After After Ted Kooser’s ‘Small Rooms in Time’
I was once the kind of person who gave extravagant gifts. December reminds me of all the time I spent sewing bathrobes, hunting for signed first-hand editions, or piercing leather to craft slippers cuffed with coyote. I thought that these gifts said something about my love. That I tried so hard, and perhaps it did. I was a girl who wanted love more than anything else. But I also hoped for a gift in kind. Sometimes I got it. Sometimes I didn’t. I remember these gifts like I remember all things that I have crafted with my hands, with a kind of exacting, physical detail so precise that given leather, or flannel I might recreate them again now, although the recipients are long gone from my life.
A gift, I realize, is intrinsically something you know won’t return to you. A negative in the weight of our lives, transferred from one household to another. And so it shouldn’t matter to me that I don’t know where some of these objects ended up. They were given with no expectation that they should ever be mine again, even if I had labored over their making or buying, hunting, as I did, for that perfect object that captured something other than the physical restraints of its existence, more than weight or texture, function or beauty. These weren’t gifts so much as containers, into which I poured all of my passion, and confusion, and hope. There is only one gift that I lost track of, one that disappeared before it could become beloved. I could show you the shape of the thing but I couldn’t tell you what became of it. Did we throw it away before our move off that bitter coast? Did we leave it behind in the cabin?
At the time of the gift’s crafting, I was living on an island off the coast of Maine in a town that spent its summers dressed in the finery of WASPy retreat, having replaced the Rockefellers with Martha Stewart who was rumored to task her groundskeeper with sweeping the woods on her property clean each spring. There was lobster ice cream on the pier where the big cruise ships disembarked tourists for an afternoon and a National Park where Ansel Adams had captured the shell of a moon rise over birch swamps. A signpost showed where you could stand and shoot the same image although it could never be the same. But come Labor Day the town boarded up – language which I always thought was purely metaphorical until I saw the plywood on the glass storefronts and the pubs nail two-by-fours across their doors. They were closing for the season, the signs read, but also to the season because in fall the winds rattled at those boards, clawing their way into every crack and mortar fracture.
The wind came into the bedroom in our cabin every night. One evening we watched as snow waltz through the cracks in curls like you see in cartoons, circling white in the warm pine of the room. There were many other faults in the place but we pretended to love them like we did most broken things because they had pasts, something that we, at eighteen, had very little of. All we had was a high school romance and a desire to become writers. Our parents encouraged this because they feared that if they weren’t supportive, we’d simply vanish and become lost children rather than college freshmen at a tiny liberal arts college on an island in Maine.
The cabin was a kind of practice house and as such, a perfect first home for me. I’d been making homes of the sort since I was a girl. To say that I played house as a child sounds gendered and but I just as often played a lumberjack or bushwhacking widow. The homes I built were mostly in the semi-wild wood lots behind the cul-de-sac where my parent’s house rose up out of what had once been farmland but was now scrub pine and brambles, with only the memory of the plow hidden in the old dumps I dug through as a child, uncovering the bones of bed frames, and the friendly grills of ancient tractors. It was out in the mess of second growth, past where the tended lawn became field and the field became scrub that I played home. I had homes in the trees, sometimes as simple as a board nailed high between two branches, and in the hollows where I fashioned rooms from the skirts of spruce branches, here the living room, here the kitchen, the bedroom, the hall. I’d lead my siblings and friends through these spaces, making sure that they saw what I saw in the dimensions. Later those same small hands helped me construct a treehouse, a huge teepee, an underground pit fort dug into the soft loam of the field and covered with my favorite Little Mermaid bed sheet so the light came through all technicolor, and looking up I thought I’d made something like a cathedral for myself with nothing but a shovel and several long summer days.
Of course, I had a real home but I spent a good part of my childhood running away from it. I ran away not for the usual reasons or at least the reasons the children in my chapter books did, bad parents, dead parents, adventure, but with a plan to build a house for myself somewhere not too far down the road. I’d pack up my red flyer wagon with salami sandwiches, Kleenex for the constant drip of my allergic nose, and a neatly folded poster illustrating the history of the dinosaurs, which I considered my prized procession, this picture of the oh so obvious march of time. And off I’d go, up the gravel drive, along the dirt road of our neighborhood and out onto the paved shoulder of the fast state highway. I walked with a peaceful grin, the stupid joy of the hope, knowing that the future was just a few more miles out ahead. In those days I loved the stories of children who lived alone in strange places like boxcars and the trunks of old trees. While I could only hear the train across the river at night, I did find a rotting oak in the backyard with a hollow so large that for a while I could squeeze inside and look up into its center. It wasn’t big enough to build a fire in or to set up a bed, but for some time I was small enough to imagine it as a home.
A body only needs so much space, a child even less. I was small then, and now small though fully grown, short enough to walk the deer paths in the forest without so much as a bend in my back. I liked as a girl, and still do, the feeling of being surrounded. I loved best small places and the creatures who burrowed and nested in them, luxuriating over the soft grass beds of white-tailed deer and the little circular openings of the homes of mice in the hayfield. There was an exactness to the size of these homes and a practical grace to their architecture, surely more beautiful than the big boxiness and high ceilings of my family’s home where even with my door locked, I couldn’t seem to find a second of peace. I took to hiding, building holes in my closet and under my desk where I could read, draw, and become the cartographer of new worlds for my characters and myself. I traced the maps of Middle Earth and sketched my backward with the same deliberately archaic lines.
Eventually, I outgrew these places, like I did the playhouses and forts I constructed. One board remains in the crown of a knotted pine in my parents' front yard and looking up I wonder at my bravery to climb so high just to gain the sort of aerial perspective that my map-making encouraged. I remember a moment of sharp sorrow as a girl when I outgrew a particular play structure in our basement. It was a bright plastic thing with walls that fit together like puzzle pieces, a short slide, a little platform, and a climbing ladder but what I loved most of all were a series of large round holes like Swiss cheese passing through one wall. Because of these holes, I called the place my ‘mouse house’ and played at squeezing through each hole, from top to bottom. At first, it was easy, but then it became a game of contortion. Finally, one day in grade school, no matter how I angled or pushed I could no longer fit through any of them. I was too big, having outgrown the house. I wept at the realization that the dimensions of my physical self no longer fit a space I called home.
Perhaps the whole process of growing up is more a process of outgrowing. I think of snakes and crustaceans building new homes around themselves. But maybe the metaphor is too physical. Homes are more than dimensions. You might call a lesser structure a house or a living space. Home has that big wide ‘o’ in it like ‘hope’ a noun that means more than it describes. A home, I knew even as a girl, said something about who a person was, what they wanted, what they had, and what kind of future they might be capable of creating from all of the practical pieces of construction. My family’s house and the choices they made in it – my mother’s music room sprawling over a third of the ground level, my father’s meticulous study of the family’s growth in yearly photo collages marching like the ages of the dinosaurs across the second-floor hallway. What they put in it altered the dimensions of the space but the home itself wasn’t unique. My best friend had the very same house.
Katherine’s family lived in a similar neighborhood, a few miles up the state highway. We took the bus to and from school together and would often pretend that we were orphaned sisters being sent off by train into new families who had adopted us separately. We’d cry as we parted, walking down the steps to our waiting mothers who, at least for a second, still looked to us like strangers. Katherine was just as good at playing make-believe as I was, which was probably why I liked her so much. For many years we slept in the same room in our matching houses and when we grew older both of our families built rooms in their attics except that my family created two rooms while hers kept it an open loft which was so big and empty that at night, I stayed awake long into the dark spooked by the exposure.
I made other observations about the matching houses. Her parents didn’t have a music room, as we did. Instead, they had a playroom where we could watch cable TV. And years later, after her parents got divorced and mine stayed together, her father put a swimming pool in the backyard and I remember soaking in the chlorine while he brought out sodas and set bowls of chips on the patio furniture. By that point, there wasn’t too much alike between Katherine and me, besides our houses. I started to pay more attention to the differences and forgot that we walked the same floors and slept in the same room.
It was around this time that I began designing my dream homes. There was a game the girls played called ‘MASH RAP’ whose letters stood for future houses and financial standings – mansion, apartment, shack, house, rich, average, poor’. Not included in the title but in the following components of the game were categories for husband, car, number of children, and job. The dimensions of life could be reduced and predicted just like that. You picked a number and the number gave you all the answers. The goal, of course, was that it would create some sort of predicament where you were rich but lived in a shack and were married to the bald gym teacher, had fourteen kids, drove a Range Rover, and worked as a belly dancer. The only constants were those of home. In the Game of Life, I loved to sort through the house cards, weighing each potential self out, a woman who would fit into a split level, a woman in a Victorian estate, a cabin, a colonial.
One of the traps of aesthetics and perhaps creativity itself is that it constructs the spiritual out of physical materials – a woman into a house, a space into a dream. And so of course the process of building homes was always about being and about being known and the home itself was me and us, and all of the things I hoped for. Love builds structures around us, walls and buttresses and open windows where we can pass through halls of memory and into rooms where we read and slept, the same slightly moldy towels, the same unknowable sorrow when you were outside looking in and it was winter and snowing and inside pots on the stove steamed the windows, warping the image so that the figure moving from stove to table was just an, love in the abstract.
I was once told by my allergists that dust is mostly human skin and I’ve come to think of growing as casting off, leaving behind small ghosts, so ordinary it is only by accumulation that they cause any notice. All the possible women I’ve been in all the places I’ve called home going on as if I never left. A woman in Oregon, in Michigan, in California, South Carolina, Maine. The dream women go on living in their dream homes like the one I designed in fifth grade which contained, on its first floor, an enclosure for the Yellowstone wolfpack whose restoration I had supported through allowance-sized donations. Above the wolf pen there was a movie theater and, on the roof, an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If growing up is the casting off of potential futures the woman who lives in this house is the one I hope to become again, our forms aligning, living sandwiched between water and wildness. She is nothing like the woman I was when I set up home in the cabin.
The house in Maine was a practice house. Not just for me, learning to live with another, to cook and clean and care, but for the house itself which was built by our landlords as a sort of trial before they felt confident constructing the larger and more complicated home in which they now lived, just a few hundred feet from of our eaves. The practice house had been a success, I suppose, in that it convinced them that they could do better. But, as the landlady said as she took us on our first tour, they had made mistakes. Nevertheless, we paid her a deposit, coaching each other through the process of writing a check for the first time.
It wasn’t just tiny, it was miniaturized. Small houses have their own expectations of space and dimensions which differ from that of their larger cousins so that a small house is not simply a larger one, shrunk down to scale. But the cabin was clearly designed to be bigger and its measurements had simply been reduced in construction so that the ceilings felt too close, the turn in the stairs too sharp, the shower head set so low that even I had to stoop under it. There was a porch but it was too shallow to put a chair on and a backdoor that leaped out into space with nothing beneath it. For all of its bad design, despite all of the half-moons of missed hammer marks in the soft pine boards, I loved it because it was a home.
That fall, as the boards nailed over the storefronts on Main Street and the winds came off the Atlantic, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. I disliked the college and the coursework and spent most of my time working in a general store on the lower floor of a two-hundred-year-old house with a resident ghost, and a crowd of lobster fishermen who streamed in each morning, flushed bright from the sharp wind. They bought coffee and breakfast sandwiches before dawn and beer and cigarettes at dusk, as regular as the tides. One of them proposed to me, getting down on his knee in front of the register, offering up a toy ring he’d pulled from a trap in the bay. I told him I was taken and flashed the gold band I wore on my left hand, a promise that never became any more than that but that, for a season, held the weight and heat of something real. He asked me instead to come to a bonfire he was hosting on the beach. And later that evening, when the real darkness washed in, I left the cabin with some sort of excuse and drove around, coming so close to the fire on the coast that I almost wept before turning back to the pines and the practice house.
It was there I learned not to store flour next to laundry detergent, to keep Halloween candy away from mice, and that almost everything can grow old. But I remained hopeful. At nineteen I suppose hope was my crucible. Still, there were moments when I would pause at the windows and see myself from outside and wonder what that girl was doing. This kind of splitting in my case is purely a creative projection, but I suspect that for many years the practice produced the same kind of physic damage that near-death experiences or psychosis may have on the self. A doubling that only reinforced the complicated fractals of my dream homes and dream selves, looking in and looking out.
It's not the fault of the house that a person would live and dream such things within its walls, after all, homes are meant as containers, shaping the vast churn of infinity into something linear, a life, as we understand it, having a beginning, middle, and end, a story containing plot, rising action, climax, and falling action. Naturally, we play the heroes of these dramas so that a house is a story and not just a realization of walls and timber. But I’m still drawn to the exactness of the dreams that these spaces contained and to my ability, years later, to move within rooms that may now be cluttered, abandoned, or demolished.
That winter I built the cabin again and then, after gifting it away, it vanished. It was a scale-model architectural rendering constructed from cardboard and popsicle sticks which I crafted as part of my art class, for pedagogical reasons that I comprehend now as little as I did at the time. Everyone at the school majored in “human ecology” and was required, as a freshman to build such a thing. There was, doubtless some sort of hippie philosophy behind the project, as there was behind everything at the school where we were tasked with miming the deforestation of New England as part of the freshman ice-breaker. Although we could pick any structure we wanted, I constructed a model of the cabin in the pines. I charted the place with the cold metal tongue of a measuring tape and night after night I stuck wood to cardboard until my fingers were strung with hot glue spider webs and the cabin rose from its yard of plywood, perfect in its exactness. There the shallow porch, the cramped loft, the door to nowhere, the windows through which we looked in and out.
I gave this miniature house to my love for Christmas. I remember him startled at the thing and then peering inside, his eyes walking the floors we lived in during those days. He could hold it in both hands, like a tray and it weighed nearly nothing, just balsam, and paper. His hands were soft, the fingers round, his skin fair. But I can’t tell you about his wrists. I’ve forgotten the dimensions. I can’t tell you what he said, or where he set the model and I can’t remember what became of the thing when we moved a few weeks later, giving up on the dream of college on the coast of Maine and packing up for the Pacific.
I didn’t think much about the place in Maine until years later when I drove by its twin. I stopped and pulled over on the shoulder of a quiet suburban street. There it was, the same dimensions, the same odd size of the practice house but in a new town, a new state. I learned later that the plans were sold as part of a build-it-your-self kit published in the ’70s to include not only blue-prints but also instructions so that anyone could follow along. The hopeful but skilless builder can download similar plans now for tiny houses, container houses, hobbit houses, all kinds of hopeful small places where given very little you can imagine yourself having it just right.
I lived in another duplicate house years later, a cottage on a creek in Vermont. It was so cold in that place that my cat jumped from chair to chair like a child playing don’t touch the floor. A decade later I woke up in a house I had quickly toured before renting in a rush, and realized that it was the same house as the one by the creek. Rising, the dimensions tripped me up, and walking to the bathroom I was overcome with a feeling of full-body déjà vu until I realized that it was truly the same space. The same floors and rooms and proportions. Built, like the cottage in Vermont, by a couple escaping the city and wanting to learn how to put together something real with their hands. I haven’t been able to find the name of the kit, or locate the exact plans. It's out there somewhere, a ghost of a house I’ve lived in twice.
The model house was gone by the time I lived in Oregon but it's my apartment there in Portland that I haunt the most, although I failed to call that rainy city home. Ever since I moved out, I’ve dreamt that I still rent the place and that it is sitting empty, looking over the Wilmette towards the peak of Mt. Hood, a container for a dream that died a long time ago. I wake, worried that the rent check hasn’t cleared, or that the maintenance department needs to install a new fridge and wants a key that I haven’t held in over a decade, a key which I remember slipping into the mail slot of the manager’s office on a bright morning with my car loaded for a cross country trip back to the East Coast. When I returned to the city years later, I drove by the place and saw beach towels hung to dry on the railing and felt myself split again – worried about the towels blowing off the third-floor balcony– but they were not my towels and I no longer lived there.
Perhaps I fixate on space because I’ve spent much of my time farming, measuring out the earth with my body, my almost exactly 5 feet of body, or maybe it’s the running, training for long races that teach the body and the mind to mark out miles and against the roll of the road but either way, I find myself creating identity through dimensions. Since giving the gift of the model house I’ve had the chance to design a space for myself and see it rise out of raw materials, from open-air to a container for a future I hope grows towards the light. But I can’t stop thinking about the ghosts that move through the houses that I lived in once, sometimes briefly, sometimes for many seasons. I wonder at the girl who made that miniature house, what she hoped it contained as she gifted it. How extravagant an idea to craft a model of something that was still living, still forming in the unraveling of the everyday, a place she where she washed dishes, and learned to make pancakes from her father’s recipe, and grew tired of some poets and fell in love with others, learning how to bundle beneath snow devils to stay warm, how to keep a house open to the heat and closed to the winter, how to kill a trap caught mouse with a frying pan, how to write a check, signing her name in her school-girls cursive, how even in a dream house there are dreams to be outgrown.
Megan Baxter is the author of 'Farm Girl: A Memoir' released in 2021 from Green Writers Press. She has won numerous national awards including a Pushcart Prize. Recent publications included pieces in The Colorado Review, Hotel Amerika, The Florida Review, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Megan lives in New Hampshire where she teaches writing at Colby-Sawyer College and Southern New Hampshire University. She can be found at meganbaxterwriting.com.