Monday, August 1, 2011

A house as a place, not just space

Recently I placed all the photos I could find of houses where I have lived in an album in chronological order. There aren't as many as I expected. I got the idea from Leland Harder of North Newton who wrote his memoirs, a chapter on each house he had lived in from childhood on up. He went to great effort to get pictures of each house and to recall what went on in that particular house.

I looked at each of my pictures carefully. The first picture is the house where I was born in Laird, Saskatchewan, in 1924 -- nothing but a low, ugly, wooden shack. Two rooms. A kitchen and eating area. A bedroom and living area. Both miniscule. Both crowded. Washtubs, boiler, wood, shovel, outhouse are all outside. When space is limited in a house, people claim the great outdoors.

In the doorway stands my handsome father in shirt and tie and Mother with me wearing a frilly bonnet in her arms and little Annie and Frieda beside her. The family was probably ready to walk to church when Dad's brother John came out of the shack next door with a camera and snapped the picture. They were all newcomers to the land -- recent immigrants from the Ukraine.

For some people, a house represents their station in life -- rich or poor, high class or low class. Yet as I look at each picture, the house in it represents much more than the space where I lived at the time.

I like the way theologian Walter Brueggeman differentiates between space and place. I now live in an apartment of about a thousand square feet. Some people would say I don't have much space, and sometimes I think so myself, when books and files get piled on the bed and dining room table. A friend recently thought I had a very spacious apartment.

I recall visiting an aunt in northern Germany in the late 1980s. She had recently come from Russia with her daughter's family consisting of husband and six children as Umsiedlers. They (nine people) lived in a cramped apartment in Espelkamp. I had written her to reserve a hotel room for me. I didn't want to intrude on their already crowded space. She resisted my request. Reserve a room for me in a hotel, away from them? Unheard of. "During the war," she said, "we could have housed thirty people in this space." Space is relative.

Place is something else.

"Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations," writes Brueggeman.

He sees a place as space in "which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny."

I look at that first picture in my album and I wonder what words were spoken between Mother and Dad, strangers in the land of Canada, in those close quarters. At what point did they decide that this land would be their land, and that they would merge their identity with it? Can a person have more than one homeland at a time? Or does new space result in a time of uncertainty?

As I examine each of the other pictures I think of the words that were spoken in them -- or that should have been spoken. In which house was my identity established? In which did I begin to dream about the future for myself -- especially as a writer?

I remember lying on the woodpile in Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, basking in the warm sun and dreaming of life beyond this little hamlet north of the Saskatchewan River. I never realized that though the one-and-a half story frame house painted cream with green trim may have been the space I was occupying at the time, it was also the place where my destiny was being shaped by the stories I was being told about life not so long ago in Russia, about life as my father experienced it now in his store on Main Street, about the words I was speaking to myself, silently, cautiously, about becoming a word-maker.

Place, not just space. We turn space into place with words.

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