The New House
by rob mclennan
Because I am full of love, I am full of sorrow.
~Kristjana Gunnars, The Prowler
From here you can reference endings, beginnings, and all in-between. We had accepted the offer, four days of a back-and-forth that continued to put our days on edge. What if someone else had stepped in during that period, turning our attempt to reduce the price into a bidding war? What if, after forty or fifty showings, we were forced to continue looking? We had already come home. Both girls in their sketchbooks, in process of picking, sorting and designing their bedrooms.
Here, we do not discuss my father: he withered, as the cancer replaced him. My father, a dried shell: focusing his personality into a pinprick. He’d been always a prick, my wife countered. A needle, driven deep into the hearts of whomever came close.
A mistake rarely repeated. There were always exceptions.
My cancer-father, the lepidopterist. His family and friends reduced to a sequence of pinned insects. A shadow-box, butterflied.
During hospital stretches, chemo burned through his layers. I sat mute, reading Don Quixote. I read in patches, more often rereading. Sections that would not absorb.
The hospital smelled of pennies, burnished steel. Of blood. Incrementally beige. Technologies tear us to pieces. My father, who raged into deflation. There was no air for him left to breathe.
My greatest achievement: my failure to properly read Don Quixote.
Failure, perhaps, being all I required.
As a teenager, I raged, and I raged. We, each, a mirror. Then my best friend’s father introduced me to the game of golf, slow putts in the backyard of their suburban duplex. A singular, meditative sport. A game of scotch and poems that rhyme may have saved my stupid life. I began to dream of languid greens, and small white specks that disappear in baby blue.
Perhaps it is impossible to know.
My grandfather, who, over the course of five decades, won and lost enormous fortunes.
A curious pleasure inherent to the telling of old stories. With each subsequent exchange, the story modifies, refuses to remain static. Neither, storyteller. To say, you cannot step into the same river.
After reading his biography, I am re-reading a novel by Richard Brautigan. The novel, too, has changed.
Homeowners. We tear at the topsoil, attempt to correct the exterior grading, touch up moldings, add new gutters across the boundaries of a roof that will require eventual replacement. We feel terrified, grown up, abandoned. Switching from renters to owners, my wife and her binder of house-related mathematics, from mortgage to water bill to property taxes.
The difference between renting and owning: a series of phone calls, an interruption of work, and an outlay of cash. Handyman, eavestrough company, foundation guy, plumber. The woman who helped replace oil with gas. She had large hands, a kind smile and practical eye. Proudly showed us digital snaps of her toddler.
Not all good deeds remain unpunished.
I abandoned Don Quixote. I could not even keep up with failure. I began to see ghosts, staring through my periphery. An anxious exhaustion, both physical and emotional.
God draws out his plans, Sheila says, attempting a comfort. I don’t know what to believe.
When the girls were born, my father laughed. Twins, he said. It’s almost enough for me to believe in a higher being. Someone is obviously punishing you. He wouldn’t refer to them again.
Misery might love company, and in many ways, he was a company man. Since the death of my mother, he simply folded. He became untenable.
Without her support, he no longer floated above the surface waves of anger.
And yet, with the completion of his estate, and I the only remaining living relative. Enough to allow a considerable down-payment for a three-bedroom bungalow.
We required the space. But still.
Can I allow this as a gift, a parting?
Lately I’ve been working on a series of short stories, each attempting to explore a wide range of emotions, ideas and events; a series of wide canvases in incredibly dense spaces. In The New House I wanted to explore the contradictory emotions that come with the dying and the death of a parent that the narrator, in fact, didn’t actually get along with. How easy is it to accept a gift, especially one so generous, and possibly even accidental, from someone so terrible? Love is such a complex thing, and within family, can end up being an absolute mess. And yet, even after repeated betrayals by a parent, whether real or imagined, there is something built-in, deep within us that keep us tethered, unable to completely give up on that first relationship, with our parents. The relationship that helps define all that follow.
Perhaps it is as simple as being at an age when most of us start having to deal with the death of at least one if not both of our parents; fully aware of the mortality of the generation before us, even as our attention might be focused on the generation that inevitably follows. Perhaps it is as simple as becoming a co-homeowner myself over the past year, and having to look at what exactly that means in terms of how I am developing as a self-sustaining human being: further away from the homestead, and where I first began. How does one navigate the mess of growing up and older without having to confront at least a couple of contradictions?
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, Touch the Donkey and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.