Archaeology

by Melanie Smith

I moved the paintbrush over the light blue bedroom wall, swish-swish, and laid down a hefty stripe of white, then stood back to assess it. I had chosen the right color: “cloud white,” said the label on the cannister. It had enough pink tint that it wasn’t cold, and enough blue that it wasn’t cloying. It was the color of clouds, and clouds change with the light.

Perfect.

The trim in this room was a darker blue made by mixing old paints to use them up. Sometimes, like in late afternoon when the sunlight was almost golden, it looked army green. In dawn it could look purple. Either way, I disliked it. It may have been economical to mix old paint, but that wasn’t reason enough to keep it. Every time I looked at the color, I remembered who put it there and why. My late husband John, newly re-employed after more than a year without a job, sprucing up this antique house in his off hours. That was before we met. Unemployment had dented his home-buying capacity, so he bought a fixer-upper in a historic neighborhood. I didn’t know until after he had died that the house once stood on the lot next door. The woman who owned it decided she wanted something bigger, so instead of building a new house elsewhere, she simply had this house picked up and moved, up a hill, one lot. That was in 1920 or thereabouts, and the house had been built in 1850. The absence of power lines and town water pipes made moving the little house possible. But that didn’t mean it went well. Every time I open the front door and look at the stairs to the second floor, I am reminded of that history because the entire staircase slopes precipitously to the left. I need something called an adjustable Lally column, a contractor told me. It’s a pillar installed in the basement under a support beam. Every so often, you turn the nut to lengthen the column, like unwinding a giant screw. The column pushes upward, bit by bit, until it straightens whatever is crooked.

“You’ll probably have some cracks in your plaster afterwards,” said the contractor. “But we can chip that out and replace it.”

Anyhow, back to that murky blue trim: I missed my husband. We had been married less than five months when he died, and I inherited this little antique house. I remember the first time I visited. We had been dating for about two months. He traveled two weeks out of every month for his work installing spectrometers, which meant that we were actually in our first month of dating. I had that shyness about being inside his home for the first time, a kind of post-first-base domestic intimacy. He apologized profusely in advance for disgust he conveyed with a wordless shake of his head, and I reassured him I wouldn’t be judgmental.

“I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think,” I said.

I was wrong.

The house was a disastrous mix of scant furniture that remained from the culling that occurs when a marriage splits up and scattered piles of tools and machinery, like human-sized anthills, that told of multiple projects that had been started but not finished. The family room was the worst. A carton emptied of a split heating-cooling system served as the table for power drills and packages of tubing to connect the wall unit to the compressor outside. There was a cherry dining room set covered with a thin film of fine sawdust and a month’s worth of unopened mail, an overflowing box of acrid cat litter, and what my then-boyfriend called “the weapons rack.” On shelving made from planks and dowels sat a six-foot honey-colored archer’s bow with a custom carved grip. What I saw was a toy for adult Dungeons and Dragons fans, the kind of sci-fi geeks that made me cringe. I was so distracted that I didn’t hear John explaining how he had built a heat-box to bend layers of wood that he then glued, cut, and carved to a satin finish. That would come later. The bow was a gift for his teenaged daughter, and in time I would appreciate this jewel of his woodworking artistry.

But not that day. That day, I silently catalogued the unfinished projects. Cracked hair plaster walls. Scuffed and water-stained floor boards. Cast iron radiators mottled by thick flakes of paint. A 1950s linoleum kitchen floor so worn that I couldn’t tell its color. Exterior windows coated with decades of airborne grit. A bathroom where the previous resident had installed tacky window shutters on a makeshift cabinet. Everywhere was evidence that the current inhabitant was a man, and a busy one. A chin-up bar hung in the bedroom doorway and athletic gear was strewn on the floor. The refrigerator’s contents were sprouting fuzz, and the ferns in hanging pots were skeletal and brown. And that was what I could see with the dark curtains drawn; the little house, which clearly needed a deep and thorough cleaning, cried out for the disinfectant properties of sunlight.

My tour of the house had ended when he led me, by the hand, to the bedroom in which I now stood, paintbrush in hand. Then, it had a mattress on the floor and a cheap computer desk with a wobbly top covered with gadgets: a compass, a gyroscope, a computer repair kit, a multi-armed magnifying glass for soldering, and a baseball-sized mass of elastic bands. The surface of a maple dresser bore a thick fur of dust and a tossed salad of laundry, papers, and odds and ends. Not a welcoming environment for a girlfriend’s first night over, but his prior apologies notwithstanding, my love hadn’t perceived my dismay. As I lay on the mattress waiting for him to brush his teeth, I scanned the walls. Light blue with lots of scuff marks and nail holes. Dark trim of an indescribably yucky blue.

“Have you ever thought of painting this room?” I asked as he slid in beside me, but the conversation ended there—as well it should.

Most of John’s belongings—the desk, the dresser, the gadgets, his clothing—had long ago been cleared out. I pushed the few that remained—a mirror and some pictures—into the hallway along with my dresser and trunk, revealing a layer of winter dust that would need to be cleaned. But first, the paint job. The bed sat in the middle of the room surrounded by a path wide enough that I could easily navigate to paint the walls. I put down my drop cloth and set out my paint can, tray, and brushes—actually, John’s brushes, retrieved from the basement pegboard where he had neatly hung them in ascending order of size. I pressed “play” on my audiobook—a tome about bird behavior—and started to work.

I spent an entire day in that bedroom, but I learned nothing about ornithology because more compelling voices than that of the audiobook were competing for my attention.

One of them was my father, remembering my maternal grandfather, a scrappy Sicilian immigrant and a carpenter whom I would later describe as “all nose and hands.” When he died, I inherited an antique coffee grinder (“from the old country”), a jig saw, a coping saw, and three vintage Stanley wood planers, the kind with the wooden knob and the retractable steel blade. They were so heavy and gracefully shaped that I used them for door-stops. One day while visiting, my father picked up a plane, his fingers tight around the elegant grip, and made a planing motion.

“Remember your grandfather’s hands, how big they were?” he said with feeling. “Those big hands are still on these tools.”

And I heard the voice of my eight or nine-year old self, sitting cross-legged on the floor and watching my father paint. It was fascinating. He wore a white canvas apron with pockets for his tools and worked from a stepladder with a fold-down tray for his paint can. Silently and methodically, he drew a chiseled brush along the crown molding of our living room, never once getting paint on the molding itself, even though it was un-taped. “How did you learn to do that kind of stuff?” I had asked him. I don’t remember how he answered, only that he sent me to the kitchen to make him a salami sandwich. It was a chilly day and the odor of latex paint hung throughout the house. From then on, that latex-paint smell was as indelibly laid down on my neurocircuitry as was the familiar school-smell of chalk and old wood or the machine oil odor that clung to his hands and boots. I smell those smells, and I was eight years old again.

The voice of my deceased grandfather himself chimed in, a Marlboro stuck to his yellowed lower lip. “You don’t need painters tape if you have a good paintbrush. A carpenter is only as good as his tools.” He was painting, but not a room. It was the dollhouse he had built for me in his carpentry studio, and he was explaining “cutting in.” You used a tapered brush with angled bristles and drew it with your arm, not your hand. Afterwards he showed me how to use a metal cleaning tool to press the tinted water out of the roller brush he had just washed, having used it to apply paint to the textured dollhouse chimney. That metal cleaning tool looked bad—so of course I wanted one.

A shiny metal brush-and-roller cleaner now lay within reach, so new that it had not yet accumulated layered globs of dried paint.

The voice that I had not yet heard was that of John, perhaps because I had never seen him paint. Or saw or hammer or plane or sand. Our life together had been too short, truncated by a galloping cancer that cut him down in his prime. One summer day—only two months before his death, I recalled with some surprise—he and my father had set a plank across two sawhorses on the back patio, a staging area for their work replacing a rotten exterior window sill. I hadn’t gotten involved, opting instead to stand out of sight near the screen door, listening to the congenial interplay of their voices as they marked, measured, and cut. Most of the time there was silence, the easy kind that two like minds enjoy when they are focused on a common endeavor.

I had no such real-life companion while painting my bedroom. My crew was relegated to memory, and the one I most missed was voiceless.

In the six years since I had moved in and the five since John had died, I had ticked off all the tasks on the very list—and more—that I had mentally drawn up that first night in the light blue bedroom. I had removed shag carpeting from the stairway, and painted and sanded the stairs. I had sanded and painted the living room floor, and erected a scaffolding over the stairway so I could paint its two-story high walls. I had ripped up the kitchen floor and laid bright new linoleum. I had painted the upstairs bathroom and the downstairs hall. I replaced mod 1970s light fixtures with new ones and dark, light-blocking curtains with sheers. I rebuilt a toilet, got rid of the bathroom cabinet shutters, and rearranged the furniture to maximize available space. Outside, I clipped back bushes that blocked the windows, climbed on the roof to clean out gutters sprouting miniature trees, actually cut down eight forty-foot birch trees with a handsaw and sold the wood, rototilled the front yard and replenished it with compost, and pulled up the smelly commercial mulch and put down wood chips. Last, I paid a crew to paint the pea-colored siding a sparkly new green and scrubbed the interior of the little house to within an inch of its life.

Some of the work had been done while John was alive. I remember the day he came home from a work trip to find I had installed pastel honeycombed blinds in the bedroom and put a handsome new couch in the living room.

“The place finally looks like a home,” he had said, with tears in his eyes. “I’ve just never had the time.”

I hadn’t known that day, the significance of my efforts. Home was the place he would spend the last two months of his life, lying on the couch with his feet in my lap or reclining on the porch watching the hummingbirds visit the purple butterfly bushes we had planted earlier that year. The little house might have been a bit shabby, but it was clean and comfortable, and full of sunlight. The day he left for a hospice center, where he would last only two days, I had slept alone in the light blue bedroom, made even grayer by the empty space next to me where John had once lain.

Yes, yes, I remembered those last days, I thought as I painted.

Swish, swish.

The big empty walls went quickly. But the room had a doorway, two windows, and a closet, all of which were surrounded by trim. And there was crown molding and baseboard trim too.

I climbed a little stepladder to paint the trim around the doorway. Standing over the doorframe, I could see that the room had once been yellow; a thin stripe of old paint peeked out from beneath the newer layer of light blue. The stripe itself was uniform in width and straight as an arrow, even though the paint above the door frame was too high to be seen from below. It had been seen only by the person who had painted over it, and that person was John.

I moved to the side of the doorframe and drew the tapered brush down the wall, “cutting in,” as my grandfather would have said, with a confident and swift stroke. I hadn’t taped the door frame but the stroke was clean and straight. Looking farther down as I dipped my brush in white paint, I saw the uniform bead of light blue paint along the trim that told of a similarly confident painter. I might even be holding that painter’s same brush, with a heavy wooden handle and angled boar bristles flecked with paint that told it had been used, but with a softness that told it had also been carefully cleaned.

“You can learn a lot about a person from the quality of his tools,” my grandfather had informed a younger me. John’s tools were good, and so was this, the little bit of do-it-yourself evidence I had of his skill and workmanship.

The paint bead wasn’t a voice, but it spoke to me. And not of carpentry or mess or household neglect but about what is lost and what remains when our material world disintegrates. “Archaeology,” I said out loud, having heard the word in my mind. Even though I was putting down a layer of paint, I was excavating the history of a marriage in much the same way I had settled his estate, which didn’t consist of much. It hadn’t taken long to pass along his most important possessions to loved ones. The photographs of his children, the archer’s bow, and his family heirlooms would be bequeathed to his loved ones. That I did in short order, as much because his family needed closure as I needed to put the task behind me. When you lose the husband you’ve had for decades, you grieve the life you had. When you lose the husband you’ve had for mere months, you grieve the life you imagined. Mourning the future rather than the past needed my full self, undistracted from a to-do list of bequests. I shipped them out, then sat in silence and solitude in the little house that had once seemed so disastrous but was now my home.

The rigor of solitary mourning, it turned out, was not unlike the ballyhooed adjustable Lally column. It would push me to honor the loss, but not without leaving behind a few telltale cracks. I realized this when, a few weeks after he died, a family member observed, “You have the time to do some decorating. A little wallpaper and some new curtains—it could really be cute.”

Could be cute implied a lack of cuteness, and a shortcoming. Decorating suggested that the house’s clean simple colors and absence of fuss was somehow too empty. There was little of interest on which the eye could land: only books, some pottery, paintings (two of which were John’s, one of them brushed onto the back of his lab coat then framed), and mostly antique wood furniture that I had scavenged from the curb or procured through yard sales because I didn’t like the off-gassing of vinyl and plastic. Perhaps it was an overreaction, but the comment clarified the necessity of navigating grief on my own terms despite the disapproval of others. The shabby but clean and sunlit house agreed with me.

Yes, it said, I am that haven for you. You have made me your home.

It took an entire day to paint my bedroom white. The audiobook concluded, followed by a lengthy silence in which a new voice floated up, one distinctly my own. I was remembering words I had written in my journal during that long year of solitary grief.

Things, concrete things. We think of them as eroding, breaking apart, and disintegrating, but in truth they are often permanent, while it is we who are eroding.Objects connect points in time and remind us what we’ve lost. The ring I wear around my neck conveys John’s warm finger at our wedding and his cool finger after death. His desk with its mug and post-it notes connect with his last day at work, and when I touch those things, I touch that day. His leather loafer with the bulge from his littlest toe connects me to the afternoon I removed his shoes and washed his sore feet. Our cells live and die, our living bodies constantly rebuilt. John’s imprint on my body is gone. What he imprinted on everything else—a glove, a notebook, the frame of glasses that bent over his ear—remains, as does the imprint on my soul, the most indelible mark of all.

In this now-white room, I felt John’s fingers on my face each morning as he stroked them goodbye. In this room I took comfort in the shelter of his body. In this room I laughed, cried, and purred with pleasure. In this room, he promised to wait until I fell asleep to turn off the light when I had had a horrid nightmare. And in this room I listened to the even rhythm of his breath and studied the dark shape of his body at night, committing it to memory for the inevitable day when I knew he would be gone.

In this room I met and said goodbye to my love, and in this room I learned how to be a person living with loss. The wall color neither amplified nor diminished my memory of those experiences, because they were preserved in my heart.

The morning after painting the bedroom, I sat up in bed and groaned over my sore muscles before surveying my handiwork. The walls were luminous in the early morning light. As I smiled with satisfaction at a job well done, I could almost hear the murmur of voices and the easy give and take of men with a common endeavor—me. It wasn’t so much the color I had chosen—“You can’t go wrong with white,” my grandfather said—as my artistry.

“She did a good job cutting in,” said John with pride. “And no painters tape.”

“Still, it’s a damn shame,” said my father, “that she’s all on her own.”

The silence told me they were sitting with that sobering thought. Silence in the face of sorrow was a male thing, and often misunderstood. Silence could be reverential.

“Look around, guys,” I said aloud. “I’m okay.”

From then on, I would look at cloud-white and know that I had put it there, and why. And I would know as well that it memorialized those I most loved. It takes tools to make a home, and they had given me their best.


Melanie Smith is a graduate of the 2019 GrubStreet Writers Memoir incubator.She has been published in Ruminate and The Windhover, among others, and is forthcoming in Blue Mountain Review. She has also enjoyed residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Elizabeth Bishop House. She is  a lecturer in Boston University’s Writing Program.