When I was three, maybe four years old my mom used to sing a Mitch Miller tune at bedtime. My sisters and I would march up the stairs, chirp along with the chorus, and flop into our beds as the song ended:
Be kind to your web-footed friends
For a duck may be somebody‘s mother,
Be kind to your friends in the swamp
Where the weather is very, very damp.
Now, you may think that this is the end,
Well it is!
In a sun-flooded Ohio kitchen, on a morning nearly sixty years later, Mr. Miller’s ditty still conjured images of my former home in western Michigan. This clapboard, two-story rental — a rectory until deemed inadequate for the purpose — was demolished decades ago to make way for the adjacent church’s expansion.
Using a pencil and the back of an envelope I sketched a draft of my old house’s floor plan: the front vestibule; the dining room outlined by corner china cabinets and narrow-slatted interior shutters; the living room and its bay window; a “studio” in which my parents gave music lessons; an early-1960s kitchen (the stove featured a built-in deep fat fryer). You could pass continuously from one room to the next — this loop included the bathroom, accessible at either end. Concealed behind louvered doors, winding stairs led upstairs from the house’s center. I’d once managed to wedge my noggin between the landing’s banister rails.
There was space on the envelope so I drew the upper story, too. The second floor comprised a nursery, a master bedroom for my parents, and a larger L-shaped bedroom in which my sisters and I slept. One evening I’d asked my mom about a pale scar on the palm of her hand; it was a splinter she’d picked up during her teenage years. She told me the sliver would loosen someday and travel through a vein, reach her heart, and stop it. The same night, in bed, I wept; my sisters called out and mom had to come up and explain how she wouldn’t die soon but much later.
The pencil paused. How could I draw the moon, itself an artist whose silver-white brush transformed my bedroom into a yes/no domain of glow and shadow? As a child I’d pictured lunar light dancing on Lake Michigan just a mile or so away, a visual delight that precedes humankind and will outlast us. We are ephemeral vaults and hoard these timeless splendors only briefly.
I reviewed my sketch’s layout and tweaked the proportions. Each window and door was now in its proper and exact relationship. I added details about my dad’s workshop, how it was attached to the back of the house and accessible only from its own entrance outside. Together he and I built a birdhouse there and painted it blue-gray.
Also worth mentioning: a second kitchen (from an even older period when the property had been divided into a duplex) in which I’d pawed at the electric stove’s controls and in my ignorance set ablaze laundry piled carelessly on the cooking surface. Firemen arrived! They wore big hats and boots! And rubber overcoats!
I copied the floor plan onto a larger sheet of paper. Using a ruler, I marked dimensions and once again adjusted layout and scale. I absorbed a hundred Internet pages about architecture and construction before I returned to my drawing, developed three-dimensional renderings, and composed a list.
Lunchtime came and went without me. I phoned the lumberyard and placed an order. The materials would be delivered inside of three working days, but the destination was a hill’s crest above my present home and I’d not yet leveled and compacted the site. An acquaintance of mine owned a dump truck and bulldozer. He’d be surprised to hear from me, even more so when I asked to borrow his earthmoving equipment.
Weeks of labor. Following completion of the framing and roofing, I installed the electrical and plumbing. Finding fifty-year-old fixtures such as faucets and ceiling lamps wasn’t easy or inexpensive, but the representation had to be true. The nights sharpened and I wanted to finalize the heating system so I could work after sunset.
Although I’d re-created the house’s physical layout, specifics of colors and trim were less clear in my mind. I chose the pleasant, neutral tones my mom had always loved. I painted the master bedroom cerulean — it was her favorite and reminded me of her and the sky.
My memory-house is unfurnished. I often sit on the front steps there and keep watch over my dark and silent home below. After we’re gone and gone and gone and our dwellings are reduced to mulch and dust, moonlight will still tease and caress a distant northern lake.
The yard is empty except for weeds. Tomorrow I’ll visit the county animal shelter and adopt a mean Rottweiler-hound mix and a broken-down calico cat.
Michael Grant Smith wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Airgonaut, Ghost Parachute, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Bending Genres, MoonPark Review, and elsewhere. Michael resides in Ohio. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati.