The lid of the seventy year old stove creaked reluctantly as I pushed it up and ducked my head under. Dust and the smell of distant eggshells wafted up as I relit the stove with the long reach matches from our landlord Mary Alice. A few years ago, when we woke up to the unpleasant smell for almost a week straight, we had learned the pilots tended to get blown out by gentle breezes. Now, this little piece of knowledge was to get filed in the “no longer useful” category in my brain, along with bits like how to keep the sink and tub drains draining (never use without at least one trap), when to change the screens out for the storm windows (earlier than you think; the days quickly get cold), how to avoid the water hammer (turn the water on more than you think you need), how much to turn down the heat (a Pendleton and a down comforter were musts), how to stay cool when the power went out in the summertime (good luck… meditation?), the trick to shutting the front door (humidity dependent), which outlets dropped cord prongs from them like leaves in fall, and which appliances tripped the breaker if used in concert.
We moved here, to Warwick Street SE in Prospect Park Minneapolis, Mykala and I (and George the cat) in the summer of 2009. We had just been married in a marvelous wedding, with a celebration and a wife of the sort I know come once in a lifetime, and only if you are very, very lucky. I was very, very lucky.
Mykala found us the place and I vividly remember touring it, guided by Mary Alice, 76 years young at the time.
She was a real-estate agent in the area, but that fact does little to convey her place in the community. Mary Alice had been there about 40 years and knew every person in every house, some of which she had sold multiple times, and attended every meeting and participated in every commission in the exceptionally tightly-knit Prospect Park community. She explained with pride how the local school, Pratt Elementary, was run-down and saved from being torn down, revitalized, and now was a fully functioning elementary school once again, steps away from the houses in the neighborhood. She gave us a book about it and about the neighborhood—people I had just met never gave me books! I had a feeling people I had just met were not Mary Alice. She could be seen, on long summer evenings, walking barefoot along the streets, coming and going from a visit with a neighbor or staging a house. Her backyard had a fish pond that she stocked around Memorial Day each year and she lived above us: her part of the house was embellished with so many interesting items I couldn’t even take them all in; artifacts from India, antiques, fancy tables, a grand piano, countless interesting thingamajigs; other than her iMac, nothing newer than 1960 it seemed.
Shortly after we moved in, Mary Alice’s quite old cat, Ezra, passed away. He had had been just like his owner: he regularly visited the outdoor tables at the café across the street, stopped in at neighbor’s houses in the wintertime to warm up, and intimately knew what was going on in his part of the world. We were informed that there was to be a funeral for Ezra, and let me tell you that is not our scene. People we hardly knew, at an event we didn’t understand, for a cat we had barely met? Yet, we were invited. And we went. And you know what? It was beautiful: poems, live music performances, remembrances from a college-age neighbor who was a little boy when Ezra was a kitten. He, Ezra, was laid to rest in the backyard, and I wished I had the confidence to make such tender, beautiful things happen in the world, without fearing judgment or ridicule. We joked that Mary Alice’s social calendar was more full than ours. But we never made it to that café across the street.
I remember in the golden glow of the summer of 2009, our things from the move-in lined up along the upstairs hall. I remember that so well, I don’t know why. We returned from Hawaii and here was this space, waiting for us—our first home. We were to grow and love and share in that space, and we knew it, and it all felt auspicious and right.
We endured the vicissitudes of dental and graduate schools, family crises, existential crises, and through that Warwick didn’t change much. In that space, as it met the simple necessities of living without ornament or luxury, those idiosyncrasies and their solutions I mentioned before quickly became just a simple, safe backdrop to our lives. I biked to and fro during most of our time there, and I remember many snowy nights, head and taillights blinking up the incredibly steep Franklin Avenue, making my way to my wife, home safe and sound and warm. I also recall the joy of the cold weather finally breaking in the spring, and how, if I went home via University, I could sit back in the saddle and coast gently home, touching neither pedals nor handlebars and breathing in the blooming air.
One of my worst bike rides I’ve ever had was on an unseasonably cold early spring day when the precipitation was a perfect sleet: falling and running down you like rain but accumulating like snow. I was in the awful waiting period where I had taken boards, but I didn’t know if I had passed (I had). The weather matched my mood as I made the miserable ride from my outreach location far west down Franklin, to the gym (soaked to the bone), worked out, and the finally, FINALLY, home to Warwick. On days like that, stepping out of the shower (the bathroom was always the warmest room in the house) to a warm towel, the whole place just wrapped you up.
Christmas morning in the old house felt like putting on your most worn-in sweater—we don’t need nothing new-fangled around here—and a real tree felt true in a place made from real things: plaster, solid wood, brick, glass. Nothing fake, or hollow, or faux, or plastic. Mary Alice usually went away to visit family on the west coast, and a deep snowy peace settled on the house over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
So when I lit those pilot lights, looked at that burner, I saw that all it was was simply a manifold connected to a gas line. And yet, right here, Mykala had made all of our meals at the house. And she made some amazing meals. I knew it was just a stove, but it had all happened right here. Surprise tropical themed nights, Halloween treats,
birthday cakes, Thanksgiving dinners,
Fourth of July feasts,
fall patio dinners,
all of it flooded over me when I lit that stove again. It could have happened anywhere, but it had happened here at Warwick. And the time had come to leave.
Already the soft focus of memory had removed the sharp edges I could see now before me, the pieces that didn’t fit and the paint that was peeling, and my feelings had softened the physical space to a kind of shabby chic farmhouse ideal that it only was when the lights were dim and we found ourselves ignoring the leaks and creaks and layered mix of repairs and fixes. It was perfect, our first place together, but the time had come to leave.
We’ll miss you, Warwick. We’ll miss you, Mary Alice. We know we can visit, but the time when it was our home is now a memory.