The Big House
I was once told that my great-great-grandfather ate an apple on his way to school every day. Each morning, he traversed the fields, dropping his chewed apple core onto the rocky soil. As the fruit melted away, seeds nestled themselves in the soil, and eventually, the orchard behind my grandmother’s childhood home sprouted from the dirt.
I don’t think this story is true. It doesn’t quite make sense that hundreds of healthy trees burst from tough New England soil in perfect lines, just from the simple dropping of a daily apple. But as a child, I believed it. I always romanticized that property: the big old house, the rolling fields dotted with apple trees, the rock walls stumbling over streams and curving with the hills. I loved the barn, even though the old wooden boards never escaped the stench left over from years of housing cattle, the vacant inside still reeking of livestock. I loved the strange statue outside the garage, with the little opaque stone egg perched atop a wrench.
Most of all, I loved the portraits that hung on the walls. Although I didn’t see my own eyes in their cold stares, I always knew, and felt, that the people in the portraits were my family. Once I stood at the foot of the canvases and searched those unfamiliar faces for a sense of personality. I desperately wanted their cracked lips to creak into a smile, or their eyes to glimmer with recognition. I wanted them to stretch their necks and lean out from the canvas, out
from the darkly lit paint and into the light of day, and acknowledge me; but of course, they could not. All I could do was imagine that they were good people. That they were smart, kind, loving. People I’d be proud of coming from.
However, I can never truly know what they were like. No amount of birth records and newspaper announcements could tell me their quirks and hobbies, their darkest secrets or favorite memories. I’ve always found it strange how our lives tend to boil down to a few documents. Most people’s faces are washed away with time, and even portraits aren’t a true rendering of a person.
If I turned my head from the paintings on the wall, I could see the kitchen down the narrow hallway. That vast space, with wide wooden floorboards and the old metal oven, has held generations of family meals. I wonder if the woman with the cold eyes once stood in the vacant space near the table.
I have always felt connected to the people in those portraits, and although I do come from them, I do not know them. It’s getting harder to ignore the years between us: the centuries of social change, the decades of new discoveries.
The house is getting old, too. The thousands of shoes that have trudged up to bed or scampered down the hall have acted like sandpaper on the soft wooden floorboards. The house seems to recoil with every movement, each step a loud creak that echoes through the dusty air. Every gust of wind shakes the thin window panes, and they whimper and quiver in response.
The gnarled branches of those hunched apple trees don’t bear as much fruit as they used to. They are like witches’ hands erupting from the ground, their sinewy, knobby knuckles clawing at the wind, trying to grasp a handhold before they are sucked into the Earth. It is okay for the barn to stay vacant, for the trees to stop giving fruit, and even for the portraits to fade away with the memory of their subject. After all, it’s only natural for blossoms to turn to apples, and for the fruit to fall to the ground and rot. As the roof sags, the white paint chips off the side of the house like sheets of clean paper. And the air is quiet.
Alexandra LeBaron is a young writer from New Canaan, Connecticut. She is currently a rising Junior at Phillips Academy Andover in Andover, Massachusetts and is the oldest of five sisters. Her work has been published in her school’s literary magazine, The Courant.