I bought a house, but I also bought an archive
Of course, I only thought I was buying a house. To be precise, an old house and a rural house, but just a house- empty of furniture and the lives that once inhabited it.
I’ve inhabited eleven houses. Three of those houses were new, built either for my grandparents or my parents. The rest were previously someone else’s, often sold, as houses are, to close an estate after the death of the owner. So, I’m not unconscious of a house holding history. The baton of my present house’s ownership, in what I think of as a relay if not a race, was first handed from the Trowbridge family to the Pecks, followed by the Platts-all farmers- to the Sweets: horse people, and now me and my family. We own no plow, no horse.
Despite its age, my house isn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is no plaque by the barely used front door. Despite my house being listed in Griggs’ Folklore and Firesides, she lists neither in regard to my house. Historic New England isn’t interested. Obviously, George Washington didn’t sleep here. Beyond my family and friends, no one comes to visit.
But my house’s archive is telling its story anyway.
Last year, my neighbor bought a dog, a very enthusiastic Brittany spaniel named Jasper, who would bark at the window whenever he saw Gigi and I walk past their house on our morning walks. Soon Dave and Jasper were joining us. While Dave and I chatted, the dogs leaped all over each other, sprinting in black, white, and tan streaks through the woods. Dave told me he and his wife had moved back to Pomfret to be with his father in his elder years.
On our short walks I learned that Dave’s father’s house is on land once belonging to my house. I learned that Dave is a great-great-grandson of my house’s original Platt family. Dave also told me he was cleaning out his father’s house, going through old papers and letters.
But for those morning walks, Dave and I barely knew each other. He didn’t know, for example, that my husband and I have a tendency to move. That after about four years in one place, I get itchy. Dave also didn’t know that my mother had recently bequeathed to me three generations of maternal china and linens. He didn’t know how heavily the responsibility to protect these objects weighed on me and how that responsibility was in direct opposition to my impulsive desire to take it all to the Goodwill.
Dave only knew what I told him: that I am a writer and I love houses, and I have three sons-one of whom is grown and moved to Newport and the other two nearly eighteen. It seems that was enough. On a walk a few weeks ago, Dave asked if I would like a collection of letters.
“They’re quite old. My father never throws anything out.”
“Yes,” I said quickly without even knowing what they contained. “I’ll take them.”
I said this even though my dining room was unusable due to fifteen boxes of antique china to be unwrapped and no idea where I was going to store the stuff.
That afternoon, Dave dropped the letters off. They were bundled carefully by year and retained their original envelopes. It is a complete collection of letters from his great-great grandmother to her son Nelson-Dave’s great uncle. The letters reach back as far as 1909. They include farm news: cows born and neighborhood news: babies born. They are full of hope and fear-especially when Nelson left college in Maine during WWI and was stationed overseas. Mostly, they are letters from mother to son and written in my house.
Somehow the odd collection of newspapers I found in the duct-work access in my bedroom, the canning jars in the cellar, the Griggs book left for me by the Sweets on a bookshelf in the morning room, the letters returned to their place of origin, and even the 35mm film camera I discovered on the top shelf of the laundry room closet last week-have created an impulse for me to stay. My archive is rich with life and reminds me that my house is a living breathing thing.
The baton has been passed and I hold it tightly.
I feel no itch to move.