We sold my mother’s childhood home recently. It had become redundant, an inconvenience. Small, remote, lacking in modern conveniences, lacking what would make even a simple cottage desirable, a lake view. The elder generation had become too elderly, the emotional ties of the young had loosened. The cottage had to go.
At first it made me sad. The tiny house might have lacked in grandeur, but it had belonged to my family for some eighty years, the only place owned by the family for more than one generation. The other houses in our family history are nothing but stories for the younger generation (Oh the place by the lake my father’s family used to own! O the mythical beauty of the long-lost and unknown!).
But visiting the cottage after a long while revealed that this place, too, was mainly a story for me. For all the solid walls and trees and rocks, it appeared to consist mostly of my mother’s retold memories and my imagination.
Look, there they are: the sauna’s warming up and my grandmother’s going to the cellar. My grandfather’s tending the apple trees and currant bushes. The cow’s dozing, the chicken clucking, the goat’s on the roof, again. The children are playing outdoors or helping their parents. The cottage takes a deep breath; it houses cramped rooms, shared beds, rag rugs and a wooden stove and while it can hold seven children (seven! In a space that would today seem a bit small for two adults!) and provide them with an unluxurious but happy life without want, that life must necessarily flow outside, to the yard, to the small rural village.
What a lively little village it is, too. In my mind’s eye I see them, neighbours doing chores, others stopping for a chat, children running. See; some of them wander off to meet the train, the main event of the day, bringing people and news. The village is full of life, open, populated by friends, neighbours, characters.
But when I closed my mind’s eye and opened the everyday peepers and the bustling village was gone. The shops and banks have closed their doors, the train no longer stops there, the old station has been demolished. Driving through the village, my mother pointed at houses and told us about things that once were – who used to live in which house, where the telephone exchange was. Of the present we had no knowledge. There are people living in those houses, apparently, but we didn’t know who they were. The village was inhabited by unseen strangers. The cottage stood forlornly in grey drizzle. The garden was a tangle of weeds and dry branches. Even my second-hand memories seemed to flicker.
* * *
A week later, meeting the buyers to sign the deed, I listened to my mother again describing the cottage and the village as they were in her childhood. I think they asked, about something, at any rate, and we were willing to tell. Our memories are precious to us, and perhaps there is an unconscious desire in us to pass them on to the future that no longer contains us. Perhaps it’s part of the process of letting go. But I think what also, if not primarily, motivated my mother was the fact that if she bought a house, she would like to know that kind of things.
And so would I.
My childhood home does not have a rich past. The house is roughly the same age as I am, built by my family on previously uninhabited land. Before, it was a woodland pasture (the barbed wire, rolled up in balls and left there to rust, is still there if you know where to look). It isn’t an exciting story, hardly a story at all – I haven’t seen ghosts of cows past wander through the house or heard wistful mooing in midsummer nights. But for some peculiar reason, because of some odd way my odd brain is constructed, it has always pleased me to know this sliver of information. First there was The Age of Cows, then we came in and we didn’t have cows but we had a dog like the smart one on TV. Ok, good. I was satisfied; this is where we find ourselves in place and time.
The place itself is completely unremarkable unless you’re me and can read your childhood in its features. An almost invisible path no one else would notice still speaks of adventures to me. My family shares memories of building the woodshed and filling it with firewood – my father sawing and chopping, the rest of us carrying and piling; sawdust and splinters all over the clothes, sweating, wearing thick gloves, we all know this – but I must be the only one who can look at the shed and remember the news of Skylab falling and who can look at the roof of the shed and say ah, the bridge of the battlestar Galactica (the first one, you wisecrackers, the original!). Childhood and its memories, both real and imaginary events recorded by turning them into play, bookmarked by places, structures and things.
The events I associate with my grandmother’s cottage are quite different. In addition to the scenes from a happy childhood, the borrowed memories speak of war. They speak of trains carrying soldiers, the living, the wounded, the dead. They speak of Russian bombers in the sky and the glowing sky in the direction of the nearest large town. This is where I imagine the sudden dread of glancing out of the window and seeing the priest on the village road, and the relief of seeing him pass by. I realise, though, that I have associated some of the family stories (such as those pertaining to the civil war) with the same village, although my grandparents hadn’t even met yet, let alone moved there at the time. But I don’t know those other places; I have only been to this place, so this is where my memory is accustomed to staging all the stories inherited from my mother’s family. At the same time, this place and these memories illustrate and represent a particular phase in Finnish history.
* * *
So there we were, representatives of three generations, on our last visit to the cottage, some with first-person memories, others with second-hand memories, some real, some misplaced, some only forming, winking in and out while new ones, the last ones, were forming.
The village seemed closed, turned inwards. But in truth, what else could it be in cold, grey Finnish October? And it was us who were strangers there, even at granny’s cottage. In its deep slumber it wouldn’t even crack an eyelid to acknowledge our presence. “I know you are not really here,” it might have said, “I know you are nothing but ghosts.” And it would have been right.
Without people, the cottage is just an empty shell. To live on, the house needs to be lived in. It needs new memories, new meanings. It needs people who look to the future, not only to the past, who will think of how to adapt the place for themselves. And the place will adapt them to its limitations and its possibilities, it will frame their dreams, their lives and their memories. The place will belong to them and they will belong to the place.
Therefore leaving the place now, for the last time, wasn’t that bad. We took photographs, said our final goodbyes; we brought back furniture and keepsakes, solid reminders of bygone times and people, now quietly settling into their new, more modern environments. We will always have the stories and the memories that seem to live and breathe so much stronger than the reality.
Who knows what else we have, though – sometimes I wonder. My mother’s favourite place at her childhood home was the rock at the back of the yard. She has often talked about it in a way that suggests a rock is nothing less than a requirement for a place to be truly happy. Is it then a coincidence that her children have found their homes in rocky environments? Or is it the place, reaching across time, distance and generations to whisper in our ears?