A Space of Her Own
by Christiana N. Peterson
My ninety-year old grandmother was ready to move to a retirement apartment. She had said as much months ago, so her son, my father, took her away for the weekend. My two sisters and our mother labored through her house, sifting through the dusty cluttered messes of her last move, made four years before, just after her memory began to slow. Everywhere there were signs that a once meticulous mind was drifting into neglect: boxes still unpacked and sheets unwashed for months or years.
I decided what to bring based on the layers of dust, my mother said.
They took pictures of the arrangement of her home, her jewelry drawers and hanging pictures, ignoring the knickknacks lining the windowsills, hiding the small pieces broken by a great-grandson who played while his mother packed. They recreated the placement of lamps, pictures, vases, and blankets in the new apartment to make my grandmother feel at ease.
But when she arrived at that newly rented apartment that took years to secure—the residence that could grant her entry to the memory center she would so desperately need—my grandmother forgot that she had ever wanted to move.
She shook her head like a stubborn child. No, no! This isn’t what I wanted. I want to go home.
It’s the first time I’ve ever heard her call that house a home, my mother told me.
But my grandmother clutched onto the memory of the house as if she had built it herself, as if it had ever been homey and unpacked. As if it had been filled with memories instead of being a lonely place she couldn’t host in, a place crumbling with unused items and boxes she wouldn’t let anyone help her unpack, surrounded by a yellow yard wasting away because of a broken sprinkler she wouldn’t let anyone fix. She grasped onto the only thing that made her feel safe: a routine that steadied a shaky mind.
The once savvy businesswoman, well dressed and active, wilted into clothes that hung on her like ghostly tatters. Frail and undernourished, her body housed a mind in decay.
Instead of passing down precious family heirlooms to her progeny, she clung to even worthless trinkets like a child unwilling to share. Once so full of energy and generosity, her behavior, at moments, resembled a young child’s.
But she isn’t bitter or angry, Mom said thankfully. Anger takes short-term memory.
All they can do now, her daughters, daughter-in-law, and son, is watch over her faltering movements, shifting with her, not forcing her into discomfort, taking pains to keep her routines the same so she wouldn’t stumble.
They walk the tightrope of many caretakers of the elderly, trying to respect her freedom but wanting to keep her safe. One day, there will be a crisis: her health will fail or she’ll take a bad fall. There will be no choice then, and they will have to pull her to safety, pull her to a place that won’t feel like home.
. . .
In the intentional community where I live, property is communal. Forty years ago the philosophy was that a family should vacate their home when another family needed it more, to accommodate the needs of the collective.
Maggie’s husband Dale built a house on the corner of the property for their brood, five children strong. When another family came to stay, Dale and Maggie were asked to move out of their corner house into a home elsewhere. Maggie was so hurt, the story is told, that she vowed never to force someone to move for her sake or for anyone else’s.
Dale and Maggie are old now and living in town. Dale has dementia and Maggie, walking with a cane for a bad hip, cares for him alone in a house that’s too big for them. They can’t climb the stairs and Maggie is exhausted.
Four months ago, we were happy to gain a new family on the property. Camille, her husband, and young son moved into that corner house that Dale built. Then, unexpectedly, another house opened up, one on the bluff that had been recently vacated.
I was momentarily tempted by that solitary house—our home in the valley, shared by three families, isn’t a bad place, but at times it feels claustrophobic.
Camille was drawn to that house too, but for different reasons.
That once-beautiful cabin on the bluff had been left in disrepair: a bathroom spotted with black mold, electricity out in half the house, doors coming off the hinges, mice so tamed by the run of the home that they allowed themselves to be caught up by the tail and tossed into the woods.
I saw that house on the bluff, Camille said, and I forced myself to see the good things about it. It needs a lot of work. But the house we live in now—Dale built that for Maggie and his family. This needs to be the last house they live in.
So Camille and her family moved out of Maggie’s house to the cabin on the bluff.
Although Maggie insisted the corner house was never really hers, it will likely be her final home. Dale will be able to sit in his lounge chair and look out the wall of windows onto the meadow, watching the children run, the trees change color, the willow weep away all of its leaves, and the snow cover the circle drive. They will rest in the home they once gave away, and it will keep them warm.
. . .
The new baby punches and kicks, running her hands and feet across the inside of my womb. I cry at night, not because of the pain but because of the coming change. When the baby is born, she will tear and thrust her way forward into the world, needy and beautiful, bleeding and thirsty.
Our peaceful home will once again be full of cries. The small spaces will be places of noise and chaos and joy.
A raw anxiety gnaws at me, a knowledge that this babe will enter the world only to be confronted with the pain of loss. I pray her life will be full of the warmth of home. But she will also have to face unexpected and painful moves. She will encounter moldy cabins, spaces that are damp instead of dry, infested by pests and bad memories. She might have to fight for spaces of her own. And eventually, she will move to the place that will be her last home on earth.
This babe, nearly ready for a first breath, how will I protect and prepare her for all the places that will be her home?
As she moves inside me, her narrative has already begun in the words on my tongue:
You were an active one.
They said you would be big and ready for the world.
You were always making your own space.
We begin our lives fully sheltered. Our lives unfold in the homes between birth and death, under roofs that shelter our growth and decay, walls that stand by as we take and give away, and let us go when we return into the womb of the earth.
For now, this safe and innocent baby will learn only the warmth and love of her first home.
I can feel her kicking. I think she’s ready.
You were always making your own space.
Christiana N. Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry at Catapult, Curator, and Literary Mama as well as articles on fairytales and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and Flourish. She lives with her family in rural Illinois where she feels the daily call of farm life, folly, food, and occasionally fairies. You can find more of Christiana's work on her blog, and follow her on twitter.