by Ashley P. Taylor
The steps leading up to our columned porch were too steep, my mom said. Elderly guests might have trouble climbing them, could fall descending them. And they were ugly: planks painted the green of the house’s porch and roof. The handrail began flush with the first step so that to grab it, you had to lean out over the stairs you were trying not to fall down. Plus, the porch steps were always supposed to be brick, my mother said, like the chimneys and the path. The wooden steps were only temporary.
Their paint was peeling.
It took Mom a year to find a mason who would take on such a small project as a five-step stairway. The first mason quit midway through a terrible job. The second mason did okay. Then the third mason, a.k.a. my mother, redid it better, scraping out and refilling the mortar between the bricks, then washing away the overflow with acid.
The steps need a railing—an iron handrail extending onto the porch, something to grab. All we know so far is that the blacksmith talks too much. We hope he’s good.
And then the steps will be done and the Garnett family farmhouse will have achieved its full potential. My dad will have done right by it, despite his absence during middle age. Like three generations of male ancestors before him, he will have inherited and cared for the house, built by his great-great grandfather over 200 years ago. On the wall in the kitchen hangs a timeline of the house’s occupants. It sat empty during the 80s and 90s. But now my dad is back with my mother and me, or so it was when we moved to Kentucky, when I was in high school.
‘Now’ has lasted twenty years. I’ve moved away, though I still visit. My dad is old and death is his next step. As for the house?
When Dad went to grad school, he left his childhood home, which his father left to him. Passed for more than a century from father to son, the house was in his care. He let it fall into disrepair while he became not a farmer but a scientist. In college, he had become interested in genetics. In part to avoid the draft during Vietnam, he went to graduate school and got his PhD in that field. After grad school, his scientific career took him to Britain, then to Maine.
But he always wanted to return home.
When he retired, he, my mother, and I moved to Kentucky, and in the following year-and-a-half, my parents renovated the house into a fine home. They salvaged poplar logs and floorboards and bricks from the original house and incorporated them into its reincarnation.
My parents renovated the house in memory of the past but with the future in mind. The living room downstairs could become a bedroom. If, at some point, my parents could not climb the stairs to their original bedroom, the downstairs bathroom, with a shower, could become their primary one. It is wheelchair accessible. And not so much through planning but by an accident of over-engineering, the house’s foundation has a steel skeleton to support a castle. A foundation for a future beyond the horizon, the sort of foundation that tells the archeologists ‘we were here.’ Soon the house will have the brick steps of its destiny.
But for what? For whom? For how long?
None of Dad’s children—neither me nor my brothers—are likely to move to Kentucky and live in the house. After my parents die, the house will go on the market. Then and there, it will be just another house evaluated for its superficial qualities. How the house used to be will not matter to prospective buyers. The floorboards will be just floorboards, not history. The metal roof that echoes heavy rain will be unusual, but nothing more than that: no longer the embodiment of a man’s childhood experience and his middle-aged memories. “The cabin,” repurposed as a garden shed for my mother, will no longer be the place where tenant farmers and slaves before that once lived. It will just be a shed.
(And what about me, proclaimer of gloom and doom? Why don’t I just move into the house when the time comes? I’m a single person who doesn’t drive. I live in cities with subways. A big house in the country, highway miles from the grocery, does not make sense for me. I’m a writer; I salvage memories, not houses—well, sometimes houses. I’m a narrator; I tell the story. Sorry, but I’m not going to change it.)
The house has been salvaged. My parents saved it from decay. But they are going to die. Poor orphaned house. Was renovation merely a stay of the building’s actual fate, to rot or be replaced? Posterity can’t be counted on. So my mom is fixing the steps not for it but for herself, my dad, and their guests, while they live.
Even brick steps are temporary.
Ashley P. Taylor is a writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy Magazine, and Catapult. She’s completed an autobiographical novel and is looking for an agent and/or publisher. Find more of her work here; follow her on Twitter at @crenshawseeds.