We always called her the Big House. The locals called it Le Chateau. As of this week it is the house that belongs to that nice family with two cute little boys.
So I’ve taken my last look from the window. The children have walked the creaky floorboards, breathed in the reassuring aroma of our old room, closed up the iconic red portail for the last time. We’ve bid farewell to the fair lady.
And tried to come to closure. It’s one thing to say goodbye to the stones and mortar one has loved and lived. Parting with the ephemera is another.
It was always a place full of spirits. They usually showed themselves when you were in a state of half-sleep, just before dawn. Most were benign, some less so.
As they became palpable over the years, the most tangible of all was the core Spirit, The Spirit of the House herself. This was definitely not an amalgam of human souls who had passed through, become attached, clung on. No, there was a presence I always found at once majestic, but also fragile. I saw her as a sort of large, diaphanous white bird brooding the roof like a nest, wings extended the length of the entire house along the river.
As long as she deigned to be there, the house felt blessed and wholesome. The Irish say that fairies choose to inhabit places where there is goodness. I assume it’s one of those virtuous circles in which light attracts light, although I never figured out where one side of the formula starts and the other ends. But one year, some mal-intentioned humans began to create darkness, and we could actually feel the Spirit dissipate, as if she were deciding to go elsewhere. It took a lot of care by the living to re-establish balance in the Place.
When I say Place, it is not of course just the House itself. It is the all of it. Much more than the stones and mortar, it is the land perched on rock high over the river – high, but not too high, for you can feel the water creatures near, and the sound of the river itself when you are falling asleep. It is the woods and brambles that surround and protect, housing hedgehogs, birds, deer, boar, foxes. It is the garden planted by the ancestors of our ancestors peopled with 200 year old boxwoods and magnolias and lindens… and of course the majestic Cedars of Lebanon.
The day we cleared the House of our belongings, there rose an inexplicable tremor of guilt in my heart. As if I were abandoning a dependent child, a child I had nourished and cared for and of course, loved. I chastised myself for such a silly thought, a collection of stones and tiles has no need of me. But the feeling persisted.
I took myself to all the chimneys and attics and far nooks and crannies, to the field of Cedars and the Tomb of the ancient Boxwoods, and pinched bits of the dust and leaves and dirt and spider webs and shreds of parchment fallen from the old family books – and placed them in a little box. I dug up some oak plantlings, barely an inch tall, sprouting under the Sentinel Oak that stands over the old well. I suppose it was a kind of insurance policy. If catastrophe should fall, maybe someday I would be able to regenerate the DNA of the Spirit from the organic matter in my little box…
And then I made a conscious effort to let go and allow the classic stages of mourning take their course. In time, I made my peace with the severing of ties to stones and tiles. To the private view of the river and the powerful perfume of a room imbued with 300 years of dust and life. But the stages of mourning are subtler than I imagined. The guilt lingered. I came to accept that we would be gone, but what would happen to her?
I like to recall the moment when we showed the house to the young couple. The woman’s eyes lit up with delight at every room she entered. She could have remarked on the lady’s wrinkles and faded garments, but instead she exclaimed, “I love it!” She gestured to a sunny bedroom and murmured to the toddler in her arms, “this could be your room.”
And there, perhaps, I found my consolation. I see a young family starting a new life, in a new place. I feel their excitement and their unhatched dreams. Their hope and their joy. With those little boys, they will make a home of the place.
Home. Hearth. A place to protect, and with some luck, a place that protects in return. I am happy for them. My guilt is receding to backstage. I can wish that a great, good spirit will come and settle on their roof and bring them joy.
And so, we too, are moving on. Starting a new life. In fact, it has started already. As we plant new trees in the orchard at the farm, or a baby Cedar of Lebanon for someone’s great grandchildren, I give thanks for this opportunity to start our own legacy. I have a friend who once admired the brand new dining room table we had bought. I was confused until she explained that since she had inherited so many houses and so much furniture, and felt such an obligation to maintain a long legacy, she’d never had the chance to find out much about her own tastes. Or her own inner dreams that were looking for form in the shape of rituals she might initiate with her own young family.
Starting from scratch. Surrounded by long neglected woods and fields in need of renovation and care, we start from scratch with a dream and a vision. To our surprise our children have also shed their mourning cloaks and have leapt aboard. We are also a young family, that is to say we have youth in our clan, we have a vision, and in time we will sculpt this place to our dream.
And the Lady? The farewell? I’m beginning to make peace with the notion that she is like an old friend who has passed on. You always pray they have gone to a better place, but deep down you hope you will meet up again someday, further on down the road.
In any case, I have my treasure box with those bits of her petticoats and hearth cinders, if she should ever need a familiar place to build a nest.