The last time my mom came to my house, she placed her cane in the umbrella stand where she could reach for it when it was time to leave again. Only she never did leave, as I know I have said here before. She died that afternoon in the wing chair by our fireplace. But this quarter-of-century after her death that cane still rests where she set it.
I’ve often wondered if I was crazy, holding on to things this way. Then one day I walked into the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut (seen here on the left) and it was all I could do not to throw my arms in the air and yell, “I’m home!”
The big old steamboat of a place that Sam Clemens built for his family just knocked me out so much did it remind me of the house where David and I have lived all these years, raising our children and mourning our old folks.
We don’t have Persian rugs draped over everything the way they did but still: Here were the same potted palms! The same ceiling-high bookcases! Even a similar sculpture of a standing nude! But really it was the feeling emanating from every object that did it for me. You simply can’t find anything there that didn’t have great meaning for Mark Twain and his wife Livy, as the docents there will eagerly tell you.
I loved their house because it said so much about their journey, just as I guess this house must say about ours.
Even now I am thinking of that closet in the back bedroom containing two baby dresses stitched in the 1860s. Of that wall in our dining room holding a framed sampler made by one of David’s Yankee ancestors in the 1840s. Of our living room, which has as its focus a sofa my grandfather bought second-hand in 1890. 1890 and we’re still sitting on it!
This old horsehair sofa slept for decades in the basement of one family home after another, until, in the early 1980s, I taught myself how to upholster and did it over in a dark red satin. When I touch it now I can almost see the past.
I have no idea what makes me look back and hold on in this way. But imagine my surprise when, 20 years after redecorating the living room in this house, I came upon a crinkled snapshot of that first childhood home, whose interior I can barely picture because we moved when I was eight: It’s almost exactly like my present living room:
Same pale-pink wallpaper, same white paint on the bookcases and the trim, and the exact same soft blue on both couches, the one from my childhood home and the old 1890s one now done over again, thank God by a professional upholsterer this time.
So did I remember that room on some level? Did I see it in a dream? I have no idea.
Much of the time we humans are living forward and looking forward, I realize. But lots of times I think we are also looking back, as if perhaps to see if those absent others aren’t following after us, hurrying even now to catch up and tell us all their news.