Whose House Is It, Anyway? Taking Possession Of Pamela's Palce

August 30, 1992|By Linda DeMers Hummel

I speak to myself in my own brand of calming, gardening logic as I uproot the last of Pamela's scallions. No sense in them monopolizing precious afternoon sun when no one eats them anyway. But they are the last part of her to go.

In my summertime imagination, I have always been the cook who prepares her very own harvest for guests. The one who steps outside and tugs and snips the vegetables that grow, not in suburban rows, but wild and shaggy, like these scallions that protrude each summer.

Over my coffee on hot mornings, I imagine grand vegetable dishes for supper. So cleverly in my mind do I retrieve recipes saved from 1980s magazines. I see myself with Martha Stewart's verve, tossing the fresh scallions into the steaming wok with tomatoes, zucchini, peppers. I add exotic herbs the names of which I can't even spell, but somehow in this picture, my hands are deft, knowing when to use a pinch, when a handful.

But by the hot afternoon, my culinary energy has retreated for the day, and I'm more likely to settle on a lazy salad with two ingredients. The ratatouille of my dreams is gone by then. Pamela's once-thriving crop has survived years in this system of benign neglect.

By September, her scallions cross my mind only when the mower severs an errant stalk that has foolishly emigrated to the lawn, and the bittersweet scent tickles the inside of my nose for an hour or so. Today, up they come. I want raspberries instead. For six years now,I have been the woman in Pamela's house. With each green-white bulb I pluck from the ground, my composite picture of her, the one I built myself, adds one detail and then another until I see today's version of this woman I never met.

Sometimes she is dark and heavy and tries to look sexy when it is no longer wise or feasible. Today she is a pale powdered face watching television behind the red velvet curtain. She wears clingy blouses of hot pink and chartreuse to match the colors of the rooms she left abandoned, still glowing. Her voice is too low and she laughs like she's just heard a dirty joke. She does this often in my imagination -- my interpretation, probably, of her bawdy taste in bathroom wallpaper.

Some of the traits that comprise Pamela (but, isn't it funny, I can't remember which ones) came from neighbors who strolled over the first week to meet the woman who had moved into Pamela's house. From the hand gestures people used in place of adjectives. Hand signals that varied so much from person to person, I became hopelessly confused. From the stories about things she did (or didn't do). From those who would miss her (or were glad to see her gone). From those who kindly relied on fact, those who far preferred the fiction.

Fresh from signing the papers six years ago, holding the key handed us by the most formal of real estate agents, we (guided by his words) "took possession of the property." Pamela's house (and that's exactly how I thought of it in those first months) was empty in the strangest way.

Inconsequential small items had been left in corners and although she had been living in another state for months, I couldn't escape the feeling that Pamela had sneaked out the back door, full speed and out of breath, moments before we turned our key in the lock.

I seemed to follow her from room to room that first afternoon, thinking that if I pieced together all the residual Pamela -- the doll in the basement, the fork in the kitchen drawer, the lonely puppy print still hanging on a wall, the black negligee relegated to paint rag -- I would know her.

I yanked down the heavy red drapes first, wondering why she shaded herself behind floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall dusty velvet. I discovered our bedroom was actually three shades of yellow worked in sloppy brush strokes or, perhaps on closer examination, plaintive ones. I pictured Pamela rocking a baby to fitful sleep after I found ear drops lodged in a high cabinet, prescribed for her son two decades ago.

The walls and ceilings spoke of her three-pack-a-day habit until with vengeance, I painted and wallpapered. Like a crazed general a bit unsure of her victory, but taking the Realtor's "possession" remarks literally, I replaced carpet with tile, tile with carpet. The red front door reverted to black; rosebushes made way for lilies. Day-Glo initials on the basement walls were covered by my son's subdued castle of gray and blue.

Somewhere in our back yard are the graves of her dogs, toy poodles we were told. The makeshift pine crosses, once treated reverently by my children, were lost over time, randomly, as the kids constructed their forts and secret clubhouses. Those have long since been deserted for older pleasures.

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