At first it felt like a museum, coming into this house. Tom’s mother moved out of what had been their bedroom into one of the children’s rooms. It was going to be our house now. But it wasn’t. I moved things, like a pair of old candlesticks she had on a shelf in the dining room. I had just taken them down to clean them, and then I had gotten to it that day. His mother asked me just a few hours later, “Somebody moved the candlesticks.” We had photographs of the children taken when they were each about two years old. We had spent some money on them and had them framed in these nice wooden frames. I tried to put them up one day. I did put them up, in the hallway. I finally took it out, but the hallway had a red wallpaper in those days. I had to take down a couple of old pictures which were old photographs, those kind they did on glass back in the old days. These weren’t done very well. I guess they were the original family, the Amundsons, not even the Tillarys and not her family. You had to get up close to see the faded parts to see that one was just a man, looking very severe in a formal black coat. And the other was that same man, looking a little older, with his wife and five children around. One of the children looked just like a lumpy splotch in someone’s arms, it could have been a sack of potatoes. I had taken those down, was trying to figure out where I would put them because the whole house was full of photographs. The family may have had a lot of lean years like their stories tell but it looks like they always had enough money to have photographs taken, and then framed in these big gilt frames. I’ve gotten rid of the worst of them. Some of them were the kind of thing I would imagine in a French castle. She came in and I was just straightening the photographs of the children, and she looked very severely at me, which really unnerved me in those days. And she said, “I’m not sure those frames quite go with that wallpaper.” That’s all she said but I knew what she meant. She went off muttering about how they had chosen that wallpaper especially because it looked so nice with those old photos and wouldn’t it be a shame to have to change such wallpaper, even though it was very deep red and almost made you want to leave the room. For a moment I thought, You got to change the wallpaper — how come I don’t? But I didn’t say anything. Whenever we had these kinds of conversations it made Tom uncomfortable, me just trying to get the house cleaned up and settled in and my mother-in-law setting all these little fires everywhere with her comments. Tom just tried to ignore it. I didn’t mind that we had left Wisconsin and a nice home in a good town and family not far away and the woodlands and rolling farmland I knew growing up, to come out here where it was windy and you could see too far that there was nothing around. That was all bearable. But sometimes sharing that house with her made me feel like a caged animal. Tom would try to soothe, but it wasn’t soothing. “It’s only a short while. The doctor said she probably won’t be with us on.” And, really, she wasn’t. I shouldn’t complain about it.
I save things, and that’s what saved me. She had some things set out, and instead of moving them I just added. I added pictures of the kids to what was on the walls, and my wall hangings. People tease me that some of them are trite, but I like them, and they remind me of good times. Like this one about the “skinny girl inside me who’s trying to get out,” I bought that on a trip I made back to Wisconsin to see my high school girlfriends. It was our twentieth reunion, maybe the last time I’ll see them. I have that to remember them by, and also a photograph on the piano in the sitting room of all of us out at brunch. I know it’s hard to find that one — I have so many frames on top of the piano now, a lot get stuck in back. I rotate them every few months, so I can remember different things. There is an old china cabinet in the dining room. It’s all handmade, really amazing work. I wondered if someone brought it over from Norway, it looks so much like old-country craftsmanship. Nobody in the family seems to know, although they know it was their great-grandmother’s and they don’t want it moved, even around the room, as I found out one Thanksgiving when were trying to squeeze twenty-five people in here and I had to move things around a little. Nobody could eat Thanksgiving dinner if that wasn’t on the same wall where it had always been. People were just getting ready to sit down, pouring water in the glasses, and we were getting the turkey carved up and put on a serving plate, and all of a sudden all the men had to go in there and move things around so that their wives would have that china cabinet where it should be and they could eat. People didn’t even mind being totally uncomfortable, squeezed in at the table. If it was in the right place, they could eat.
It’s funny in a way, though I didn’t find it funny at the time. People have these ideas about how things should be in the house, my house, although they’re not so particular about much else. Most of the time, people in Tom’s family just do whatever needs to be done. So long as we don’t mess up the house. It’s almost as if their lives will come unrooted.
It’s not as though everything here is so fancy or perfect. There wasn’t much in that china cabinet when we moved here. The dishes were just old plates from Chicago, not even real china. We had gotten some real china for our wedding and I was going to put it in there but then my mother-in-law made a comment about it and I realized I couldn’t. So I just added. Tom and I had gone to California on the train from Chicago after we were married. In the dining car they had dishes with a painting of the train, the City of Los Angeles. I had bought two of those and had them on stands, and so I put them at the front of the cupboard. Tom’s mother noticed it about fifteen minutes after I did it and she complained that maybe the paintings didn’t go with the wood, but I was learning to ignore her by then. Later, when the kids were older, we did a trip from Fargo out to Seattle and back and I got another one. And another when we took a train to New York, when Finn was just finished with his sophomore year of high school, the last vacation we all took together. That one wasn’t going to fit in the cabinet so I had to take the old dishes out. Fortunately it was so crowded in there nobody noticed.
The shelves are a little full with the kids’ trophies, Finn’s from basketball, Cynthia’s from volleyball, Ben’s from football. They were all good at sports. I like to see them and remember how they were. And the pictures on the walls, the little silly things like this carved totem pole I got in Seattle, the birchbark art I got in Bemidji, the needlepoint Cynthia and I did when she was in girl scouts. Tom thinks there is too much clutter — he cleared a lot of things out of the family room when we expanded that last year and put in the TV. He said he couldn’t relax with all of this clutter, as he calls it. For me it’s not clutter. People put things like this away in cupboards or in the attic and they forget they have them, it just slips away into the past. I like to keep it all here, so I don’t forget.