Thursday, March 02, 2006

Going Back in Time

These sketches are the beginning of an attempt to recreate a past that is very long gone.

At a recent family wedding, my cousin Patti asked me to paint a picture of our old home. Normally I'm uncomfortable with commissions. Trying to fulfill a client's request makes me nervous and has a depressing effect on my creativity. But this was different. I had actually been turning the idea over in my own mind for a while before Patti mentioned it.

This was our grandparents' house, where I lived from the age of two until I moved to Ontario at age 25. Patti spent a few weeks there every summer and lived there year round for a time. So, of course, we both have very clear memories of this house. I don't even have to close my eyes to bring it all back, detail upon detail. The wallpaper in the front room when I was four. The curtains lifting in a breeze at an open window on a summer day. A vase of lilacs in the center of the lace cloth on the dining room table. Well, you know. You probably have similar intense recollections of your own childhood home. I could probably create dozens of these little vignettes from memory.

But to draw the whole house, a portrait, from the outside, turns out to be surprisingly difficult. What view to work from? We were back-door people, but the front garden was nice, and Patti would like to see the snowball bush, but also the roses that grew in the back yard.

The worst thing, though, is that the house doesn't exist anymore, at least not in its original form. Long ago the second story was removed and it was remodelled into a bungalow. The wood shingles have been replaced with aluminum siding, and the original 4-paned windows with a plate glass picture window and sliders.

So I can't go back and look at it, or ask someone local to photograph it for me. There are very few photos of it, and those not very helpful. It only got into a picture by accident, a window ledge here, a doorframe there, a background against which some family member stood, squinting into the sun. It never occurred to anybody that we would ever need a picture of the house itself.

I can't remember ever wanting to draw or paint it, because my idea of subject matter was a New England salt box with green shutters and tall, shading elm trees, or a Victorian mansion with bay windows and wraparound verrandahs. Our house was basically a big box, with an almost-flat roof, 2 chimneys, and rectangular windows evenly spaced. Neat and tidy, no frills. Although it was never a company house, it was exactly like hundreds of other houses flung up by the coal company in 1913. Not a single building in town predated that year. There were a few built in the Victorian style,, and some attractive craftsman-style bungalows, and there was a handsome brick post office with a clock on top, but it was a raw place, exposed to the four winds, waiting for trees to grow, for sidewalks to be laid, for time to cast a mellow patina over it all.

It was our home, and we were sometimes moved by affection and pride to think it better than it was, and at other times were unable to see anything but its all-too-familiar shortcomings. But, honestly, it wasn't a pretty house. If I had tried to paint it then, I would have had trouble making a composition out of its uncompromising bulk. I still don't know how to do it. And now I can't even see it.

How I would love to be able to walk back in time and see all these things again. My sister disapproves of this desire, but she thinks I'm trying to relive the past. I don't want to re-live it, I just want to see it. Check my memories against the facts, study proportions, make notes. Be able to say to my daughter, "See, this is how it was". Obviously that's not going to happen. I'm thinking this is going to be harder than building a new house from scratch.


Laura said...

This is such a touching post. I so understand the desire to go back and check to see if it really was that way, the way you remember. I moved many times as a child. I carry memories of those childhood places with me always. I think the desire to see those places one more time is an attempt to knit up one's own raveled story. Your sketches are wonderful---I hope they serve that knitting-up function for you and your cousin.

Agnes said...

Laura, thank you. That's such a perfect way to put it, "knitting up one's own ravelled story". That's exactly what I'm longing to do.