The House that Linette Built (or, Inside the House of my Father’s Birth Mother)

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The Sallies men move through the house like reverent ghosts. ‘We can’t take that,’ they say. ‘It’s ripped. Yep, we can take that.’ Their feet pad the pale carpet, perhaps wary of lurking grief. I try to piece together the left over ephemera into a life, a woman: a splayed grass skirt; a chipped Alsatian ashtray; seven champagne coupes wrapped in newspaper; a box of wooden Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand coat hangers; two black umbrellas; a Stereophonic radiogram, Chas and Dave’s Ain’t No Pleasing You forever on the turntable; a girlish white wedding album stripped of its photographs, spidery black captions beneath plastic: “Had joined a family of three beautiful women, but he chose the original.” She had thought herself beautiful! She thought herself original! The torn corner of a ten-dollar note floats to the ground.The unsettling wind cartwheels olive curtains in and out-side the ranch-slider. I watch and watch the curtains, pondering the strangeness of me being here. For who else in the world has been alone in the house of a grandmother they have never met? Turning object after object in my hands, piecing together my father’s birth mother, twenty years after his death, twenty three years after hers: a tall red glass jug; a Regency teacup and saucer with ‘Mother’ on the side; a box of tapes (Shirley Bassey, Jazzercise!, Frank Sinatra, Love Songs). There is a green canvas camping chair and a faded white vinyl and red fabric lounge suite—ever so modern when Linette built this house in 1983, but now the Sallies won’t even take them.

Outside, an enormous dead sunflower nods its head in the wind. I smile. Linette’s husband must have planted it, living here alone since she died. But here’s the thing—he was blind! Perhaps it was enough to know the sunflower was there; rubbing its velvet petals between his fingers, a reminder of the colour yellow, or how the sun once scorched his eyes.

My stomach rumbles but I’m not ready to leave. I walk the carpet she walked, my eyes searching for a clue, any clue, about her. But really, the woman she was when she lived here was not the woman she was in 1946, the year she gave my father away. I feel ridiculous to have thought I might find a clue, a piece of that eternal puzzle.

On my knees on the carpet (I swear it’s the exact same carpet we had in the rumpus room at Pakuranga) I drip two shoe boxes full of matchboxes through my fingers: Bonaparte Restaurant, Edinburgh Castle, Tony’s Lorne Street, Gatsby Nightclub at the Civic, The Captain’s Table. I imagine you dining and dancing at these places and wonder how it was to lead your blind husband around the dance floor.

It is quiet, quiet, quiet in here. My stomach gurgles and a distant hum sounds—a mower or a plane, I can’t tell which. I look around for the last time and push the ranch slider closed, then lock it. The sunflower nods goodbye. I look into the distance and think for a minute that I can hear the reedy trickle of Meola Creek. My breath releases with a sigh. I place the key back in its hiding place. The gates creak closed.

(Thank you Aunty Jan xx)

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