Casa

CasaDear E.,

We build lots of dream houses, you and I. In your case, the word “build” mostly means “tear down with an evil grin after warning me, ‘Mom, I’m gonna smash it.’” But you do sometimes fall into a constructive mood alongside me, forming the transparent plastic Picasso Tiles into squares and odder shapes, helping make patios and terraces and balconies, deciding which room is yours and where the window goes.

I wouldn’t have said that this house, which has been my home for 11 years and yours for three, was my dream house. I’ve cursed its foibles on a monthly basis for a decade, including the space constraints that require shiplike maneuvers if more than one other person comes over for dinner. We have gone through waves of neighbor issues (standard yappy-dog, stereo-on-steroids kind of stuff). We have gone through home-improvement eras, layered on top of each other in archeological fashion, including the Era of the Floods and Drips – now resolved, but not in time to save a good number of my favorite books.

But it has hosted the most important events of my adult life, and is framed by orange trees and banana plants, and we love our kindly landlord. So now that a chance to rent a place with more elbow room and my dreamed-of garden terrace has emerged out of nowhere and we are moving, I feel a bit unmoored. I realize something terribly cheesy, but still true: what defines a dream house is not the way it looks or even where it is, but rather what happens inside of it. And by that standard, this is mine.

I look around these rooms and they are full of hyperlinks. It’s kind of like the “Fight Club” scene where Ikea product descriptions pop up all over Edward Norton’s apartment, except what I see here are little portals to the most important stories of my life. That, right there, is the exact spot where your father proposed. That is the bathroom where I found out I was pregnant with you. That is the specific tile where you took your first step, just a few feet from the tile where the physical pain of a miscarriage brought me to my knees in every sense. That, through the back, is the room I decorated with hanging cloths when I first moved in; the room I rearranged as my place to sit and watch the rain when I went through something rough; the room where we rocked you to sleep almost every night since you were born, home of a million spitups and ohmyGoddon’tletherwakeup tiptoes and sighs of contentment.

Those are the clotheslines where I hung out my clothes, and then your dad’s clothes, and then your clothes. I suppose your dad would cough loudly at this point and ask when, pray tell, I have ever hung out his clothes. The point is, they occupied those clotheslines, and the cas tree up above it casted too much shade and harbored traitorous birds who pooped on our nice clean socks and shirts. Its fruits brought clouds of fruit flies, no matter how quickly we scooped them up. Of course, now I’ll only remember its shade and that surprisingly loud sound of the fruit falling on the tin roof, a sound that came to mean home.

These are the places where we passed from one phase of life to the next. The stone table in the garden was once covered in beer cans and cigarette butts, or even dancing human feet, at party after party. Then coffee cups and breakfast things for sedate meals a deux. Then carefully sterilized milk bottles that could barely touch the rugged surface before I would worry about some kind of contamination. Then sippy cups covered in dirt and God knows what else but it no longer worried me, partly because of the Bloody Mary sitting alongside.

My friends at The Tico Times lived there before I did. The first time I ever visited, I was going to a party they were throwing. That first night, I slept on this very couch, which then was bright orange, with a spectacularly uncomfortable broken spring. How else can I put it? I walked into this house as a random visitor holding a six-pack of beer, and I am now walking out having found everything I ever wanted.

(And holding four dusty hair elastics and a George W. Bush squeezy toy that fell behind a bookshelf years ago, because that’s the kind of stuff you end up holding at the end of a move.)

What do you say to a house like that?

Nothing, I guess. It’s a house. But I feel the need to say something.

Among all the silly songs I’ve spilled out during the past few years is a lullaby I made up while I was pregnant and sang you every night thereafter until you were born, and almost every night since. You chime in sometimes. It is full of our house, and brings me back to it when I am far away. On our first trip to your grandparents’ when you were six months old, I held you in their back bedroom: you were fussing and I was discombobulated in the way of a new parent whose nighttime surroundings have changed in any detail. “This mattress is lower than her bed at home; how do I set her down without waking her up? There’s no rocking chair – for the love of God, HOW WILL WE SURVIVE?” I started singing your song, and within seconds I was back in our Costa Rican home, listening to the specific Costa Rican night sounds that surround that particularly spot on the globe. I felt grounded once more and realized that the place that a baby first comes home to will always be sacred to her parents, even if she herself doesn’t remember it and never even sees it as an adult.

So I walk through each room of this house and say thank you. Then I open one of your closet doors, which have faithfully hidden the sea of tiny shirts and tiny pants that never stay organized no matter how hard I try (not very hard). I pick a spot on the closet-facing side of the door that I don’t think anyone will ever notice and that, worst case, could be easily painted over. I crouch on the ground of your empty room and write a little thank you to the casa color papaya, entrada del Bar Garros, 2005-2016. And I write the words of your lullaby.

There’s a cricket chirping at our door

Two birds asleep in the orange tree

There’s a cat curled up where the roses bloom

And a sleepy girl inside with me.

 

The gecko clucks up in his corner

Cas fruits hit the roof with a tumbly sound

It’s the summer wind that blows them down

Far above my sleepy girl and me.

 

Well, the world is big beyond our gate

But these four quiet walls hold all I need

For I’ve traveled far and waited long

Just to have this sleepy girl with me.

Just to rest my weary head with thee.

Close your eyes and dream some dreams with me.

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5 thoughts on “Casa

  1. So beautiful! I love your writing! A memory I have of la casa color papaya is of you and Adrian salsa dancing so smoothly together….I was so impressed by your joint fluidity. It all makes sense now.

  2. Dear Katherine,

    As another mother who adores a daughter, and who moved house nearly every year in my first ten years of life, and has somehow ended up holding on to the same NYC apartment for 40 years–the one I brought my baby daughter home to– I love this post to your Casa,

    And I am so grateful that you have come this week to visit, and graced our home with your presence and your Costa Rican colleague. Thank you!

    Now all grown up, my daughter–your friend, former college roommate– was far away and jealous not to be here with you. As for me, I felt wonder to be with you and brought into my daughter’s circle. As a mother of a daughter let me tell you, no, simply point ahead, to the wonders of your daughter’s friends who will enrich your life.

    In NYC, we call apartments not only “home” but “house”. “Come over to my house,” we say, even though it’s an apartment. It is “casa” in all that means.

    You were here in this house before, it seems. (Was it really fifteen years ago, when I was away?) I only recall my daughter’s wisp of a report of your presence. Now, this week though, that wisp became more solid. I’ve seen your eyes relive that visit, see the walls, and see the things.

    “Did you show her the things?” my daughter asked by text. Of course, only some things. I held back. Time was short I could not tell you all the stories of all the things this house has seen and held. The things that used to be here,there, in that corner, in that room.

    But you were witness to the house back then when it held a magic cat, the best cat ever, named Evil for all his naughty ways. Your memory made him live again, how he filled our house with personality. You remembered the giant cyst on his eyelid no vet would touch, a cyst so large it looked like a pirate eye patch. Perfect for Evil. He took it on himself to dig at it, and after a year or two he popped it out. It was completely gone. Thank you for your memory and bringing him back. My daughter likes your witnessing eyes.

    But I couldn’t tell you much of the grey cat he scared, or the nasty bad-tempered hissy black cat named Missy, who guarded the bathroom door and wouldn’t let my little girl pass. It’s true. Have her tell you that story.

    Now I look around, and the things in the apartment have been touched by the witness of you and your lovely colleague. Now our casa carries an extra aura of grace.

    As you move to your next home, I can tell you this, you do not lose the past one. I carry all my houses with me, like the chambered nautilus my mother loved. Somehow, even though you leave, the house comes along with you.

    Lots of love,
    Madre

    Alice

    • Whoooooa. Madre, how did I miss this lovely comment for all this time? This is so beautiful! I will print out and put in my daughter’s book (the one where I scribble things whenever I can remember) and remind myself to look forward! It was wonderful to be back in your house, my home away from home in New York. I hope to see you again soon!

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