Charlie and I have made plans to renovate our old farmhouse. Rory, our contractor, has given orders that we must vacate by the first of July so he can begin tearing down walls. My sister’s friend, Janie, and her kids, will spend summer at a camp by the lake, so Janie has offered to rent us her home.
We meet Janie on a humid, cloudy afternoon at her New Haven property. We walk the grounds while speaking of our needs and her requests. The woods are dense; the grounds, simple and mowed.
Janie tells us she is not fond of cats, but we have two, so she makes it clear we must keep Bessi and Finn out of her bedroom, a challenge for us because our cats sleep wherever they want, which is usually between us or on us. Janie suggests they should be allowed in the garage only, but we view this request as unreasonable and tell her so. I promise her they will be good, so Janie acquiesces.
Janie also asks us not to sleep in her bed, although by the looks of it, I am barely inclined to do so. There are mounds of clothing and personal items heaped on top of an old patchwork quilt. It seems no one has been sleeping here, not even Janie. We assure her we will place our futon mattress on the bedroom floor and sleep there.
We ultimately agree on a monthly rental amount of $750, a fair price. The house was built by Janie and her deceased husband, ten years ago. A comfortable, spacious two-story home, I might consider it ordinary if not for the beautiful chimney that stands central to the space. Constructed from local Panton stone, the large slabs are striated with tones of gray, cream and beige. Knock-out mountain views face the house from the east, and to be honest, I would pay $750 for the views alone. South Mountain and Deer Leap are visible from the wide porch, so I’ll have a front row seat for sun and moon rises.
Before we take possession of Janie’s home, Charlie and I return by ourselves to walk the grounds. The house is tucked away from the road by a grove of evergreens. A curved, steep driveway lends a natural source of privacy. Some people might find the seclusion a bit unnerving, especially at night, but we welcome this solitude since our own house is located on a noisy main road, considered sacrilege in Vermont. The big trucks that pass by sound more like hovering helicopters.
We don’t understand why windows at the front of Janie’s house are so small given the gorgeous views to be had. I would have installed tall panes of glass to allow natural light and mountain vistas into the space. Still, there is that sweet front porch so I plan on some prime porch-sitting time.
Janie and I meet at the house early on moving day. I sense her wariness and suppress the urge to remind her of my excellent references, and that I have run my own home for many years.
The house keys dangle in the air between us. Her hands tremble and her bottom lip quivers. As I take the keys from Janie, I realize this woman has not fully accepted her young husband’s death.
Charlie and I move our essential belongings over to New Haven in caravan fashion. It’s odd – I like the idea of this temporary move; it’s as if we are going on sabbatical. I don’t mind the thirteen-mile trips between our home in Cornwall and New Haven. We pack the car with bags of clothing (thank goodness summer clothes are light); our favorite photos; books; and cooking utensils. Lastly we bring the cats, who make the trip one at a time. The rest of our personal things are boxed up and stored on our enclosed front porch so that Rory can begin the demolition.
It is constant back-and-forth from the cars into the house. When we bring our younger cat, Finn, into the kitchen, he runs across the floor and takes a flying leap across three levels of steps through the mudroom out toward the garage. He looks as though he has sprouted wings like a flying squirrel, and we can’t stop laughing.
I drop our bags of clothes onto the bedroom floor while we tidy the living room and organize the kitchen. Janie has left her house in mild disarray, which is no surprise really, with two young children and a busy life. I head upstairs to un-bag our clothes. I open the roomy closet and assess the space, deciding what clothes must be hung and what items can be placed on a little chair by the dresser. Charlie helps, and as I push Janie’s winter clothing aside to make room for our own, we discover stacks of folded clothes that could only have belonged to her dead husband.
Ron has been dead two years and four months, and here are his clothes - the worn jeans and checkered shirts of a good ol’ born-and-bred Vermont boy – even his tattered jockey shorts for God’s sake. We both wonder how someone could hold onto her dead husband’s clothing for so long. I ultimately discover through the gossip mill that she is saving these clothes for her little boy, Ron’s son, who is only eight years old.
Charlie and I are morbidly fascinated with these old clothes. We can’t help but make light of it, so we begin calling them, “The Dead Guy’s Clothes.” And now, every time we speak of Ron, whom neither of us knew personally, we refer to him as “The Dead Guy.” And Janie has become “The Widah Janie.” We say it the way Foghorn Leghorn talks about his lady love in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Perhaps our irreverent humor is a defense mechanism we’ve created to ward off the ghosts because as far as I’m concerned, Ron’s ghost presides over this house. Janie hasn’t let go of him; and I observe signs of this haunting during our renters’ tenure.
One morning, on my way downstairs to start coffee, I notice the glass door of the shadowbox at the bottom of the stairway is open. It contains Janie’s faded wedding bouquet of cream-colored roses and carnations along with Ron’s crinkled boutonniere. I fasten the case securely, I am certain of it. Yet the next morning it is open, and this occurs repeatedly during our three month stay.
One evening, although there is no rationale for doing so, I feel compelled to descend the stairs into the home’s clean, uncluttered basement. I glance left and notice what must have been Ron’s L. L. Bean snow boots. They are propped up against the wall beneath his Carhart overalls, which hang from a hook. These items, once essential to his life in this house, now serve as memoriam. I can’t help but visualize Ron’s body filling out these clothes as if I have a mystical power to conjure physical matter. The image scares me enough to propel me back up the stairs fast. I shut the door behind me – tightly, relieved to be back in Janie’s kitchen.
After that day, I find the cellar door ajar often despite the fact that when I leave the house in the morning or go to bed at night, it was latched. Yet this mild haunting does not deter me or Charlie from finding comfort in this house.
My friend, Jess, who works with Janie states that prior to Ron’s cancer diagnosis, he was hard on their little son. He often bullied him about his performance during pee-wee ice hockey games. Janie confided to Jess that their marriage had been a bit rocky, but then Ron took ill. It is strange to note how a grave illness can change the landscape of a marriage, as if once death has put you on notice, all relationship issues – the hurts, flaws and tensions – are nullified.
I have wondered what it might be like if I lost Charlie. Oh, he might get on my nerves once in a while. We argue and he is not perfect, nor am I. But when I am alone, I pretend. I allow myself, if only for a moment and however irreverent it might seem, to think of him gone. No longer would I share life with my biggest fan, the one who tells me I am still pretty no matter how old I get. I would miss his silly jokes. I imagine how it might feel to never again see his face across from me over dinner or to hear his voice, and I easily empathize with Janie.
And now, the little boy who played hockey; whose daddy was so tough on him and yelled at him from the sidelines, is without a daddy at all. And Janie and her family must go on without him.
On weekdays, I come home from work and surrender to my new preoccupation, porch sitting. At our own house, I might vacuum or search for another chore, but here at Janie’s, I live in the “realm of the renter.” Charlie laughs as he has embraced this slogan, too, with no household jobs or lawn mowing required.
Charlie arrives home from work considerably later than I do in the evening, so I pour a glass of Chardonnay, read, and watch the sky as it fades into shades of purple and orange. The cicadas sing. The grosbeaks and thrushes flit between the branches of mature evergreens, calling to each other. Sometimes I play a game with them by imitating their sounds. They almost always return the call, which sounds a little sad, as if they are keening for Ron and Janie. One evening, I see a gorgeous red fox streak through the side yard. Another day, a flock, or “rafter” of seventeen wild turkeys plays follow the leader as they strut towards the woods behind the house. I watch with reverence as if time passes in slow motion.
I find myself channeling Janie. I jot down random thoughts and impressions as I sit on her front porch. It is as if I have stepped through a portal while in New Haven, my usual life held in suspension. I have been given a gift of more time, attuned to not only my own interior life, but Janie’s, too. There is a deep sadness she endures that I vicariously feel for her. This house may be haunted, but not in any frightening way. It is merely filled with the story of its family and a woman who cannot let go. Charlie’s and my lives overlap with Janie’s, which overlaps with Ron’s death and we all live with ghosts.
Although I have moved through my own divorce and heartache, I understand the loss of past love and the pain that continues despite all logic. I sense Janie’s guilt for being the survivor. How difficult it must be to bear the type of grief that besets a young woman who has lost her mate well before his time, no matter the condition of their marriage. But Janie resists moving on. She hasn’t changed a thing that might tamper with Ron’s memory and keeps the house as a shrine.
There is a photo on the living room table - Ron looking weak but still handsome in his blue flannel shirt. His head is partially bandaged, indicative of surgery, a surgery that would have perhaps offered hope, but failed to save him. Janie is sitting on his lap, a wan smile on her face. Odd, knowing what I know. That if Ron had never become ill, they might never have posed for the camera in such a way, wrapped up in each other’s arms.
When I prepare meals in Janie’s kitchen, I try to keep our belongings separate, but so many of her possessions are scattered about. I can’t help but flip through a stack of photos I find in a small basket. I catch a glimpse of one in particular, and can’t quite believe what I see. Janie and a few men stand in a semi-circle at the local cemetery. With shovels, they seem to be chipping away at the frozen ground. Ron passed away in March. In northern climates, the dead cannot be interred until spring thaw. Because of this timing the funeral director declined to bury his body. Apparently, Janie must have asked Ron’s fire company buddies to help her dig through the partially frozen earth shrouded in winter’s remaining snow.
It is now late August and I am on vacation, free to attend the writers’ conference on Bread Loaf Mountain. I intend to bask in these days I have given myself, and what better place to enjoy them than New Haven, which is very near Bristol, my first Vermont home. I bring my books to Main Street Bakery and read or write until a friend comes by offering welcome distraction. Some days I drive up to Ripton for a writing workshop or to attend a lecture. I take daily morning walks on East Street up towards the Mayer Farm. I walk farther each day, all the way out to Route 17. I slow my gait as I pass the cow barn and always get a little heartache when I see the cows. They seem so lonely, and I succumb to the urge to say hello. I say it in humanspeak – in English – the way I talk to my cats. No mooing at cows the way tourists do.
There is a sense of freedom in this summer that I haven’t felt for a long while. In my “renters’ realm,” all expectations and responsibilities are at bay. For many of us, this type of opportunity proves elusive. I have come upon it by accident. Despite my perception of Janie’s pain and Ron’s spiritual presence, Janie’s home has been a heartening retreat.
During the final week of our stay, Janie stops by to gather up gear for a Labor Day weekend camping trip. This is the only time during the three months I have lived here that we speak. We talk about her kids and how she has managed since Ron’s death. She tells me about her new relationship with Rick, who runs a tractor business out of his house in Waltham, three towns away. She says she couldn’t want for a nicer man than Rick. He treats her and her children well, so she has decided to give him a chance, and will leave her house behind for the upcoming fall and winter seasons. I give her a big hug and tell her I am happy for her.
It is now September. Rory has completed the final touches on our renovation. We pack our clothing and load cardboard boxes with the bowls, photos and books we brought with us. I sit on the porch one last night and watch the full moon come up over South Mountain. I will miss this place.
I recall a poem I wrote for Janie earlier this summer with the secret hope it might disperse the entwined energy between her, the house, and Ron’s spirit. Perhaps now she can move on. Perhaps the shadowbox that preserves old wedding flowers will cease its mysterious unlatching and remain closed.