One night I had a dream that lifted my spirits so much that I wish I could have it on file somewhere and go back to it again and again. I was both in my body, feeling the touch of the floor on my feet, and watching myself from a position above. Warm golden light streamed through the framed-out windows of my unfinished house as I padded through it, looking at the empty rooms. The sawdust residue on my bare feet felt cool and pleasant; I looked at the size and shape and height of the rooms, up the wooden risers and steps of the stairs to the second story, all in the muted glow of sunset filtering through the unfinished walls. My hair was long again, as I wore it when I was in my thirties, and I was wearing comfortable shorts and a white gauze top. Is the house under construction? Being remodeled? I watch myself as I quietly explore my beautiful house. Peace, and wonder, and hope.
Changes that I eventually made to my house on Carmel Street were largely inspired by the room at the estate that we all referred to as "Aunt Sully's Study." The first time that I visited and stayed overnight I was assigned a bedroom on the second floor that adjoined a small study (I say small but it was larger than the master bedroom in my house.) In the study, an old Chesterfield sofa perched before the fireplace, with three matching, uncomfortable-looking chairs and a wide tea-table. An ugly walnut desk stood beside a window looking like a black goblin lurking by the heavy drapes. The room smelled of disuse, like dusty old wood.
By the time the first set of twins had been born, I was a frequent visitor weekends when Adam was on the road, and Charles had told me that I was to consider the study mine. "Everyone should have a place to get away when visiting relatives," he'd said sincerely. "Would you like me to have it repainted? No? Well, then let's at least send some furniture catalogs along home with you so that you can pick out agreeable furnishings."
I was appalled, and told my sister that I couldn't pick out someone else's furniture. "Sully," she said to me, still looking pale a couple weeks after Marca and Oesha were born, "Charles is so happy about these babies that he wants to give everyone in the family a gift. And he really appreciates your visits and company, especially when I was pregnant and on the other side of the world. He means it when he says that's your study, and this is going to be your furniture. No other guests are allowed in there. Come on, bring me your catalogs and I'll help you."
Choosing furniture for the study, I felt closer to Jesse than I had at any time before. As children, we didn't often have much time to ourselves -- Mom was always there to mediate, even if we didn't want mediation. She didn't want Jesse pestering me while I was doing homework, she didn't need me to babysit Jesse because she never was away, she didn't like to see me play with Jesse and her toys because she feared I was "regressing" -- a suggestion that used to make me so angry I'd leave the house and disappear into the woods for hours, fuming, and wishing I had the words and the courage to tell her off. Sitting on the ancient Chesterfield with pictures of furniture spread all over the tea table, I felt at one glance to have our roles reversed, that Jesse was actually the older sister, worldly, assured, in charge; at the next moment, I had a flash of us being children again, indulging in play with a Sears and Roebuck catalog before Christmas, secretly whispering what clothes we would like and how many toys we wished we could find under the tree. And again, I stared at her tanned skin and grey-green eyes and hid the fears that'd I'd felt during the long labor she had giving birth. To that point, she had been my little sister, but when the hours dragged on, I'd felt the link of blood to her chafed raw by worry, and she was more than the kid who'd shared my parents' house -- she was part of me, and so were the two tiny people she strained to bring into the world.
The walls of the study were a rich matte red, not quite so dull as brick-colored, and the woodwork was glossy white from the baseboards above the dark oak hardwood floors to the crown moldings that framed the ivory ceiling. The fireplace was faced with marble tile, astonishingly white, shot with reddish streaks. (When the old furniture was moved out, I was surprised by the room's beauty.) Jesse and I chose overstuffed furniture that would be conducive to cuddling babies and side tables in a lighter oak rather than tea-or-coffee table; a duet of oriental carpets would pick up the colors of the couch and chairs as well as the walls. There should be no surprise that the upholstery I chose was broadly striped in ivory and a green the color of Jesse's eyes; she circled in the catalog decorative throws that contained the hues of the walls, the green of the upholstery, and golden tones as well. "This will set off the color of your hair like you wouldn't believe," she told me, as though we were looking through a glamour magazine.
We also ordered a desk, set up to accommodate a computer with keyboard, even though at that time I could not see the point, either in my use of a desk at the estate or in a piece of furniture that was designed for machinery I never anticipated using except perhaps at work.
The next time I visited, the new furniture was in place, looking like it belonged, and to our catalog order Jesse had added some slim tables to the empty wall spaces. I would have asked her about what she had planned for them, but she was already gone, back to her dig in Africa.
One evening when I was curled up on one of the fat comfy chairs admiring the fire in the fireplace while I pretended to read a book from the glass-fronted bookcases that stood against the wall, Charles's mother, Claire, out of the blue, poked her head around the door, peering at the walls and the new furniture. I felt alarm, knowing my choices had replaced the sofa and desk that had probably been fixtures from Charles's grandmother's day, if not prehistoric times. "I'm so glad you've redecorated this room," she said. "The feeling in it is so different than what it was."
I stood up. "I hope you don't mind that we changed the furniture."
"Mind? Good God, dear, you would not believe the relief I feel." She shuffled into the study in her nightclothes, matching slippers, pajama shirt, pants, and robe, in a subtle pattern on cotton, revealed as sleepwear only by the cut of the garments and the satin edging on each. She sat down on the other chair that faced the fire. "I hated this room for so many years ... "
"Can you tell me why you hated it?" I asked. "Is it haunted?" I'd never felt uneasy in the rooms, but at that time, I didn't yet have Gabe to sniff out ghosts.
She snorted. "It could be; I wouldn't be surprised if it was. This was Mildred's office and meeting-room. My mother-in-law," she said in a confidential tone. "This was her judgment hall. If there were things done that should not have been done, this was the place in which I was accused. Or if something should have been seen to, and wasn't, she would sit on that horrid Chesterfield and force me to drink bitter tea and lecture me on my duties and proprieties. I used to sit in a chair across from her, thinking that the walls must have been painted with the blood of her previous victims."
I stifled my involuntary guffaw with my hand. "I'm so sorry. That must have been so stressful for you."
"The Mediterranean seems incredibly peaceful when one has a horrid mother-in-law. We have lovely houses all over Europe, thanks to Mildred."
"She didn't insist upon joining you?" I asked, to egg her on.
Claire smiled. "No, she sat upon the roof of this house like a dragon guarding her hoard. Don't mention to my husband that I said that, by the way. I'm just an old woman rambling on about the past." She stood and walked to the door. "If you want to visit the Mediterranean, just tell me, and we can have a house ready for you. Good night, dear."
At the time, I was overwhelmed by the offer. I was overwhelmed by the purchase of furniture for my personal pleasure in someone else's house. With a tinge of regret I realized that I wouldn't take Claire up on her offer; Adam was uncomfortable with socialization beyond our neighborhood or work contacts -- he even hated going to shows in San Francisco.
Hell, he wouldn't even come to the Reich estate to see the transformation of the study. "Nothing against your sister," he said in his honey-toned voice, "but those people are freaks. They don't even live in the real world."
Maybe that was why I enjoyed visiting the estate. I didn't live in the real world, either. In my world, spouses didn't cheat on their wives. Fears were surmountable by the sheer force of will. Mothers could be understanding and supportive of their children. Children were a possibility, and a reality.
The good furniture that Jesse and I chose for "Aunt Sully's study" is a bit faded, perhaps a bit over-steam-cleaned from the children's messy years, but the room is still welcoming and comfortable, and no one is ever called on the carpet in there. The little upstairs study with red walls is still a haven, as it always was for me, and a dream symbol for contentment and safety, and an inspiration for how to live day to day.
The autumn after the death of my mother, I began to dream about houses. Strange houses, new houses, old houses. Lying back against the pillows of my bed, holding on to the dreams after I had awakened, I thought about houses and what they meant. All the symbols in the dream are symbols of my self, I thought. I am that house unfinished, but under construction. I was the house with all the odd stairways and secret suites. And I was not returning in nightmares to my mother's house -- I am not my mother's house any longer. In the dim light of morning I came to know that I was answerable to no one but my own heart and God now; I finally understood I had lived my adult life subconsciously hoping that my mother would grin and tousle my hair and say, "You're doing such a good job!"
Now she never would. Yet far from finding a sense of failure in myself, I probed my feelings of regret and found a deep sadness that she had lost the ability to cross the wide gap of difference and make that simple gesture of approval or support to either Jesse or me.
"I'm a strange house, Gabe," I said to the big dog, nudging him with my foot under the covers.
"Woe-h-h-h," he replied in a low shepherd voice, which meant, "I am going to bite your foot in a minute." He looked at me out of the corners of his eyes and woofed once fairly quietly. "Let's go outside the house, now shall we? Or shall I begin to bark in earnest?"
"You are an eloquent soul, Gabe. Let's go."
One night I dreamt that I was an old woman, and that I lived in a beloved row house in a city. My porch was deep, and abutted the sidewalk. The cement porch had a few lawn chairs on it, and a welcome mat in front of the door. Inside, the wood furniture was all black walnut, darkly contrasted against the white wainscoting and woodwork. And the walls were pink, a rosy pink, vivid and glowing; the carpeting too was pink, though of a dustier, more muted color. My feelings in the dream were of contentment; I was happy with the colors of my house, which even in the dream I knew were eccentric. When I told my nieces and nephews about the dream, they laughed to think of pink walls and carpeting, but remembering the feeling of satisfaction in the dream, I was less inclined to pass a pink house off as indigestion.
I had the interior of my house repainted. I picked a color that looked like white but was actually a pale, pale, creamy pink, much lighter than the boring dirty beige "bone" color that was the original paint. Ah, much better! One room was a different color, however. This room was going to be my new bedroom, and it was going to be all mine, a haven like "Aunt Sully's study" at the estate, drenched with pigment and thick with comfort. The painter thought I was nuts but I really didn't care: I decided that I will have a bedroom with walls of a Victorian shade of purple, a purple like thick sunsets, like a nice ripe plum, like purple irises and tulips. Soothing, womblike purple. I will fall asleep and wake up to Color, I hummed to myself. Mmmmm. Oh, and the ceiling a frosty cool pink. Not the creamy pale pink of the rest of the house, now. A more feminine pink. And pure white woodwork, as was in the house I lived in as a child in Penn's Vale.
After my bed was moved into that room, with its new brass headboard, I bought a snowy white cotton bedspread, one of those that has the little chenille nubs, with the nubbies forming the shape of stars all around the edge, and a sun and moon in the middle. An old fashioned lamp with a lacy shade. A soft throw in blue and violet and green to throw across the bottom of the bed to save the white from Gabe's dark hair. Color!
Outside the window I planted a reddish orange bougainvillea vine, with a narrow trellis to one side of my window, the side I would see from my bed. Color!
Nuts? Maybe. But who lives in this house? Just me. And who is going to care what color my bedroom is, Gabe?
Into what had been the 'master bedroom', I moved my sewing table, my computer, and a cheap eight foot folding table. A stool of adjustable height, and a new addition: an easel. My mother's art supplies had put their hooks into me, and I was learning how to paint. And learning how to forgive myself for my poor choices of color, buggered up perspective, misshapen lines. They don't all have to be works of art, I told myself every time I opened the jar of thinner to prepare to paint. Just slap on that -- Color!
Of course it was my nephew Owen who looked at the newly painted purple bedroom and shyly (and endearingly) said, "Reminds me of your study. You should paint your bedroom at home this color, too."
All three of the girls clamored to be allowed to sleep in the purple room. Michel fixed me with a jaundiced eye, as if to say that painting walls purple and pink was the madness of females, and he was having no part of it. He was a stern and serious six years old that year, emotionally unlike his giddy twin Kelsa; Owen was eight, and Marca and Oesha were nine. The girls and I slept in the purple splendor of my bedroom; the boys slept in the hallway outside, entranced by the daring and intensity of the room, but too biased towards back-hoe yellow and San Francisco Forty-Niner red to dare to let down their defenses to the color of amethysts and violets. Gabe joined them, less concerned with colors than with the unaccountable outbursts of whispers and giggles.