Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Hiding Place

Home from the blasted hearth.

By Margaret Renkl

APRIL 27, 1998:  Under even normal circumstances, I have what my husband describes as an "overactive nesting instinct." Despite plunging interest rates, a growing savings account, and his passionate desire to buy a house, we nevertheless lived for more than five years in our tiny, virtually unheated honeymoon duplex, all because I couldn't bear the thought of leaving our neighbors and our splendid vegetable garden. Even if that apartment had been built next to the landfill, my husband insisted, I would have planted sunflowers in the compost and settled in for a happy, stinky life.

In many women, late pregnancy has the effect of creating a nesting instinct where one never existed before--the husband of one hugely pregnant friend, for example, once awoke at 3 in the morning to find his wife on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor for the first and only time in her life. But in me it merely turns up the volume. Always home-centered, suddenly I become both space-conscious and baby-obsessed, determined to create a place in my home and my life for the new little tyrant inexorably heading my way. Where's the baby going to sleep? What bedroom colors will both stimulate and soothe, each in the right measure?

I start thinking about baby names before the positive line on the home-pregnancy test is altogether blue, and I plan elaborate homemade papier-mch nursery decorations that will take an entire pregnancy to complete. Though I know how to sew, and even own a sewing machine, I am ordinarily a disconsolate seamstress--to me sewing smacks not of creativity but of enslavement, a marriage between abject poverty and mortally dangerous sweat-shop machinery. But in pregnancy I find myself once again gravitating to fabric stores, trying to find the perfect combination of unusual materials to complement whatever nursery scheme I've picked out.

For this baby's nursery, my 6-year-old son and I have chosen a celestial motif. A huge, bright-yellow papier-maché sun, moon, and stars now decorate the nursery walls; the new crib skirt and bumper pads are pale blue and covered with yellow stars and accent colors of darker blue and red (which my son has identified as tiny supernovas and black holes); 125 pastel-colored glow-in-the-dark stars form a child-sized Milky Way across the ceiling; and even the box of Kleenex on the dresser is covered with medieval-era astronomical designs. The nicest decoration of all is a painting, custom-made for his new sibling by the youngest cosmologist in the house, of a deep-blue night sky ablaze with a fiery red and orange and yellow firmament. It hangs over the changing table, which is, as the artist has noted, the one place in the nursery where the baby will spend most of its waking moments.

Every Saturday, after the soccer game is over, and the toddler is napping, and the man of the house is doing something manly like cutting grass or watching a golf tournament, the boy of the house and his expanding mother can be found plotting more and more star-related decorations for a baby whose field of vision will at first extend no farther than the distance between maternal breasts and maternal eyes, and certainly not far enough to acknowledge such a dazzling array of fake astronomical wonders.

It's all overkill, of course. Sane people understand that a baby needs love and food and a clean rear end; what babies don't need is a bedroom with a decorating scheme. But until last Thursday I stubbornly persisted in this nesting bonanza. It doesn't ordinarily occur to me to turn on a radio or the television, and I spent most of that afternoon unaware of the line of storms rushing like a phalanx into Nashville. I was on the phone on hold, waiting for a clerk at a nearby novelty store to find out if she could order a poster-sized print of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" for me to hang on the wall above the baby's crib, when I finally looked out the window and decided the sky looked weird. I grabbed the baby and headed for my son's school while the air grew steadily greener and the clouds moved around in a restless, heedless way.

When the radio deejay announced that a tornado was in Nashville, moving east, we were just pulling into the driveway of the Green Hills house where Alice, the little girl in my son's hook-up, lives. The twister was due to hit downtown in less than five minutes. It took a good deal longer than five minutes to unbuckle my own toddler and the two 6-year-olds and marshal them into Alice's basement with the other occupants of the house--Alice's mother and two younger brothers (one of them also a toddler, the other only a month old), a teenage student the math-whiz mother was scheduled to tutor, and a random 2-year-old child who'd been invited over to play with Alice's brother.

For an hour and a half we waited there, while the baby alternately cried and nursed, the three toddlers threw Play-Doh at one another, the 14-year-old stared stolidly at the unchanging screen of the one station the basement television set could pick up, and the big kids ran maniacally around the dim basement in a just-set-free-from-school frenzy fueled by a bag of popcorn and the anxiety of their mothers. It was a bad hour-and-a-half. The television voice-over kept identifying more places in town a tornado had been spotted; one of us always knew someone living or working directly in its path, and neither of us knew where her husband was. One twister was on course to hit Green Hills at 3:55. At exactly 3:54 one of the 2-year-olds announced, "I have to go potty."

It was a bad hour and half, but it was nothing like the hour and a half a lot of other people in Nashville were having. When I finally emerged intact with my children from that basement and made it home to my untouched house where my husband was safely waiting, I turned on the television and saw pictures of what had happened all around us--the uprooted ancient trees, the smashed automobiles, the highway signs wrapped around each other and pointing in irrational directions, the exploded glass windows of the skyscrapers. Most of all, I saw the ruined homes, the places where people once lived but will not live again for a very long time--if at all.

Those pictures, and the pictures that followed day after day, have gone a long way toward curing my obsessive and pointless nesting. Looking at those roofless, pulpwood houses, those smashed swing sets and crumpled porches of East Nashville, where so many homes were already--even before the blow--leaning and patched and hardly weather-tight, I thought of my perfectly unharmed Green Hills neighborhood, a neighborhood where every day contractors and carpenters and masons converge to build onto the houses--playrooms and master-bedroom suites, and bigger and better kitchens--to expand the already expansive, the sturdy homes that glow with light, even in the darkest storm.

All at once I felt like King Lear--in good fortune so oblivious, in despair on the heath so awake and so finally human--beating his own breast and crying out to the people he ignored for too long:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness defend


From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en

Too little care of this!

For Lear, a spoiled old king whose own wealth tricked him into blindness, there might be an excuse for such solipsism, but I am neither wealthy nor royal, and there can be no such justification for me. In the end a home is not a place where the sun-bedecked bedspread matches a starry dust ruffle, which complements the moon-shaped throw pillows on the bed.

A home is just a place where people who belong to each other, or who have no choice but to rely on each other, can gather, safe under one roof. And if the wind should tear the roof from over their fragile, haunted heads, a home is what people--all people, even the people whose lives were untouched--must work together to rebuild, to raise again stronger and more sturdy, just as soon as the rain moves out and the real sun once more begins to shine.

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