Once more to the cabin.
It is spring, but only just, and though the sky is blue and there is the sound of birds all around, the trees are still bare, tremendous in height but bare, like the verticle stripes of a neverending barcode, filtering the light in pillars. The driveway, which He has driven thousands of times, is a quarter of a mile with a slight decline and a few very subtle curves. I have only been driving it for ten years, but it feels like an era which expanses a great portion of my life. The pavement, laid long ago, is cracked and shifting from the roots laying there beneath. We let the old dog out the back of the car at the top, and she is running behind us, her ears flopping back, her open mouth like a smile. She is the laziest of beasts when we are at home in town, but when we come to the cabin she is as playful and lithe as a puppy. There is something rejuvenating in the air around the woods, rising up from the ground.
At once, rounding the last curve, the friendly log cabin, the home of my husband’s family, sits at the back of a perfectly manicured lawn. Large and square, flat sides, a long front porch. Still as a stone, plain as the year. This is my final approach. There is no cardboard sign, but realtors have been bringing in couples from down in Pittsburgh, couples from California, couples from Canada. The right one will step from their car and feel the purity of the air, observe the stillness of the land, the sway of the trees. They will look up into that pond of sky overhead and buy this place my father-in-law spent years tenderly growing, perfecting, maintaining. They and their people will build a life here, too.
The first time He brought me here it was spring, but later, and the trees were blanketed with lush green leaves. A deer stood in the center of the driveway when we approached, unafraid, as if we were coming to visit her.
“It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere,” He’d said. “It’s a log cabin.” And I, a city girl, could not have fathomed what he meant. We were so young, falling in love, feigning complete self-assurance when all we really felt was doubt. He was simple and needed a little help to dress well; He was kind and humble. He possessed no airs. I don’t know exactly where I expected him to be from, but I certainly didn’t expect this.
The first time I rode that quarter mile in his old Jetta, when Pittsburgh was miles behind us and we’d passed several real farms with silos and heards of cattle, I was confused by the whole thing. Then cabin grew up before us, and a different reality dawned on me. Like waking up and realizing the dream you had was only a dream, and you didn’t fly to the White House, you merely watched the State of the Union on television. Only the opposite. When I saw his house for the first time is when I believe I truly began to understand him.
There is an old, wooden wagon in the front yard, off to the side, and lovely yellow daffodils grow from beneath the wheels. Behind the fence to the right of the house is a pool, still covered from winter, full of murkey green water which will clarify when the chemicals are administered. The slide is dry, bleached a very pale blue from years of sun.
His mother has planted flowers all along the front walk; red, purple, yellow, orange, white, violet. They accent the cabin, which is all varying shades of brown. Little friends of a great sleeping bear.
The original house was built sometime just after the United States constitution was signed into governance by our country’s founding fathers. I imagine a man, not unlike my husband’s father, laying the logs with the help of his sons and friends, one great tree trunk after another. His wife standing by, specifying she wanted a long common room for a table to fit the whole family; a loft big enough for everyone to sleep upstairs. This portion of the house has not been changed, really, except for a bigger door with a screen, some electrical outlets and air ducts.
At some point, many decades later, someone had the idea that this eastern Pennsylvania cabin would be better suited further west, and took it upon himself to draw up a diagram of the house, numbering the logs on the paper like the legend to a map, tacking small tin numbers to match all over the inside of the house, and dissembling the structure, respectfully undoing the work of the first man. He piled those pieces on a wagon or a train and sent the whole lot to a little spot north of Pittsburgh tucked away in the quiet woods, away from the noise of a deeply disturbed nation, and put the house back together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Inside the cabin, the tin numbers still hang in odd places all over. 57 just above the toilet upstairs. 73 across from the fireplace in the dining room. 15 up the steps. Evidence of one man’s bright idea.
The front of the house is the original architecture, and it is something out of a history book. The rest of the house was added later, after his father bought the place as a summer getaway. He was a doctor, always weary, always pinched for time with the kids. He’d dreamed of having a tennis court right out back, where they wouldn’t have to wait for a turn. He’d always hated to waste time, never knowing when his beeper would sound and he’d be off to the city. He knows better than most that time is precious, so he wanted an open tennis court. When they pulled up to the small cabin in nineteen-ninety it was surrounded by twelve acres of dense woods, but they had a vision.
The backyard is lovely and wide, and the clay court sits at the back, just beside the vegetables his mother collects all summer for fresh salads and kebabs. Woods surround the yard, which his father created, felling trees, carrying away stumps, planting grass. He was young then, working full time, on call. This was hard labor, which felt good in a different way, a respite from a career of theories, images, scans, lawsuits, unknowns. He could touch the dirt and know its color, its density. He could see the grass take, sprout up like a baby’s first hair. There was satisfaction in that. She came behind him and turned it from a practical thing to a beautiful thing, with flowers and trees, benches, feeders and baths for the birds. They spent years, and when they had at last turned it from the cabin in the woods to a practical home in which they could live as well as love, they moved in.
I woke that Saturday morning at the first spreading light through the window of his sister’s bedroom, and spent a moment trying to remember where I was. I tiptoed down the stairs in bare feet looking for coffee. His father was on the front porch, and I brazenly joined him. I was nineteen, it was our first meeting.
His father is the quietest man I’ve ever known, but that morning we sat and talked for an hour as the morning grew brighter. His mother kept coming to check on us, likely to make sure we were getting along, and we were. He told me the history of the cabin, his journey through two specialties in medicine, growing up in the hills outside the city. I kept asking, and he kept answering. It is my favorite memory on the porch.
The study is dark, thousands of books lining the shelves. The bathrooms are small. The bedrooms are lofted. Great wood beams meet below the knotted ceiling paneling. The kitchen smells like real food – bacon, onion, garlic, bread, pie. His mother, a small woman, most often found there behind the half island, her head and shoulders just visible, has spent years demonstrating the latticing of pie crusts, turkey stuffing in a pillow case, gravy, roasted cauliflower and brussel sprouts to me. Her footprints are depressed into the ground in front of the stove.
My husbands parents have grown dear to me over the decade I’ve known them, settling into a place inside me it seems was meant for them. In the demonstration of their life I have learned volumes about the value of humble, hard work, the importance of family, and the truth that if you want to see something happen, you have get up and get going.
They say it is the people that make a place, which is true in part, but the concept is incomplete. New cities found on holiday hold the power of magic. Places of work often posess the ability to control and produce fear. Water and mountains are soothing; a park is a reminder of the past; a middle school cafeteria dredges up intense insecurity. These are the powers of a place.
And home. A good home – a place you have loved and been given love, where you have felt safe, where you’ve felt a sense of ownership, even as a child – builds its way into into you so you have not only lived within it, but it has somehow begun to live within you.