By Anne Sinotte
It’s an ordinary door. It’s wooden, tall, and narrower than modern doors. Thickened by layers of paint, years of northeastern winters and stifling city heat have warped it. The top half of the door is glass—a clear glass pane in the center, framed by twelve squares of colored glass that have been painted different colors and passed off as stained. The door is covered in cheap, Kelly green paint, flaking with age. As I draw my hand across the old wood, I can feel the ridges of the brush strokes from years ago.
* * *
The word was lichama. It struck a chord with me. It meant the body, the living body, or the body as the seat of desire and appetite. A strange word, but a good one all the same.
I wonder where my body considers home. Have I ever found it? Not in the sense of a brick and mortar structure, but a sense of place; a sense of home. Home seems always to be where my parents are, which, for the past thirty-eight years, has been a split-level house on five acres of wooded land. I spent every Christmas but one there. A ceramic likeness of my dog, Jasmine, a gift to my parents, still greets me at the front door. It’s the family gathering place. I realize that is my lichama. There, I can always find my place.
* * *
Before moving to the Twin Cities, I carefully stored the door in my parents’ oversized Quonset shed. I had plans for it but couldn’t find a use for it in my first apartment. Eventually, I bought a house and dragged that door to my own little one-and-a-half-story in the heart of St. Paul. It stood against a wall in my home office for the next two years, waiting for me to implement my grand plans.
Curved corners joined the ceilings and arched entryways connected the kitchen, dining, and living rooms in the little house. I refinished the original wood floors and painted the dull, cream colored doors bright white, carefully wrapping blue painters tape around each of the antique glass doorknobs. The multi-faceted knobs were my favorite characteristic of the house. When I sold it, I included the antique glass door knobs in the selling agreement, an idea I got from my Nana.
* * *
After a business trip to Pennsylvania, I arranged to take a long weekend and visit my Nana in Boston. It was autumn and I had an eight hour drive ahead of me. I was looking forward to every mile of it. I had not seen the East Coast in the fall, and it was as glorious as I had imagined it would be. I drove across Pennsylvania, over the Pocono Mountains, around Scranton, through Delaware State Forest (I couldn’t understand why it was called that when it was in Pennsylvania), through Newburgh, New York and on to Danbury, then north to Hartford, Connecticut, past Worcester, finally arriving on the outskirts of Boston.
I took my time, and for once in my life stayed within the posted speed limit. I patronized each of the scenic overlooks along the highway. The mountains resembled a vivid expanse of coral reef, with burnt oranges, brilliant reds and blinding yellows. Marching eastward, smoke-gray clouds dipped into valleys and poured over the peaks of the landlocked autumn reef. Muted by the clouds’ moving shadows, the trees dimmed and flamed as the countryside pulsed with color.
At a stop for gas, I asked, “Is this Worcester?”
The clerk, a none-too-subtle East Coast native, corrected my inaccurate pronunciation. “It’s pronounced WHOOS-tur, not WERE-chester. Christ. Anything else is just goddamn ridiculous,” he said. He abruptly turned away and spit out something that sounded a lot like “trucking fleurist.”
* * *
In 1946 the house was new, the brown door was new, and the painted glass squares unsullied. A green lawn stretched out on either side of the narrow, post-World War II home. Each time I visited my grandparents’ house I liked seeing that familiar door, and I remembered the year it went from brown to green. I saw, since my last visit, that two three-story, multi-family behemoths had been built on either side of Nana’s house, crowding the small one-and-a-half-story
like two leaning oafs, their imposing shoulders threatening to crush the little house.
On my last trip to Boston, my Nana walked me through the house. “I want you to take something from my collection. I’ve saved the things from Ireland just for you, my special Irish girl.” In her south Boston accent her speech was devoid of the sound of curled R’s, and when she said “Ireland,” it sounded like “Ahh-lind.”
“You know, it’s kind of crazy, but I’ve always liked your front door,” I remarked to Nana. “It reminds me of you and Grandpa.”
Then, pulling chairs up to the wall lined with shelves and filled with knick-knacks, Nana and I went through them one by one.
“If you ever get rid of that door, I’d love to have it,” I told her.
* * *
I realize I haven’t spent more than three years at any one place or involved in any one endeavor. Wanderlust afflicts me. I accepted it early and embraced it with some reluctance. Setting down roots had felt contrary to my lichama, my home place, so instead, I planted gardens.
Perennials are on a three-year-plan, too. I’ve planted perennials in every place I’ve lived, nurturing them for the first few years and then waiting to see if they would wither or thrive. The old farmers say in the first year a perennial sleeps, in the second year it creeps, and in the third year it leaps. The strength of a perennial is in its roots. If it doesn’t establish a deep root system, it likely won’t survive long in Minnesota’s harsh clime. The energy of the plant needs to go towards a strong root system and if the plant directs all its energy to the showy blooms, it has little hope of enduring. The leap of year three won’t happen no matter how much shit is heaped on it.
* * *
My daughter, Megan, begged for a dog, so we rescued a feisty black pup from the St. Paul Humane Society. She was a Lab-Springer mix with white markings on her chest and toes, and curly hair around her ears. Megan named her Jasmine and the two became inseparable. That fall Megan helped me plant as many different colored tulip bulbs as we could afford, and we waited in anxious anticipation for them to pop up in the spring. What we didn’t anticipate was Jazz’s shared passion for tulips. Nearly every other day, the dog would trot through the back door—her black nose covered in fresh brown dirt and the crisp, cold air clinging to her fur—and drop a crumbling bulb on the entryway rug.
After three years at my first home, my company transferred me to Nashville, Tennessee, and I moved Nana’s door back to the Quonset shed on my parent’s property to wait once again.
* * *
Several years after my last visit, Nana lost her youngest daughter. Then, three months later, lost her husband of forty-eight years. It wasn’t long before her daughter and son-in-law—my parents—convinced her to put the house on the market and move to Minnesota to be closer to them. They drove out to Boston to move Nana and were speechless at what they found when they arrived. Nana had put specific language in the closing documents that she was taking the front door with her. The buyer, the realtor, and my parents feared senility had set in, and that she would probably try to take the carpet with her, too.
But I had made a comment years before, and Nana was going to make sure that door was coming with her. My dad thought it was foolish and tried to talk her out of it.
“Florence, you can’t be serious,” he said. Being a pack rat himself, he should’ve understood Nana’s attachment to every knick-knack, every photo, and every odd piece of memorabilia compressed into a sixty year old house. “It’s ludicrous, and we’re not taking it.”
“I’m taking it with me,” said Nana. “Now take it off the frame or I’ll do it myself.”
Thoroughly annoyed, he reached for the screw driver.
* * *
I am infamous in my family for holding onto things. A hereditary trait passed down from my Nana. I have too many boxes labeled “Memorabilia.” Lingering behind the countless plastic tubs of emotionally attached minutiae is Nana’s door.
* * *
The roadmap lay on the passenger seat, carefully folded in a neat square and revealing the detailed inset of Boston proper. Nana emphatically cautioned me to avoid Boston’s Green Monster at all costs. This was not the famous outfield wall of Fenway Park, but a snaking, matte green-painted elevated expressway connecting downtown Boston with the waterfront. The six-lane elevated expressway wound over and eventually under Boston via the Dewey Square Tunnel.
A major construction project in the heart of the city was in full swing and, when finished, would alleviate the congestion of a roadway that was built to carry 75,000 cars, but which now carried nearly 190,000. Driving toward Boston’s inner suburbs, I was sucked into the maze of speeding interstaters and swept up by the hairpin turns, entrance ramps without merge lanes, and gigantic construction cranes in what Bostonians acerbically referred to as “The Big Dig.” Started in 1982 and scheduled for
completion in 1998, the Big Dig was the most expensive highway project in the U.S. and wasn’t fully completed until December 2007.
My hands tight on the steering wheel, I drove with traffic heading east into the city. I sent up a silent prayer thanking God I wasn’t jammed into the mass of humanity heading the other way. All the cars filled with all their people, heading west from their cubicle jobs to their larger cubicle homes, were currently at a stand still on the three lanes heading out of the city.
Missing a crucial exit, I found myself doubling back to the west and directly into the choking congestion of the elevated expressway. Belching diesel trucks and the rotten egg smell of unleaded gas saturated my hair and clothes as I sat, unmoving, in rush hour traffic. A surge of adrenaline shot through me and I panicked. Taking yet another wrong exit, I found myself heading south with no clear idea how to get back east. Getting even more turned around, I needed to find a pay phone at the next exit and call Nana. Two and a half hours later, again heading east, I was now hopelessly late.
* * *
After I found a house in Franklin, a quaint little town just south of Nashville, I flew back to Minnesota, bought a mini-van, and drove the door to Tennessee. There it held court in the workroom next to the garage, waiting patiently for its transformation.
During the years in Tennessee, I moved the door from room to room while I tried to find the ideal location to display it. I never intended to re-use the door as a door because it was far too energy inefficient. Instead I had an idea to saw it in half horizontally and make a trendy split door. Or maybe use the bottom half as a gate to the English garden I planned to plant. I imagined the top half of stained glass hanging from a chain like a rescue from a condemned demolition, over a new energy-efficient, double paned picture window.
When I asked for a transfer back to Minnesota, the movers, mistaking the door for a leftover of the current house, didn’t load it on the truck. I got the call from my daughter informing me that she had to go pick up “that stupid door.”
“I can’t believe they forgot it,” Megan said. “The one damn thing that had to be on that truck, and they didn’t take it.”
“Uh, sorry about that, girl,” I said sheepishly.
“Listen Mom, I’m not going to be dragging it all over the country for you. I hope we’re clear on that. Unbelievable…”
For the next three years that’s exactly what she did.
* * *
Each time Megan’s friends helped her move into a new place, they chided her about the ugly green door, which was known not as Nana’s door, but as “your mom’s door.” Megan began to think of me the same way the realtor once thought of Nana. She believed that senility had set in.
During one such move, the center pane of glass broke, leaving a gaping hole in the twelve colored panes framing it. The imitation stained glass squares remained intact. The daughter’s boyfriend unceremoniously looped a piece of rope through the open space, over the top jamb, and tied the ends in a knot. That’s how he dragged the door around during the next two moves, like a hangman dragging the convicted, yet never arriving at the gallows.
* * *
Nana was a patient woman but began to fear the worst when hours went by after my last phone call and I still had not arrived. She rocked on the porch all afternoon and into the evening, anxiously waiting. Many of the neighbors had a habit of keeping an eye on the elderly woman, and several stopped by throughout the evening. Nana had placed two old saw-horses near the curb in front of her house, saving a coveted parking space on the one-way street.
“Hello, Flo!” Bernie and Jeanne passed on the sidewalk and called to her in a staggered greeting. Bernie added, “Expecting a delivery?” Jeanne and Bernie were professional women and roommates living on the top level of the south triplex. Nana thought it was
sweet that grown women could be such good friends as to live together.
Nana proudly answered from her porch, “My granddaughter is coming for a visit. From Minnesota!” They nodded and smiled, then waved as they continued walking.
Knoll Street is narrow, just two blocks long and poorly marked, so when I finally drove into Roslindale and up the short road, it was long after dark. I nearly drove over the saw-horses carefully placed in the street. The nerves in my neck were as rigid and twisted as the cables holding up the Green Monster over which I had just driven. When I saw the familiar green door with its faux stained glass, and the shock of white hair in the wicker rocking chair, I began to relax.
* * *
Gardening in Tennessee was easy. Luscious Nikko blue hydrangea bushes stood sentry next to the porch of my house south of Nashville, and delicate pink bleeding hearts dotted the hillside. Along the walkway, the heady scent emanating from the potted lavender plants lingered in the humid southern air. Tall pampas grasses adorned driveway entrances and wild honeysuckle vines engulfed guardrails along rural roads that criss-crossed over country creeks. Everything in Tennessee grew big and beautiful. The gardens I planted come back every year, even when I do not. At least something of my presence stays behind as a reminder to someone, somewhere.
* * *
In Eagan, Minnesota, Jim said, “I want you to move in. It doesn’t make sense for us to have two homes.” For six months I deftly avoided giving him an answer.
“With everything you’ve been through the past year I just don’t think it’s a good time,” I said and then smoothly changed the subject. “What’s your plan for this weekend?”
In November he made an impassioned case for me to move into his home and put down roots with him. I thought I was ready, thought I could. Since I hadn’t yet tried being half of a whole, I felt it was time.
He didn’t care for Nana’s door.
“But it’s unique,” I said.
“It doesn’t match anything in here.”
“Things don’t have to match. Besides, I like an eclectic style. It’s fun and interesting.”
“Eclectic is a word people use who can’t afford decent things.”
Looking back, I see that that was the first of many red flags I ignored. Everything in his house was matching and monotone. His external charisma neatly camouflaged his internal rigidity.
Nana’s door didn’t make it past the garage. Few things of mine made it past the garage. The door ended up shoved behind the collapsible fish house, dutifully standing watch over my other eclectic things.
* * *
Jim had a long, sloping yard with a steep upper section he didn’t like to mow.
“Hey, I have an idea. I can cover it with perennials,” I offered. I drew out an elaborate landscape plan according to Jim’s pre-digging requirements. As soon as the ground thawed, I was out on the slope where the smell of freshly dug dirt intoxicated me. Breaking apart the cold, thick chunks of soil and mixing in the pungent smelling garden soil became a sensuous ritual.
I planted nine bluestem grasses, a stout, exploding firework-shaped grass with wide powder blue stalks. Then I planted nine Walker’s low catmint bushes in between each of the bluestem grasses. The sweet aroma of the craggy mint leaves would float over the garden and hang in the cool of the late spring air. Those first eighteen plants were arranged in a sweeping arc across the expanse of the slope. I added three blood-red perennial hibiscus with buds
the size of my thumb and blooms the size of dinner plates. I mixed in seven black-eyed Susan rudbeckias, their golden petals bursting out from the dark center of the seed head, and added five spiky coneflower plants of purple, yellow, and white. It was hard work. For months I was never completely able to clean the day’s dirt from under my fingernails. I spent that first summer weeding, watering and coddling the tender plants.
By the third year the garden was beautiful. It was a testament to my tender touch and diligent care. The new shoots each May excited my soul. The tiny white blooms of creeping phlox bloomed in spring, the coneflowers thrived in the hot summer sun, and the catmint and hibiscus bloomed well into the fall. I had carefully choreographed the garden so that the color undulated from May to September.
I miss that garden. I didn’t have the chance to enjoy its fourth summer. It didn’t work out that way with Jim.
I sometimes wish I could have thrived there, too.
* * *
Megan got busy with teenage life, so Jasmine became my constant companion. Many times Jazz would run off, but I couldn’t blame the dog. We’d lived in a small apartment for two years, so when we moved to the country, I felt Jazz deserved to have the freedom to run and hunt and be the dog of her ancestors. Every day I would call to her from the back porch, and Jazz would appear at the crest of the hill, panting and smiling, waiting to be spotted in the camouflage of the underbrush. Jazz loved the hills of Tennessee.
Years later, on a rain-chilled February night, I sat on the floor of my bedroom with an injured Jazz, leaning back against Nana’s door. That last night, as I petted the silky ears and held the warm sleeping form in my lap, I whispered to her, “Its okay, Jazz. You can go. Go run in your hills.”
* * *
We buried Jazz on her hill and planted a bucketful of bright yellow buttercup bulbs around her grave. That particular spot on the hill is unusually sunny for such a wooded area. Jazz is there, bathed in a circle of spring sunshine and cooled by the shaded canopy of the summer leaves. I chose buttercups because they are the first brave souls to poke through the winter thatch. Their bright faces illuminate her grave as their cupped blooms stretch toward the spring sun.
It’s been eight years since I planted them, yet it doesn’t seem to hurt any less.
I wonder if they still bloom.
Anne Sinotte is a non-traditional student at Bemidji State University and currently lives in central Minnesota. She is completing her senior year after a twenty-year-hiatus and is excited about finally achieving her goal of graduating from college. She comes from a large family that continues to provide her with the material for her stories. She has one grown daughter who is truly the greatest fun-have of fun-havers everywhere.