The door to your house/flat/apartment/abode has come unstuck in time. The next time you walk through it, you find yourself in the same place, but a different time entirely. Where are you, and what happens next?
A few precious hours to myself and I found myself rushing home. It wasn’t because I had a lot of things to do for indeed, I did. The house, to put it mildly, was a mess, a cluttered mess of children’s toys, books, laundry that was begging to be folded, and boxes that needed to be relegated into the garage.
Before I had my baby, I always thought that I’d be that perfectly coiffed mother one saw at the park – you know the one – the one who always had the perfectly clean child in tow, immaculately pressed clothes and when you came to her house for a play date, had an equally immaculate house.
Instead, I’d turned into the complete opposite. I barely cook, even though I’m a decent one when pressed, and I don’t really excel in housework. Let’s chalk it up to being forced to clean up after twenty cats and dogs when I was a child because my mother thought she was Tippy Hendren and had to take in all the abandoned animals in the neighborhood – even a stray turtle. But at least I didn’t have to clean up after the turtle so I have nothing against him. But then anyone can argue that I’m just using that as an excuse.
Heck, I don’t even know where the ironing board is. It’s somewhere in the laundry room. And the iron? Well, it’s somewhere in there, too. Just don’t ask me to iron anything because I’ll just toss it into the washer, then into the dryer and wait till it dings and I’ll rush out there and drape it onto its hanger while it’s still warm.
Yes, that’s the “perfect” homemaker I’ve become. Not so perfect.
So with my grand plans of picking up all the little boy’s toys and putting them in their respective bins I’d label with the appropriate categories like ‘trucks’ or ‘trains’ or blocks’, I arrived home, pushed the key into the lock and opened the door.
For a moment, I stood there dumbstruck. We’ve been robbed, I thought to myself as I tentatively took one step back, before realizing that my little dog, Truffles, hadn’t come to greet me at the door.
Oh no, I thought, they took her, too, just like they took all the toys (not that I was complaining – it did clean up the place) and even the sofa that dominated the far wall of our small living room, and the big flat screen TV that emerged from the wall in front of the sofa, and my books! Where were all my books?
I ran through the living room and into the bedroom and stopped.
I turned to face the living room again and realized that not only had my sofa disappeared, but there was another one in its place, a much different one and definitely not of my taste at all. And where the TV used to emerge from the wall? Instead of a wall that was my entertainment center, there was a cabinet that spanned the entire wall and as I opened the wide doors, a Murphy bed threatened to descend upon me creakily and trying not to scream, I pushed it back up into its alcove and shut the doors.
I walked to the bedroom and found that it wasn’t the bedroom anymore. It was a hallway that led to the bathroom and where my bed used to be was just a wall that marked a clear boundary of the house. After all, where my bed was had been an add-on, I thought.
Outside the birds continued to sing their songs and for a moment I remarked at how loud their voices were – did birds have ‘voices’? – and I walked to the bay window to look outside, a part of me no longer expecting to see the gazebo my brother in law had built in one end of the yard for in its place were trees bearing fruit. One was a peach tree and the other, an orange tree.
“Who are you?”
I turned to look at a young blonde girl peering at me strangely. She was dressed in frilly white dress with blue polka dots, a large white collar accenting her neckline, a blue ribbon tied in a neat bow between the plackets.
I wanted to tell her that I lived here, that this was my house, but something told me that it was no longer mine. This time, I was just a stranger inside her house, her home.
“What year is it?” I asked instead.
She looked at me as if I were joking, her brow furrowing suspiciously. “Everyone knows it’s 1927,” she replied as her gaze went from the top of my head down to my feet, my nails adorned with bright lavender nail polish. “You’re dressed like a man,” she said.
I looked down at myself. I was wearing a black shirt over blue jeans.
I chuckled, surrendering myself to the insanity that I had just descended into. “Yes, it looks like I am, doesn’t it? I just found it more comfortable,” I knelt on one knee. “What’s your name?”
The child frowned, as if debating whether to tell this oddly dressed stranger standing in her own house her name though in the end, she relented. “It’s Mildred. What’s yours?”
“It’s V-,” I stopped myself, wondering who would ever name their child ‘Velvet’ in 1927. Probably no one in their right mind, unless they saw National Velvet, which wouldn’t come out till 1944. “It’s Elizabeth.”
Thank God for Liz Taylor and her violet eyes, I thought, and for a mom who loved both the movie and the actress. Now if only she hadn’t convinced me for years that I’d been named after the horse, then life would be perfect.
“Would you like to look at the house?” She asked. “Papa did say that someone was going to look over our old house in the front and this house because we are moving up to Sacramento in a few months,” she said as she squinted. “Do you know where Sacramento is?”
Oh, Sac, of course I know it, I wanted to tell her. Instead I shook my head. “Why are you moving up to Sacramento?”
The little girl shrugged and she began walking towards the kitchen as I followed her. “I don’t know. Papa just says he’ll have better luck up there, but I love it here. I lived in the front house and I watched Papa build this one.”
As she showed me her little house, I felt a shiver run up and down my spine. I watched her blonde curls bounce up and down as she bounded from one part of her little house to the other, proudly showing me her toys and that of her sister’s, who at that same moment was at the pier waiting for the ships come in.
She told me that her father was going to build a shower in the back of the house so his daughters wouldn’t trample sand all over the living room just to get to the bathroom after their daily treks to the shore.
I’ve heard this before, I thought to myself as the hairs at the back of my neck began to stand on end. Mildred turned to look at me and smiled as she showed me how to work the Murphy bed in the living room, laughing when I told her that it had almost fallen over me.
Yes, the Murphy bed, I thought. I remember now. You told me this last year, dearest Mildred, when you and your husband came knocking at the front gate asking me if I’d be kind enough to show you your old house, the house you’d always loved.
You were in your eighties then, little Mildred, and I remember how entranced I was then listening to your eighty-year old self, just as I am right now as I listen to you as a child, talking about the house you grew up in, and how you remembered watching your father build this house from inside your play pen, the memories being among your first and most precious.
And yes, you told me about the shower, too, and how you and your sister loved to watch the ships come in at the pier. And how you trampled throughout the house tracking sand all over the place, but so glad that your father built that shower in the back of the house where it was refreshing to wash yourselves during a hot summer day.
But I’m not going to tell you, Mildred, why your father needed to uproot you from here to move you to Sacramento. You were sad when you told me about it, just as you’re sad now telling me and not knowing why.
But you loved this house, just as you love it now.
And as I looked at the house, as it had been built by Mildred’s father as she watched him from inside her playpen as a baby, I could see the love in the clean and tidy corners, the hard wood floors shiny and polished, the windows spotless and still smelling of vinegar. I could feel it in Mildred’s voice now as I did when I met her then, more than sixty years later, when she found herself allowed back into the house she loved most of all, and how year after year, she always drove by to see if it was still standing, hoping that the tenants would let her come in to see it, just one last time, though none of them ever did.
That was before my in-laws gifted us the property as a wedding present, and just about the time when Mildred had almost given up, but having driven by the house one last time, took a chance and stopped to knock at the gate to see if its new owners would not think her too crazy and let her in.
As I thanked Mildred for her hospitality, apologizing for entering her little house unannounced, I said good-bye and began to walk towards the door.
“Will I see you again, Elizabeth?” Mildred asked as I opened the door, stopping to look back at her as she stood in the middle of her living room, a picture just begging to be painted in my mind’s eye.
“I’m sure we will, Mildred,” I said, smiling. “It was wonderful meeting you and I love this house, I really do. And I’m sure its new owners will love it as much as you do.”
I know I do, I wanted to add but knew that I wouldn’t need to – not if I was going to meet her again, though she wouldn’t know it yet.
And as I walked out of the house and into the daylight, the sun blinding me so that I brought my hand up to shield my eyes, a hum filled the air. The birdsong in the fruit trees grew deafening before it went away as quickly as it had come.
I turned to look at the backyard. The fruit trees were gone, as was the birdsong, and in its place stood my brother-in-law’s gazebo where instead of using it as a nice retreat on a hot day, had become just a vestibule of unused things, sullied, dusty and muddy where the sprinklers splashed on it every other day.
A squirrel chattered angrily at another for taking over his abode, a towering pine tree in my neighbor’s yard and I turned to look at the front door of my house again, its door closed as I had just shut it behind me.
I walked up to it again and inserted my key into the lock. I held my breath and for the second time that morning, pushed open the door.