The House That Was, And Wasn’t

The House That Was, And Wasn’t

by Virginia Chase Sanderson

Oh, it was real enough, all right. I scrubbed its floors, dusted its cobwebs once in my lifetime, and shored it up where it sagged. It clung and teetered on a hillside in Topanga Canyon, just north of Los Angeles, a big old thing with rangy rooms, more personality than looks. I loved it. I made pillows and afghans, installed carpets, cats, plants and friends, and filled it with the smell of home-baked bread.

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I spent the seventies in this house, the barefoot decade of my life. I hosted and housed itinerant rock bands, a runaway husband with the baby he stole from his wife, clairvoyants and astrologers, actors and vagrants, and a pregnant blonde woman who thought two souls were warring to incarnate in the embryo in her belly. It was a proper hippie house, the envy of all our friends, a rickety old wooden structure whose excrescences popped out all over the hillside. It rocked in the breezes. Our kitchen looked out over a grove of Eucalyptus trees which–this really got our friends–came indoors to sway and touch our faces as we ate. And when the earthquake came, announced as by the sound of a thousand panicked chickens on our roof, hysterically stirring up gravel, our house just creaked and swayed and stretched and settled down again.

In this house where I dwelt for ten years, I experienced the living presence of nature, not only in the glorious trees and hills all around me, but in and of this house. In her crooked planes and worn boards, and as I stared down at her gritty linoleum, I met the macrocosm head on. Nature was also a wet toothbrush, yes, that too.

As I scrubbed walls, counters, cabinets, and chair legs, the chipped paint made me uneasy. As did the roof in need of repair, the broken steps, the washing machine giving up, the cactus invading the patio, and most especially the sandstone hillside, which, wherever I dug, revealed great holes. My patio bricks kept sinking into this queasy earth: was I next? All of these small imperfections were as holes in the comfortable fiction that had till then been my life. The earth as Swiss cheese was a disquieting thought. Surfaces weren’t reliable; they chipped and sank and crumbled. As do we.

The plane on which the house creaked and groaned, even the plane on which the eucalyptus shimmered and shook, were not the whole show. Curiously it was just at those moments when I was most emphatically in contact with the physical, such as tearing out a century plant that towered twenty feet tall and was about to present us with the blossom from hell–how could this prickly, wet, painful immensity cause me to question the physical plane? –but it did; it was just at those moments that the grip of daily reality weakened; the picture rattled a bit, like a drawing in the wind. My comfortable moorings in space-time were loosened, just a little–not enough to whisk me offshore, but enough to reveal to me the presence of the ocean, the immense and fragile bain-marie of daily events.

About the author
Virginia Chase Sanderson has taught literature and writing at California State University in Los Angeles, where she also worked in the feature film industry. She taught literature and writing as a lecturer and teaching fellow at Cornell University, and was a visiting lecturer in cinema at Ithaca College. She recently retired from her local community college, where she taught English, French and humanities. In 2011 she received her bachelor in fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She is a longtime writer of personal essays.

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