The Last Time The House Breathed

Julie R. Neidlinger

The end of beloved things is painful.

North Dakota oil boom and population increase aside, this is still an emptied state. The northeast corner where I am from has no oil boom (thankfully), and people continue to leave and farm house after farm house is abandoned. There are more houses than people, unlike the western part of the state.

My Grandfather's House Is A Retreat

My maternal grandparent's house is my mother's now, and it, along with my father's parent's home, meant the responsibility for maintaining three farm homes had fallen in my parent's lap. That is too much. For several years, we'd rented the farm homes out to duck hunters in the fall, but it was increasingly more work and barely enough to cover the scant amount of heat and upkeep necessary to keep the house viable.

I loved that house.

It is in the most beautiful setting, flanked on two sides by soft sloughs that filled the air with the popping sounds of ducks and the low hum of crickets and frogs. Giant cottonwood trees towered over the house on the east side, acting as a frame for the cattail-edged slough when looked at through the second story windows. Breezes come in off the slough, pushing the sheer curtains back from the windows that are open in the evening. It is ideal.

The linoleum on the floors of the house is ancient. There is no air conditioning. The bathroom and kitchen need to be gutted and fixed for updated plumbing, on their last vestiges of use. There is no usable cell phone service in that location, and no internet or landline currently. It is off the main highway, on narrow gravel roads that sometimes go under water. It is an island in this technological world.

'It would make an ideal retreat,' I told a friend. 'There are people who want silence and to escape technology for a while, who want to contemplate. This house and this location is perfect. I would love to live there.'

There are people like that.  People who hop online and are saying they want to disconnect from the rush and slow down. This is a house where you are forced to slow down and yet it is on the brink of falling in on itself because no one truly wants to live there, and I can't make a living there.

I dream of the silence it sits in, now that I live along a busy street in Bismarck. Instead of ducks and crickets I hear the constant noise of car wheels slapping the pavement and motorcycles and people trying to make as much noise as possible, as if they think they must surround themselves with noise to leave a mark on the world, their noise disappearing among the racket of all of the noise. I crave silence and slowness. If I could live there, in that place, I would. I would gladly hop out of the tech-driven world of deadlines and The Hot New Thing and into one of contemplation, writing, reading, and nature.

But this house is not appealing to people.

They see it for what it could be, perhaps, how they would remake it, how it would be a vacation home, how it would be peripheral, an addition to their preferred lives.

People want homes that look like what they see on HGTV, filled with IKEA-like furniture and modern flooring and sleek kitchen counters and huge closets and storage for all of their stuff. They want master bedrooms as big as the whole upstairs of the house, complete with sitting areas and double-sinked bathrooms. They would tear out old linoleum, they would gut the house, they would make it into how things should be now instead of finding value in how it was. They would redefine the house to fit them, instead of letting the old house change them, its small storage forcing them to be rid of things and its small rooms and kitchen forcing togetherness. The simple house, as it is, has the power to simplify our lives if we'd let it.

Why do we force ourselves onto the landscape, onto the old things? Why don't we let them change us instead?

The reasons I love the house are the reasons no one wants to live there.

One Last Time Together

Two years ago, mom wanted to have one last get-together with the full family, and our relatives came from Colorado and Washington and North Dakota.

We gathered for a few days, reminiscing and exploring the extensive family history mom had been collecting for years. We traced our family's homesteading in the area, and did a driving tour of the important locations, cousins from far-off running their fingers through the tilled soil and taking a rock from the family land. We imagined what it would be like to live then, to be isolated in the winter, to be purposeful and walk several miles just to be able to spend time with a neighboring farm wife to have outside contact. I found myself becoming sorrowful that my life had become so modern, and how isolated I was increasingly feeling as if I were an antique in an evolving world.

It was a wonderful few days. We took photos, and there was the moment when, as the cameras were clicking and the family stood in front of the house, that I realized what this really was. This was a requiem. This house will not see this family like this again. It had breathed its last.

My mom knew this, of course, and in her no-nonsense way had planned the event for that specific reason.

But dad and I contemplated it as we stood outside the house in the dwindling day after everyone else had left.  The wind had died down, and the mosquitoes were starting to get bolder. The leaves of the two towering cotton wood trees still rustled like a thousand paper cymbals, part of the choir of duck and frog noise coming off of the slough just beyond the road and behind the cattails that were swallowing up the mailbox. The sky was sliding towards pink and the windows on the house looked like sheets of gold from the setting sun.

We stood in that silence, a silence that isn't silent but is so lulling that nature convinces you otherwise. It seemed all that was left for the house was to find someone to buy it and move it off the property, or watch the gradual decline.

'So I guess that's it, then,' I said to dad.

He rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets. 'Yes, I guess so.'

It broke my heart. I'd rather see the house burned than gradually fall in, windows broken, vandals having fun in the living room where I played board games with grandpa and had Christmas and watched grandma sew and stood at the window and imagined who might live in the little camper shack in the trees. I'd hate to see the house moved to some city or lake lot, its roots completely hacked away, transplanted. But I don't know if I have the heart to watch it die, either.

Nature is a kind of rubric, showing us how a tree might conquer its surroundings and stand tall and proud against the wind high above the ground, but eventually becoming old, withering and dying, falling back from where it came. The house  belonged here. It was built triumphantly here, out of adversity and the sheer will of my great-grandfather, and should be buried here.

The whole weekend was about things that fade away.

History Only Exists If You Care

You can't save every dish, every piece of furniture, every scrap of paper, every bit of history, because you are among the last to care. The next generation has a weak grasp, and the one after has none at all. They will not care like you do, who lived through it. They did not know the people in the photographs. For them, it is just junk in an antique store that matches curtains or is 'vintage' and 'hipster cool' or a collectible.

In Kevin Brockmeier's book  The Brief History Of The Dead, those who had died existed in an afterlife as long as someone still alive remembered them. We are all within one generation of being forgotten, a dusty book on a shelf, a mention in a genealogy list, a photograph tossed by family members that don't care or have no idea what your name was. Most of us are too busy to actively try to remember people we can't possibly remember, to tell our kids about them in a way that makes them alive and important. I suppose there  is great power in saying 'I do not want to be remembered. Let me be forgotten.'

Someone from the east or west coast bought an old church near my hometown of Hampden at an auction, and while the building is still there, the new owners took what they wanted. Then they left it to rot. It wasn't their history. It was a source of pews and trinkets that could decorate a house for a season until the next remodel sent those salvaged items to the landfill. History, in careless hands, is a brutal thing.

Standing in a field of tall grass on a windy North Dakota summer day makes you feel as if you're walking on water. The grass rises and swells and weaves about like an ocean, pounding against old buildings and lapping at the edges of cemeteries still fighting for survival with the promise of a lawn mower and someone to be caretaker. Perhaps things that are dying here should be allowed to die, falling into the landscape of time.

Perhaps we should not try to make the dead live beyond life.

Facing The End With Courage

During that weekend, we toured the cemetery to take photos of the gravestones of ancestors. My brother and sisters and I had the awkward and difficult moment of standing with my parents in front of the plot and headstone that they've chosen with their name on, accepting that they have already planned their obsolescence, even as my mom discussed the plot with remarkable levels of no-nonsense.

Going home to the farm is always bittersweet. I know that it is edging further towards history than the present, that it is going away as I knew it; my life has taken a different turn, my own upswing is pushing me further away from the farm and what I love faster than if I were still there, still a part of it on its backwards journey.

Now, when I go home to the farm, I struggle to find a balance between appreciating what is still there, appreciating the memories, and trying not to grab at what seems a panicked rush of things fading before my eyes. I can't save everything and ultimately, I can't save anything. My memories have to be enough, and I have to have lived life well and made the most of things when I could. What I mean is, I can't go back and fix a relationship or love a family member more by preserving the house it should have occurred in at an earlier time.

It is a gift if you can find a way to enjoy what still is, even while understanding that it is a fraction of what used to be, and it is more than what will eventually be.

The best I can tell myself, and you, is to always choose wisely.

Never choose your work over your family. Never choose to avoid the messy family relationship issues because it is unpleasant and hard.  Always always always  choose the people you love over work, money, convenience, annoyance, and career.  Never hold back. Never choose fear or anger. Never choose selfishness.

This is not easy, because  the world doesn't reward you for it, and you will question if you did the right thing while you're doing it. People will tell you that you have the wrong priorities, they will tell you you're a fool, that you didn't achieve anything, or  that you're a failure. But you never want to arrive at the end and realize the best grasp you have on these people that meant the most to you, that made you who you are, is a fading building or an old photograph. You can't preserve a person by saving the objects they once owned.

There is an art to giving up, but not much art in giving up. The difference, perhaps, is knowing when it sets you free, and when it's just quitting. Are we quitting the house, the person, the memory, or allowing it to be what it was and fall into history?

I always think of how, in the cool summer mornings and evenings, the birds and insects make more noise. The sounds coming off of the sloughs are intricate and refreshing. In the morning and evening, the sun creates the sky that takes our breath away, before it rises to its hot, harsh peak.  There is more beauty and music at the start and end of things. In the middle, during the heat of the day (and life), there is silence. We fill it with our own noise.

Is that morning send-off, and the promise at the end of the day, enough momentum to keep us going in between?