At first I assumed they were just schmoozing me. The film crew had flown in from L.A. and made their way to little Waterloo, eager to ask me 110 questions about the Coleman murders so they could fill in the gaps in the experts’ comments. One more notch for print journalism, I thought privately.
They had asked if they could shoot at our house. They were doing other interviews nearby, and Monroe County does not teem with studio space; the cows need it to graze. I gulped and said okay, confident that they could work magic with gels and backdrops. My husband hurriedly dusted and vacuumed while I studied up on the 110 questions.
When the crew arrived, tumbling out of a giant van, they thanked us for opening our home. Fair enough; we seldom clean. But they kept talking about our home, which is cozy but hardly striking. There are no “pops of color” or “statement pieces,” and the furniture is a mishmash of inherited and rescued-and-refinished. After the fifth exclamation (this one from the cameraman, over my great-grandfather-in-law’s wide-armed rocking chair), I began to bristle. There was no need to patronize a Midwestern home by gushing over an old rocker or my husband’s antique barometer, let alone the door knocker. My tone became a little cooler, with an arched-brow “Seriously?” implied.
“We don’t have stuff like this in L.A.,” the producer explained. “Everything’s new, and a lot of people just buy cheap furniture because they know they’ll be moving soon anyway.” Even in the commercial districts, she adds, they tear down anything old.
“The houses here have so many details,” a young sound engineer added, looking up from a tangle of wires. When they trooped outside to shoot inane filler of me watering a plant, he pointed to more proof: a copper-patina hose-holder in the shape of a frog.
Oh my God, I thought, they mean it. These people are so accustomed to glitz, they are starved for real wood and metal and stone. They are so used to contemporary décor, seamless and stark, that they are tickled by a frog.
When the camera guy left to dispose of his empty soda can and came back saying, “What a great kitchen,” though, my skepticism returned. Old appliances and a table hand-painted to hide the nicks and stains? Yes, the fireplace is nice, but the tv is almost thirty years old, and the loveseat is draped with sheets (oft-muddy dog) and piled with extra pillows lifted from a spare bedroom. Mortified, I walked through and twitched the sheet off, trying to be subtle about it. “It’s a little nicer when it’s cleaned up,” I offered, wondering why we had assumed the crew would never make it to the kitchen.
He shook his head; I had missed the point. “It looks so comfortable!”
Old stuff often is. I had forgotten how many people live ahistorically, surrounded by novelty. The shiniest new objects get old the fastest, losing their luster and novelty and offering little else in compensation. Modern design does not perturb its surface with niches, alcoves, cutouts, or chair rails. Modern chairs seldom cushion one’s tush.
“How old is this house?” another guy asked, and when I was distracted by a mic being threaded beneath my clothes and forgot to answer, he asked again, then shook his head at 108. “Nothing lasts a century in L.A.”
When they finally packed up and left, I looked around. We live in many decades at once, surrounded by objects that had a full life before we ever met them. People we never met dozed in our chairs, thumbed through our books, paced our floorboards waiting for news from a doctor, answered the door to a telegram of death. Shortly after we moved in, we met an old man who told us he was born in our front room.
Does it make a difference, living amid the past? My mother, traumatized by her own mother’s indifferent housekeeping, liked everything clean and new. I have friends who refuse to wear or buy anything secondhand. But I like sensing the resonance of past experience. I like stuff that has softened and lost its shine.
A promise is buried in anything that endures over time. Our tiny lives are just one piece of a much larger whole, and death does not end everything. You need not end up famous to leave your mark: there will be penciled heights in a doorjamb, jottings in a book’s margins, cushions dented by your weight, sculpting a hollow for the next occupant. It is easy to sense an old house’s ghosts and know they once ate and slept and worried and made love just as we do. They had to sweep these steep stairs, too, and they let the sun stream through the same back window and cursed the same patch of crabgrass.
It would be thrilling, in a way, to move into a place that was pristine. But it would also be lonely. Surrounded by those flawless manufactured surfaces, you could think yourself the first and only person in the world. All that mattered would be now. And now, and now, and now—a succession of ahistorical nows, connected only to one another. Which is, when you think about it, a lie, or at best an illusion.
“We live in history,” said author Hilary Mantel when she accepted the Janus Prize. “We breathe it in and breathe it out…. We must think, and to think we need context, and to have context we need history.”
That is as true in daily life as it is in the intellectual realm. We do family histories, save medical histories, document work histories, endure credit histories. Adopt a child or an animal and you will want to know their history, work hard to reconstruct it, so you can figure out their responses. Fall in love, and the first thing you do is exchange your romantic histories. Then you compare notes on your childhood and work your way up to the present, in hope of a future.
When, instead of bulldozing and whitewashing, we allow the past to remain, it anchors us and teaches us. We might smile at its yardsticks, realizing just how much has changed since that old black rotary phone was the only way to communicate. But the presence of history guarantees perspective and proportion. Life is not just about us and our paltry, fleeting concerns. It is more saga than short story, and our private dramas neither start nor end the narrative arc.
There is comfort in that.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.