Saturday, May 26, 2012

home, with illustrations


I've been asked to write a song for the OPERA America songbook in commemoration of the new National Opera Center.  They originally wanted words that would "celebrate the opening of a new home." This subject, though sentimental, connected with my sentimental nature, and brought forward memories of moving back and forth between the Sun-soaked White Middle Class sections of Southern California and the Scandinavian-soaked Far Northern White Midwest in my youth. Even though the commissioners seemed to back off from the theme later, expanding it to include songs about the joy or singing or whatever, I pushed forward in the original key.

When I was seven, we moved to the house in Grand Forks shown in the photo - the parsonage - as my father was the minister of the major Lutheran church in town. It was a home perfect for a young imaginative child, a house laden with a servant's quarter in the attic that could be buzzed from anywhere in the house through an electric buzzer system, a secret back staircase from the library or the kitchen up to said quarter, a walk-through pantry with a screened potato and bread store naturally chilled, a vestibule for the removal of snowy clothes - always unlocked but leading to a locked door and doorbell inside, a grand staircase to a landing with a built in padded bench lit by the sun and ideal for reading pulp science fiction, a suite of rooms looking over a mini-atrium-esque entry hall.  And, in the basement, a room with large cartoon characters beautifully drawn. I hadn't been back since I left at the age of twelve, but I forced Lynne out on the road to visit it in the deep winter a year ago and, as the temperature dropped to frigid, I was invigorated. As Viking ancestral senses settled upon me, and the soft parts of me were left behind, the memories of the smells and sounds and sights of the way things used to be came back. I had written the current owners, who were gracious on our arrival, who took us in and toured us through their revisions. The woman of the household was curious to find what I knew of the house's history, which wasn't much, but she was fascinated to find that I made the drawings in the closet upstairs. 

So then, my poem - or the lyrics as we say in the song biz - imagine a young girl moving into the house in some distant future and experiencing all that has been left behind by those who came before. 

Home, with illustrations 

A young child comes home from school, lifts the latch, and steps inside, shaking off the snow. 

She dreamed of this house before she moved here.  In her dream, there was a special room, just for her, deep down a disguised staircase behind the stairs. When she and her family arrived, she couldn't find a way to it.  But still, she hopes that someday she will. 

Looking, she finds her father, sitting at his desk, reading to himself: Kafka, old sermons, documents with notary stamps. He smiles to hear her. He turns. 

When you live in a new place, you become a new person. It becomes part of who you are.  Watching, remembering each one who lived there, their lives, each life. 

An example: a boy who lived there long before drew pictures, like old cartoons, back when the Sunday comics were printed so large, two to a page; drew pictures on the wall in a part of the closet hard to reach. 

Sitting in the sun, she daydreams and remembers squeezing herself in, feeling the walls the way he felt them, head craned forward to see.

In her reverie, she composes a poem:

How old is he now?
Is he crying?
Perhaps he thinks of me
The way I think of him
The little girl who has followed him
Into this house

The house thinks of us
And wonders 
Listening in its slow way
To the sounds of the small city
Of the way we stay so close
Inside the warmth of each other
And the warmth of this home

She thinks back to the cold bright sunny day they moved in, the end of a long drive, the snow drifting so high that she could slide down it from the second story window. 

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