one, small confluence of space and time. My dad complained how, if the way to a man's heart were through his stomach, the lengthy prayers before each meal surely proved his parents were convinced it was also the path into the kingdom.

The table 'round which they sat was, supposedly, original to the house, brought in when Grampa Khronos found himself in a new home. It was supposedly made by an uncle of the Union Ancestor, Khronos' father, the Civil War veteran Great-Grandpa Logos, which means it could have been made in the 1840s. It was sturdy and withstood the constant use of young children grown old, with nicks and scratches in various places but mostly well preserved by layers of tablecloths the family wives had used, hoping to protect its soul.

"Sit him down at this end, Adam," my grandmother had suggested when we visited. Things had become more cordial by the time I was 10 and instead of sleeping in the family room, I had my own room upstairs since Junior had moved away. My grandparents probably were aware of the Empty Nest only because the tension had subsided somewhat.

We passed around bowls filled with mashed potatoes and plates piled high with fried chicken. The vegetables were drowned in milk sauce, boiled beyond perdition – small wonder my dad hated vegetables – but for dessert, a deep-dish pie made with apples or raspberries from the backyard. It seemed a logical reward for the penance of grace.

A room upstairs has changed purpose more than any other in the house's history. It was not the smallest bedroom but it had been designed for the youngest children and was called the Nursery regardless of the occupant's age. At some point, with all the children gone, Father Hemon in his later years converted it into a library where he kept his books on religion and theology (he was not, according to Dad, big on science or fiction).

At some point Uncle Junior gave most of these books to some local libraries and book stores, preferring empty shelves to the remnants of his father's faith. It did not take me long to fill them up again with my books on music and my collections of scores and recordings. Getting the piano up here was a trial in itself.

Father Hemon's spirit must be spinning in the ether at this sacrilege: where he used to contemplate his God, I sat and composed music – or tried to. If I pray at all, this is where I would pray the most, to God or Muse.

Veni, creator spiritus, but visits are few and far between. Bowls of milk might appease the cats long before any passing Muse, I'm afraid.

The kitchen is the warm heart of the house and these days, living here alone, it is probably the place where I most likely sit to read the newspaper and check the mail (both in a fairly perfunctory fashion) or sit with the rare visitor over coffee or, for me, more likely tea. There is a small, oblong table, enough to seat three, the way I have it positioned against the one window. It is where Mother Hemon had a standing countertop, the precursor of the suburban kitchen island, and where she could prepare much of the food she fed her family while looking out across the yard toward the unseen sea.

The original oven has long been replaced by something more modern and electric – unheard in the days of Khronos and Ananke. My grandmother baked bread here every morning and simmered hearty stews in winter or cut fresh salads from garden greens on the summer's hottest days. I do not remember what they did for a refrigerator before my first visit there, or when they added the convenience of electricity.

Aside from the old photographs, what existed before I was here to experience myself didn't seem to exist – or matter. Sol Lipsitt, at your service. But there's a picture in an old album Junior had failed to hide adequately showing a severe-looking woman in a cap with a rather frightened young woman who could have been her daughter or a servant.

I am guessing the woman in the cap, judging from other photos in the parlor, is my great-grandmother Ananke. I am not so sure the girl is Moira but I could see how she would become a family legend not because of her cooking.

The western side of the house is the most open to the sky and gets the afternoon sun on the best days, a problem with a house surrounded by the woods and bounded by porches casting many of the windows into shade. It does, naturally, keep the house cooler in the summer and cuts back on the winter winds, so complaining about it is a moot point, given the options.

I don't recall what this room on the ground floor was called, with its large bay window facing the west and perhaps one most open to the sun. Father Hemon called it the parlor as if we could distinguish the small-case parlor from the upper-case Parlor used on Sundays.

Today, I think of it as the den, another suburban allusion to our prehistoric past (though "man-cave" should be banished from our vocabulary). Warm and sunny, cozy in fact, it has the most comfortable chairs, the couch (not the same one I used to sleep on as a child) looking out across the porch toward the long-hidden sea.

This is where I think most about my family and friends, long past now, where the music of memory can be heard the strongest, memories that have little to do with this house. Of these memories, I often find myself asking forgiveness for any way in which I might have trespassed on our friendships. Sometimes, the room is not so cozy as I'd wish.

It is a large house for one person, though I could understand why, in generations past, the idea of building additions had seemed so attractive. Our Union Ancestor, Great-grandfather Logos and his long-suffering wife, Bereshith, may have contemplated a small family when they built this house on the hill, but Grampa Khronos had other ideas with four children who were required to fit into two bedrooms while his sister-in-law, Tyche, as luck would have it, occupied the third.

Bedrooms, of course, were off limits to guests and a closed door was a warning to children that required respect. While Father Hemon may have railed against the sin of fornication to impress his sons into a righteous life, the noises my father heard from behind that particular closed door on a Saturday night could not possibly be associated with the temptation of lust.

That Adam Kadmon and Junior were forced to share a room, while their sister had her own and Grampa Khronos was confined to the other (for lack of a suitable, more lockable attic), no doubt contributed to their life-long animosities, Junior being the older by a decade.

If there were ghosts in these rooms, I was not tempted to consider them or their travails until I heard unverifiable sounds in the night. Wood creaked and rafters rattled in the winds where not all storms were necessarily Nature's handiwork.

The back porch was the solace of the house, its periphery and something of a crown, as I recalled it. When I was a child, much of my visits was spent sitting on the porch, reading or thinking (whatever a child that age had to think about, but I was told I was a very thoughtful child which alarmed Mother Hemon considerably).

Now, fifty years later, I still spend much of my summer sitting on this porch, reading or thinking (whatever it is an old man has to think about: what would Mother Hemon say, now, I wonder?).

With humanity behind me and Nature and the sea before me, it is this proximity to the world beyond the world that grants me comfort.

Father Hemon, I would think, deliver me from evil: protect me from myself, as well. Amen, dico vobis.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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