Prologue (background music: Jules Massenet’s “Meditation de Thais”)
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”—L. Frank Baum
Let’s just get the ugly part of this over with right away: When my family moved from tiny, quaint Eureka Springs, Arkansas—a Victorian artists’ mecca and tourist destination nestled deep in the Ozark Mountains, rumored to have been L. Frank Baum’s inspiration for the Emerald City—to urban Saint Louis, it was the move from hell. I am not saying, mind you, that Saint Louis is hell. Quite the contrary. But that, for the purposes of this nightmare-telling, is beside the point.
It all started innocently enough, an idea based on sheer logic with a smattering of adventure. Family and career considerations, educational opportunities, and the culture available in St. Louis all contributed to our decision to make the long-distance move, with three of our young adult children and one small grandchild in tow. With all signs pointing toward relocation, we went on our determined way, back and forth almost every week as schedules permitted, house hunting and becoming intimately acquainted with the most interesting and walkable St. Louis neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, a family signed a lease on our Eureka Springs home and gave notice to their landlords. By the time our dream house purchase fell through at the last minute because of inspection issues and faulty guidance from a mortgage lender, we had no choice but to make a grab for the first decent-seeming rental, sight unseen, and vacate our house immediately so that our new tenants could move in.
Ah! Never—and I do mean never—assume that a good location, the right square footage, and a substantial rent guarantee that a house is in livable condition. Never mind the fuzzy internet images showing a couple of rooms with dark wood trim against cream colored walls and featuring hardwood floors laid out in an artful pattern. Better just ignore those photos, because they expose only a fraction of the 3,000+ square-foot house. Disregard also the polite niceness of the landlord when he assures you that, although there is a bit of work being done on the house, it will most certainly be ready for your arrival in a week’s time.
And do try not to be excessively charmed by a lease that was apparently penned in another country in a different era, a lease that forbids the blocking of walkways with velocipedes and baby carriages, and that warns against allowing servants to sweep ash and other refuse out the windows and into the street. It is fine to amuse your family by waxing poetic about the delightful irony of e-signing such an archaic document, but try not to let your imagination get swept away like that warned-against ash. Keep your wits about you and no matter what, do not relocate to that particular dwelling in the “show me” state without having been shown.
If you do, you might arrive at 6:30 one evening, dead tired from a grueling week of packing, truck-loading, and a five-hour drive in a caravan consisting of two cars, a 26-foot truck and a 17-foot truck, and you might be shocked at what you find. A quick walk across a grubby front porch might lead to a front door with a smudged glass pane covered by a dingy sheet of plastic (the former resident’s idea of a window curtain). You might enter the house through that door and, instead of spacious rooms filled with natural light and good vibrations you might see room after room of filth and deferred maintenance.
The kitchen stove might be so offensive and grease-slick and in such serious disrepair—a condition it shares with the downstairs hot water heater—that a few days later the Laclede Gas inspector will flatly refuse to leave the gas on. The door to the ancient wall oven might come off in your husband’s hands when he tries to open it, and you might peek inside to see a dinner plate holding a moldy meal still festering where it was abandoned. I know it’s possible to see these things, because that’s what my family and I saw when we arrived at the house we hoped to call home for at least a few years.
The landlord greeted us on the sidewalk, pen in hand, with a hard copy of the lease. After we did a quick walk-through, so shocked and dismayed that our jaws practically scraped the squalid floors, the landlord offered profuse apologies for the miserable condition of the house. He said the house would have been in excellent condition and ready for our arrival as agreed, but he had only been able to remove the previous tenant that very afternoon. This was the first we had heard about the existence of a reluctant evictee. The landlord made fervent promises which we were all too eager to believe because, after all, where else could we—five adults and a toddler—go with our truckloads of belongings? The property owner assured us he would make things right. He would bring in a cleaning crew and would hire someone to repair everything that needed fixing. He would even replace the kitchen appliances.
We were in such a pickle that we, along with a couple of new neighbors delighted by the chance to earn some cash, unloaded all our earthly treasures into the huge, derelict home. I only cried a little. My husband managed not to cry at all. Our twenty-two-year-old daughter, who had been so eager to start this new life filled with fresh and expanded opportunities, held her two-year-old son firmly by the hand so that he couldn’t touch anything and begged, “Please, let’s just go home.”
First Movement–Washing Machine and Dryer (background music: “Mrs. Bartolozzi” by Kate Bush)
“I took my mop and bucket/and I cleaned and I cleaned//Then I took my laundry basket/and put the linen all in it/everything I could fit in it/…/and put them in the new washing machine/Washing machine/Washing machine”—Kate Bush
How to wash, how to wash? The vomit and diarrhea were coming fast and furiously, as the entire family, one by one, became infected with a severe gastrointestinal illness, starting with the two-year-old on the very day after we moved in. The towels, washcloths, and sheets disappeared into smelly piles on top of already-nasty bedroom carpets. And there was no way to wash them. This was yet another ugly surprise among many, but perhaps it was perfectly understandable. Maybe in Landlordia, “Are the washer and dryer both furnished?” means “Are there rusty washer and dryer connections behind several old refrigerators in a made-over semi-attached garage?” Surely that is the case, because when I had asked about the washer and dryer, the prospective landlord’s answer, bright and crisp over the cell phone, had been, “Yes, yes, both washer and dryer.” So, we had left our set behind for the benefit of our own tenants. And then… But, never mind. A quick phone survey of St. Louis building supply and appliance stores uncovered a good buy on a reconditioned, mismatched set, delivered the next day.
In they rolled, my personal saviors of the wash room. They worked heroically from the start, or at least they did once the long-overdue replacement of the downstairs hot water heater had finally been accomplished. Kate Bush might sing about the washing machine—a nice, white Kenmore, hard-working and with a large tub—but to this day the dryer appeals to some previously hidden, impressed-by-power part of me. The dryer is a front loader, huge and candy-apple red, with an array of computerized gizmos across the front that makes her fun to run. This duo presides over the laundry-room-formerly-known-as-garage like king and queen of the cave. The washer is king, the dryer the red queen. Don’t mess with her. She’s on a pedestal, with a drawer. The dog remains intimidated, even after eight months of listening to her gentle hum punctuated by electronic trills, whistles, and commanding buzzes.
Second Movement—Books and Bookcases (background music: “Divinere” by Ludovico Einaudi)
“So many books, so little time.”—Frank Zappa
There they were, captive again. All the volumes, volumes, volumes, locked away in boxes sealed with clear packing tape. We have carried them around with us throughout our three decades of shared life, lugging them from place to place and adding to their number in between moves. Every time we decide to call yet another house our “forever home” and think we’re packing the books for the last time, we talk about gleaning through them, perhaps donating some of them to a library sale. But still the collection grows and we don’t let go of any of them, in spite of the availability of Nook and Kindle. For a lover of all things tree, I am unreasonably attached to paper.
In our family, bookcases are more necessary than chairs or tables. For several weeks following this latest move, a motley group of wood and faux-wood shelves stood at odd angles in strange corners, waiting to be assigned to their permanent spots. As I elbowed my way past them, weaving in and out of their ranks like a trick-or-treater in a Halloween corn maze, I could almost feel their impatience, their eagerness for the emptiness to end. These bookshelves were like hungry animals with growling insides, their peg-supported stomachs gnawing and ready to be filled. I kept thinking that this time, I would kiss each book as it emerged from its cardboard prison, and weep at the familiar sight of it. I imagined I might have to jump out of the way at that moment, because maybe even the bookshelves would dance for joy, jiggling around on the uneven floor. Of course, they didn’t. But I did.
Third Movement—The Sofas (background music: Tibetan singing bowls)
“Ideology has shaped the very sofa on which I sit.”—Mason Cooley
The sofas are always the first things to find a permanent place when we move into a new home. We let them dominate simply because they are so large. Stuffed with goose feathers, these upholstered behemoths were purchased nine years ago to fill the living room of a large Victorian house my husband and I rehabbed in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. They spent some years in storage while we were busy in the mountains, investing in and then losing a fine art gallery after the 2008 economic catastrophe. Now, the sofas are a perfect fit for this St. Louis house. They sit at right angles, high-backed, gold, and sturdy. There is nothing frilly or frou-frou about these sofas. They take abuse well, although they will no doubt need reupholstering one day, perhaps by a grandchild or great-grandchild. But for now, they stand solid.
Unlike the bookshelves, the sofas knew immediately where they belonged. Nevertheless, in the weeks following the move, I imagined that they were becoming a little impatient for relaxed conversation and dirty feet, daydreaming and films, just as we were growing impatient for the leisure and the space in which to watch, dream, and talk. There was something unsettling about the arrangement of the cushions and pillows. They were, during that short but intense time, too perfectly in place, like the hair of a young child on a Sunday morning in the 1950s. It came as a great relief when those cushions were once again happily disheveled.
Fourth Movement—The Lamps (background music: “Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre)
“The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”—Joseph Campbell
During that horrible time when we all felt as if we had entered someone else’s nightmare, the lamps seemed to suffer along with us. They huddled together, naked, in the center of the living room, while their carefully wrapped shades occupied one corner of a massive sofa. Neither my husband nor I can bear the glare of overhead lights, yet the rooms were too full of unpacked boxes and jumbled furniture to allow us to find the outlets that we could already tell were too few and too far between. Tiny desk lamps gathered around the bases of tall floor lamps, all of them looking alert, like bold yet baffled sentinels. They seemed to be on the lookout for a person bearing a light bulb and a good idea. “Oh, this one can go over here.” “Aha! Here’s the one I had on my desk!” Lux sit. Let there be light. And finally, there was.
Fifth Movement—The Paintings (background music: “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Mussorgsky)
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”—Pablo Picasso
Most of the artwork spent well over a month clothed in plastic and bubble wrap, waiting for the furniture to be arranged. But my two favorites graced the living room wall almost immediately, serving as signs of hope and enough determination to get to the other side of the ordeal. They remain in their original spots still. One painting, “Mushroom Nymph” by Julie Kahn Valentine, presides over the room, perched mischievously between the two front windows. The other, “Requiem,” a large piece by magical realist Denise Ryan, looks down from a narrow wall beside the archway into the dining room. In the painting, a wooden shelf floats in midair against a background in which sunlight and shadows play through thick, tall pines. Resting on the shelf are several objects: a bunch of green bananas tied with a red ribbon; three lemons; an orange vase holding a single white Easter lily; a cobalt blue bottle next to a blue jay feather. A yellow ribbon, intertwined with a blue one, curls behind the bottle before rising straight up, push-pinned to the air.
The brilliantly rendered pines still make me think of the place we left behind, and call to mind the family of cedars that live in the front yard there. At first, I wept every time I thought of those cedars, even while surrounded by St. Louis’ own extensive tree family. I love this about St. Louis: the parks, the official and unofficial efforts toward sustainability. But for a while I mourned our abandoned evergreens, because this new home wasn’t home yet.
Sixth Movement—Adaptation (background music: “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads)
“Home is everything you can walk to.” Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl
When we first arrived, this home was just a filthy, rundown house with a lot of potential and a too-high rent. But with much persuasive effort, it has gotten better. The property owner apparently realized that it was in his best interest to leave the slum-landlord motif behind and to bring the property back, if not to its original glory, at least to a more comfortable distance from an officially condemnable condition.
During those first unnerving weeks, I wondered about the potential side effects of our voluntary but traumatic uprooting. I thought—belatedly, perhaps—of possible harm to our grandson’s tender young roots, and I hoped against hope that this urban soil would really be fertile enough to make the disruptive transplanting worthwhile. But throughout that first summer, I watched Eden splashing with other children in the Tower Grove fountain pool, running with glee among the sculptures of City Garden, and becoming lost in the joys of the Botanical Garden. Daily walks to the neighborhood natural foods market and Saturday morning visits to the farmers’ market soon became delightful routines. This is his world now, a thriving place for a child of three, now a city boy learning to walk on the inside of the sidewalk and to observe pedestrian traffic signals carefully, even while holding an adult’s hand.
After the move, I worried about my husband’s and my own lost momentum with our deepest, most important work, and I feared that we might never fully recover our serenity and focus, but those worries were apparently groundless. Life is busier than ever, but it is also rich with inspiration and opportunity. In spite of the disruptions and the ongoing demands of heading a large, multi-generational household, we both continue to find our way into our shared home office day after day, pulling the heavy pocket door closed so that we can study, teach, and write. For both of us, the cultural and artistic diversions available in our new city are refreshing and revivifying, as are the numerous opportunities for restorative, energizing time outdoors.
The lamps, forlorn and dark; the furniture, crammed and jumbled together; the disorderly stacks of book boxes that got shuffled hither and yon by unskilled, cut-rate hired hands; and most of all, the man who was without a desk, the woman who found little peace, and the little boy with the dimples and the sweet voice singing “Little April Showers” with his mother: all of us seem to have survived the ordeal. The house is not perfect and probably never will be, nor is it likely to become a long-term home for us after all. But that no longer seems to matter, as we celebrate the welcome return of everyday light.
Teressa Rose Ezell’s short story “Water and Fire” will be included in Main Street Rag’s car-themed anthology this coming spring, and her creative nonfiction will appear in the May/June issue of the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable’s literary journal. She has published nonfiction articles on a wide variety of topics and will soon receive her MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University.