by KARA VANDERBIJL
a trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts,
Little House on the Prairie,
the first story I wrote,
my mother’s piano.
Baring ivory keys chipped like old teeth, the piano smiled at the Canadian border officials. These pearly assets made my small mother out to be some kind of elephant poacher, however unlikely; she was 5’2’’, charming, with the appropriate lilting accent. Her American children watched from the backseat. They could not let the instrument cross onto maple-soil, the officials informed her, she should take back her tainted spoils.
It offended me at the time that my mother would so easily part with the old brown upright, since it had been a gift from her father, who soon afterwards passed away from cancer. Now, though, I think that my reaction was not so much directed towards her own loosely-clasped hands, but towards how tightly my own fingers held onto objects. The piano was the oldest thing I knew. It was older than my mother was for me, because it had existed before I knew her. My brother and I had leaned against it on toddling trips across the living room. We’d taken lessons on it up until complex “Good King Wenceslas”. My mother had moved it, bent in half and pushing all of her weight into its side, around the living room with the changing of the seasons. And here she wanted to move it away forever.
Of course, we didn’t actually drive the Steinway all the way up to the border. The proceedings happened over the telephone. But so stricken was I by this great abandonment, that I visualize the event as I told it above, a bartering for greasy Canadian change. Because Canada would not take it back, we packed it in quilts with the rest of our things in a shipping container that took it across the Atlantic to Europe. In the months before we saw it again, I imagined it tossing through stormy nights, its homesick cries pitching deep.
Moving to France was only our most recent adventure. These moves, they’d become like yawning business travelers on long-haul flights, permanently jolted out of a familiar time zone, accustomed to vacuum-sealed meals and blinking blue and green maps. Moving to Europe was just back to business for us. At twelve, I knew how to roll my underwear into the tiniest possible crevices of a suitcase. I did not yet know that it was a bad idea to bring along as many books as I could fit into my backpack for the trip. This heavy, shoulder-shrugging habit of mine continued well into college, when I filled a dorm room with one suitcase full of clothes and six full of books.
What stories I couldn’t fit in a suitcase, what stories were too close to tell or even to share with others, I wrote for myself.
I couldn’t write adventure stories, because adventures meant leaving, and that was filled with a personal pain I wasn’t even aware of at my age, and also, a hero leaving her hometown for a quest seemed banal to me, on par with a knock-knock joke, “Knock knock, who’s there, the Vanderbijls, the Vanderbijls who? They moved again.” When I was six we’d packed all of our belongings into a yellow moving truck and made the drive from Washington State to Southern California. Then, in our six years in California, we lived in four different houses, and it was in the fourth — a non-descript apartment in a complex with two pools — that I began to write a story about staying.
It centered around a place called Red Brick Inn and about a family that lived in and managed it. It was about illnesses that fascinated me like tuberculosis and love stories culminating in the chastest of kisses. It was about visitors arriving in the night, cold and wet and wandering, to a warm hearth within and a family that never left. It was about a home. I wrote the story of two generations in six books, and then the last three books were dedicated to a distant descendant who, orphaned, searched for the truth about her birth parents and discovered the dilapidated remains of the Inn.
Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, she restored it in the end. And got married.
Laura Ingalls was also a girl who Didn’t Stay and I think it was this underlying frontier spirit that made me reach for her books again and again when I was very young. She, too, did not complain when she was told that her family was moving yet again; she too was caught up in the adventure of it, the newness of the land and the blind opportunities a person might find if they just kept moving. That she settled, later, and lived out the last portion of her life in one place, though, made me feel as if she’d caught the bug second-hand, that she’d become tired, too, of living out of a suitcase on a never-ending journey.
I was haunted by the image of the Ingalls family slowly leaving their little log cabin in the prairies of Kansas, and I wonder if the girls knew at that point that it wasn’t the destination, the promise of cheap land, that kept Pa Ingalls going but the idea of movement itself.
As much as I shivered reading The Long Winter, and as much as I know that the Ingalls family was starving and was near death for the greater part of that book, I could not help but envy the coziness of their home, the snow blocking their front door and preventing them from leaving the space around the hearth. But snow melts, and the end of the book filled me with a sense of claustrophobia. Does this mean that they will have to leave again, I wondered, now that the winter is over?
It should not be easy to leave a home behind. I have friends who moved once in their childhood and tell the story with tears to this day, the trauma of new rooms and new schools and new friends barely compartmentalized into the cardboard boxes of their hearts. But for my family, it was eerily easy. We flung off extra clothes and furniture and memories until we reached the few bones that held our frame together. Our idea of home grew more and more emaciated, its holy body rolled behind a stone.
Our old homes should be kept sacred likes shrines, like street corners decorated with crosses or clusters of dead flowers. Why is it so do we spend so much time memorializing a place where someone has died, when we move so easily from the places where we’ve lived? Doesn’t living leave a greater mark than dying?
I’m a mystic, and now, in my adulthood, it takes me the time of a few tears to tear myself away from a place. I mopped the floor of the little bedroom in my last apartment with the devotion of a monk. Empty, it looked even smaller than when it was full of bed and dresser and discarded hair collecting dust. When I’ve been camping it’s taken me longer than others to stop looking at the spot in the grass that the tents flattened, the imprints of our bodies left to be raked away by wind and strangers, touched by the sparks of strangers’ fires.
This week, some dear friends of mine are moving out of their apartment. It is an attic unit with sloping ceilings and what is quite possibly the lowest rent on the North Side of Chicago. The big tree that used to be in the backyard rotted away and got cut down. Since it only has one exit, the apartment is technically illegal, and the landlord is grossly negligent on a good day. But it’s the first home I was invited into as a friend, just as the weather was turning after a hot summer.
I had made a mental list of places to locate immediately: a Bank of America, the closest dry cleaners and a pizza place within delivery distance that wasn’t too expensive. But I did not think about places that are not open to the public, the sanctuaries that existed behind the glowing golden windows of the row houses and bungalows on my street. I thought about making friends, but I did not consider that moment in a warm living room, winter outside, when a sense of family hangs heavy over fledgling acquaintances and empty bottles of wine. I thought about nights out, about bars and restaurants, but I did not think about home. I have not yet made the habit of thinking about how to stay instead of how to get out.
Before we moved to France, we visited Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was fall. The cranberry bogs were crimson with ripe fruit. Colorful cottages dotted roads carpeted in yellow leaves. On the horizon, a gray sky hung low over the Atlantic. This was the birthplace of our country and I felt like I should remove my sandals on hallowed ground and also because my feet were cold and tired from walking.
The reason for our visit is now obsolete, thus rendering it impossible for me to recreate an experience that felt like coming home. I cannot explain what about these small villages on the easternmost side of our country, territories I’d never visited before, made it seem like I was coming home at last. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that ‘disorient’ means to lose the east and that the further you march from the east, the further west you search for your elusive frontiers, the more you lose yourself.
It was after visiting Cape Cod that I began writing my Red Brick Inn stories, placing the Inn off a main road from one of the villages we’d visited during our time there. And I know it’s not there, but I almost can’t bear to visit the East Coast again without hoping it will appear like a beacon, like a warm glowing window on a winter night.
Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the end of summer. She tumbls here and twitters here.
"Love in Stereo" - Sky Ferreira (mp3)
The new album from Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time, was released on October 29th.