Even as we all await potentially ghastly news about a transit strike, we have had unsettling news about the nest-within-a-nest here, our downstairs Apartment. Our precious perfect mother-daughter tenants of 6 years are moving out. It's understandable; they need more room, and the Apartment, a sort of spacious two-room studio, is more appropriate for just one.
So, change will come again to the high-ceilinged double parlor that served as our first beachhead in the dark, foul wilderness that was the CrazyStable in those early days of 1986. Although in many ways it is the only potentially 'grand' space in the house, it has never been really ours, and it remains sharply etched in stress (and, later, anguish) as the space we set aside and renovated first. This was so that my just-widowed mother could occupy it sooner rather than later, while we camped out upstairs. We gutted and remade her alcove kitchen, and turned two dank washrooms (one of which contained a shower stall full of General Chang's fishing tackle) into a single pretty pink bathroom with cream-colored fixtures. We built closets (which it utterly lacked, except for a shack-like structure made entirely of old doors) and carpeted the sloping floor. No way we could fix the massive broken pocket doors, slumped in their recesses, but we used a wooden folding screen as a room divider, painted it all a pleasant pink-and-mauve scheme, and moved in Mater just a year after we moved in ourselves. Things went downhill rapidly, but that is a story for another dark and rainy night; the past six years, with Perfect Tenants, have done much to ease the bad karma of what followed.
It was only that first year, before Mater, that the Apartment was in any sense 'ours.' After several wretched months without a working kitchen, we cooked our first meal in the alcove kitchenette (a converted tiny porch) on the cheapest oven/range we could buy. That meal was Stouffer's mac & cheese, and we ate it together late one night off flimsy tray tables in the big empty rooms, as primordially satisfied as cave dwellers who had just roasted their first beast over their first campfire. (And then we made coffee, in our own home!) Spouse and I tiled the bathroom ourselves, an epic struggle (all the floor tiles floated off in a thin film of water from a leaking toilet valve one night, and we cried together as we scraped the mastic off the back of every one); Spouse installed the toilet on our first Christmas Eve here, just in time for our 'open house' the next day. (Were we insane? The house had just been re-wired--by idiots--and was lit by a few bare bulbs and a brave Christmas tree; I seem to recall a horde of shell-shocked friends and relations wandering around, gazing with frozen faces at the battered walls, broken windows barred with rusted gates, hanging swags of BX cable, and plank-as-front steps, while we nattered in manic glee about our renovation plans.)
During its last change of occupant, after Mater's departure for a nursing home, I spent as little time 'down there' (an unfortunate parlance we've come to use for the Apartment) as possible, seeing everywhere the ruins of our dream of Happy Motherland. There was a certain healing full-circleness in the fact that one of Mater's countless home health aides--the one sent on loan from God, as it happened--was willing and able to be her successor there, and that her own daughter, after heartbreaking years of delay, was able to come to this country and join her. But now that the Apartment will be briefly empty (a time for much-needed paint and repairs), I find myself curiously eager to reclaim it, to roll around and rub my scent on it and proclaim it ours ours ours! As desperately as we need the rent, I harbor feverish fantasies of turning the Stable into a single-family dwelling of monstrous size and complexity. Which kitchen shall we cook in tonight? Shall we roller-skate around the first floor? Install a hot tub and sauna? A neighbor in the landmark district with a house this size has a home theater that seats about 20. Or there's the Child's idea: a small in-home restaurant, just 10 or so tables for discerning neighbors to savor my home-style cuisine.
Then I calm down. The Apartment is ours, but not ours. For a while we will come and go freely in this curious foreign embassy under our own roof, alone again in our first settlement. Maybe we'll prepare and eat a meal down there, just for old times' sake. The oven still works fine; perhaps we'll heat up some Stouffer's macaroni and cheese, and put on a pot of coffee, and tell the Child stories of that first Christmas, long ago, when the winter air poured in through the broken windows, and Grandma helped us trim the tree in what would soon be her new home, and three cats--none of them in today's trio--wandered around sniffing the perimeter. Once in a while, one needs to sniff the perimeter of one's range.