Three Flags by Jasper Johns, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
One day last week, my email received delivery of a random real estate listing. Trulia, the real estate website, resurrected my email from the basket on the shelf called “unsubscribe.” For this listing, and only this listing, I became “active” once again. What is true for internet is true for the ethers: We can hide, but we never really disappear. Just for a moment, I hesitated to tweak my dormant real estate perusal habit but the copy was tantalizing:
“Mid-century home, custom built in 1955 for “Famous Scientist,” (not his real name) who worked on the Manhattan Project. A remarkable, one of a kind home, tucked away on a circular drive on 4 acres wooded lot.”
I could have deleted it. I’m not looking for a house, but where is the fun in going only where you’ve planned? Peering into the few unfocused images of the listing I saw an “impression” of the backyard from the sun porch on a summer day. Purple Coneflowers shown in full bloom with just the hint of two square bee hives tucked under the trees. Another photo taken at oblique angle offered a taste of a warm welcoming kitchen; handmade wood cabinets, shining cottage hardware next to the bright window over the sink.
Yes, there is nothing more intriguing than a house with history, with the clear stamp of the sensibilities and soul of the previous owners. How previous, is sometimes the most interesting part.
No need to buy a house in order to interact with its history. Sometimes it is enough to walk through, just a “meet and greet” for whatever reason. My predilection for homes in flux is not unlike my Mother’s affection for walking through Garden centers long after her own herbs and flowers were a sweet memory. We come to enjoy, we come to support, we come to give love, because we can.
I googled the original owner and found a respected career of science and leadership. Amidst the curt, contained Academic language, I sensed there was more. What it was like to come home, to pick up life and career, after helping to create the first Atom bomb? What does changing the world feel like on a personal level? How does a man with such a big history come to live in such a small house, surrounded by nature as it must have been in 1955? Was the world different then? Were the rules clearer? The enemies more distinct? Or was that the only perspective at the time, to fight darkness with darkness, destruction with destruction. We will never know.
“Open House” Saturday, no showings before Saturday morning.”
We were headed out of town for the weekend. I would drive by soon, “just out of curiosity.” Thinking that was the end of it, I returned to my conscious task of moving all the digital history I chose to keep, from limping old computer, to the new sleek model. Along the way, my last decade flashed by; pictures, music, my own written reflections streaked through my day. It was a day of memory and ghosts and happy sad thoughts.
Well of course our plans changed, one door closed, another opened, invisible walls slid to the side and Saturday afternoon was available after all. Thankfully there is more to our lives than only ourselves.“We will stop there between the chowder festival, and a walk with the dogs, just for fun.”
Rounding the curve, there were a dozen cars pulled off into the greasy snowbanks of this mismatched early 1960’s neighborhood. Unmatched pairs of curiosity seekers stepped carefully across the ice coating the narrow gravel ellipse that was “the circular drive.” The scene was unexpectedly eerie. A moving shadow of a wildly overgrown Rhododendron played on the front bricks. Ambitious White Pines of all ages pushed up everywhere; through rock walls and driveway edges. Their sweeping branches leaned in; precariously close to the bedroom windows, creating soft snare drum rhythms on the single panes. Years of shed needles shut out groundcover, dampening new life as efficiently as algae chokes a pond. No doubt, there was deep sadness here.
As a gardener, I knew there hadn’t been one here in quite some time. The robust had prevailed, the diminutive had faltered.
The memory of ivy and vinca maintained their presence guardedly in the cracks of the brick face and between the rock walls. Two of the largest of the sticky White Pines had been hurriedly chopped in the handful of days between advertisement and open house. Their hacked-up stumps still oozed golden sap on this chilly winter day. The small branches and woodchips that were their remains, splayed out across the dirt driveway as if a wily wizard had “shazamed” them in the moment before we pulled up. Always be wary of quick fixes and fresh paint, they tell the problem, if not the story.
Passing through the multi-paned front door there was a sense of desperate confusion. The ecstatic realtor was holding court, beaming her pleasure at the bewildering excitement of this bargain crazed crowd. Handing out cards and cookies she seemed completely unaware of the storm forming around her. Small knots of people huddled in the huge great room. Windows filled an entire wall to the southwest, and yet it was dark and dank.
I heard snippets of wistful conversations about the patina of the floors, the built-in book shelves, the brick fireplace. A luxurious and graceful mature Spider plant squatted casually at the end of the long pine mantel holding the sole bit of life in this cold room. I wondered where it had come from, and how soon it would get to go home. Scented candles burned on windowsills, an attempt to discount the heavy, throat closing aura of mold, damp, and viscous stillness. I stepped back into the wordless part of my brain, seeking direction.
Being careful not to touch anything inside the house seemed paramount. Unclear on why we were here, I stepped outside, to get a breath, to get some perspective. There were several couples out in the trees, one man looked back at the house, gesturing his amazing ideas, imagining an HGTV dream of reclamation and redemption. “The roots of this loss are everywhere,” I wanted to shout to them, “The pain is too much, let the trees take care of it, they know how.”
Standing outside on the pieces of slate that had been a patio, I regained my senses and noted the floating rungs of a wooden staircase leading precariously up to the nearly flat roof of the living room. It had no supports, nothing linked it to ground. “He must have visited Loretto Chapel,” I thought, remembering the church in Santa Fe with Ripley’s credentials and a spiral staircase that curls to the balcony totally without support. The story goes; it was built for the nuns to sing in the balcony by none other than who else: an itinerant carpenter.
This lesser accomplishment had been marked off limits by an insignificant strip of yellow Caution tape. It had been tied there and pulled off by some light-footed optimist. All at once I realized, “This is a New Mexico house.” The large open rooms, a kitchen only as big as it has to be, windows that look out on open space, and a stairway to the roof for star viewing. Is this some of what he brought back from Los Alamos? Having lived in New Mexico and its opposite, New York, it seemed obvious.
“Yes,” I thought. “I miss that too.”
Wanting to complete the journey ASAP, we galloped through the empty rooms, newly painted and unoccupied. The biggest bedroom had a beautiful window, seemed a nice place to watch the snow fall from bed. The closet held nothing except a week’s worth of professionally ironed dress shirts. The office was murky; the presence of briefcase and folders was unexpected and confusing. I barely crossed the threshold, and didn’t linger. I imagined the unconscious occupant moving quickly between the three necessary rooms, office, bedroom and kitchen. He would keep close to the wall, avoiding a look into the living room, and then, with a quick sprint, out the door. I wondered where they had stashed the furniture and how anyone could stay here, even temporarily.
It was a quick tour, it was just too much to stand in for very long. I had renewed gratitude for my cozy home, and my physical ability to stand in the sun. Back in the car, we returned to our reality and decided upon our dog walk trail “de Jour.” We would walk on the track bed turned bicycle path, starting from the Lock 7 on the Mohawk and going south along the river. It was a bit farther than we needed to drive, but walking by water is always a good idea. I hadn’t been on this part of the trail for many years.
Down the hill and across the Mohawk, the dogs in the back seat were ecstatic.
Our old Toyota, still sporting New Mexico tags turned left to River Road skirting the vast riverfront property that is Knolls Atomic Laboratory. I remembered then, the short biography about the scientist who came home from Los Alamos after the war and settled here to work the rest of his life at Knolls. As we entered the roundabout by KAPL I realized our mission.
We parked the car, the dogs sprinted up the incline. Once reached, the path was straight flat and continued endlessly out of view. We walked past ice covered ponds, water roaring through rusty culverts, and frosted vegetable fields, harvested this time of year by the hungry wild things. We walked 2 miles south heading towards Vischer Ferry, where just around the corner, water from upstate New York hills flowed into the Mohawk River, and onto the deep moving currents of the sea-bound Hudson.
I had just read a book about the old Celtic thoughts on the specific attributes of trees. They are all unique in their attributes and abilities to be used for medicine and hold the integrity of the land. As we walked they waved, the birches, the alders and especially the water soaked Willows. We were walking with the current, “in the flow.” We reached a small building at a beautiful curve of the river and took stock of our place and time. It was after 4 when we decided to turn back to the car. The going back was harder, the day was colder and even the pup was dragging when we finally saw the poles that marked the parking lot. It was a full day.
I am reminded this day in February that research and inquiry go in both directions. I watched a TED talk this week from an impassioned Astro Archeologist. She finds the relics of human past from satellite images worked with algorithms. Her contention is that we have awareness of only a 1/1000 of a single percentage of human experience that rests hidden from view under our feet. “It is time to turn the pyramids upside down…” she said. From the heavens, they look for the very subtle impressions in the earth that indicate the map of human history (https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_parcak_help_discover_ancient_ruins_before_it_s_too_late?utm_source=tedcomshare&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=tedspread)
I took this as a personal AHA! Moment. There was something about that image of looking at our planet, our lives, our past, from an “other side of the atmosphere” point of view. It cleared my myopia and I laughed out loud. No need to wonder if those folks we choose to “research” or remember aren’t peering right back at us with equal interest. Do relationships and interactions transcend physicality? Of course they do. I write these words and I hear the deep chuckle, “If only you knew, if only you know.”
Arrien, Angeles, 2007, The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom, audio
Parcak, Sarah, https://www.globalxplorer.org)/
Three Flags by Jasper Johns, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Buffalo II Rauschenberg, Robert, 1964