5.05.2010

WRITING ON THE WALL


One of the more enchanting things about visiting a writer’s house is getting a glimpse of his personal habits. At Faulkner’s handsome, Greek Revival house, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, I was astonished to learn that he wrote on the walls.
In his study he outlined the plot for A Fable--a novel about Holy Week during World War I, using graphite pencil for the points he wanted to cover, and red grease pencil for the days of the week. (He won a Pulitzer Prize for that work in 1954.) The outline is a disconcerting sight, partly because the house is rather formal and staid; such eccentricity isn’t seen anywhere else. But this was his private office; he had it double locked, and when he went out, he went so far as to keep the doorknob in his pocket.

In the pantry, the old black rotary phone sits on a shelf wedged into a corner, and the walls are covered with the phone numbers of everyone from friends to the YMCA to doctors. Apparently everyone in the family scribbled numbers on the pantry wall--you can see different handwriting styles. Numbers were erased and kept up to date over the years. The previous owner of my house wrote phone numbers on the wall, too; I never painted over it--small town, most of the numbers were still useful! And in his memory I now do the same thing, though I have to confess, I held my breath and tried to keep my hand very steady the first time I defaced the fresh white paint so meticulously applied after the house was renovated. Still, it always gives me a smile to see my sons’ hand recording the number for the local pizza joint and movie house. One of the things I miss most about not having a Forever House is the doorjamb record of the boys’ heights over the years--and if I ever move into an old house, I’ll have a hard time erasing someone else’s family history, carefully inscribed inch by beloved inch.

11 comments:

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

I'm glad (if not exactly surprised) to read that you've been taken to Oxford's Monticello and enjoyed the visit.

As for writing on the walls?....

It's not so charming or mystique-laden when (as happened to me) you move in with a woman who's inherited her grandmother's old house (I stayed there for seven years in my thirties)...where everyone writes on the walls ( "everyone" would include her 80-something parents, who lived one house down the street.

The grandparents had died in their late 90s' and seemed to have spent most of the previous two decades writing telephone numbers on the wall...when they weren't sprawling on the couch and writing prescription and local pharmacy numbers on the wall. It's not the only Southern-household-I've-encountered where this has become a habit.

It might have been charming, but?...when I first moved in, I spent five days scrubbing, re-plastering, and painting the walls of that front parlor.

The night I finished and thought "Oh....isn't it a handsome, old room?"?,,,,the phone rang (in response to an earlier call), and I watched as my house-mate lolled on the couch and simply starting scribbling (with a sharpie, thank you)the various sorts and prices of chicken-stuff offered by the local chinese take-out. Not exactly notes for a Pulitzer-winning novel.

I just gave up, eventually, and moved out.

I've gathered (by my various, devious means) that you're not a Southerner. I can assure you that every woman in my family that I've ever known (and I grew up with tons, literally, of great aunts and great-grandmothers) would equally assure you that writing on the walls is just plain, old "SHIFTLESS".

and, yes, I'm aware that my old female relatives are exactly the sort who called Faulkner the "Count No-Count" and relegated him to the dustbin of local society.

amusedly yours,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

Anonymous said...

We used to rent a lovely tumble down cottage on Nantucket. The owners had recorded on the doorjamb the marks of their six children's growth.

Since then Nantucket has been so Palm Beached that I fear that that quintessential beach house has long ago been bulldozed and replaced by some megamillion mansion. (The site was gorgeous.. with over 110 ft. of private beach.) I sometimes want to go back to Nantucket, but really don't want to see what has happened to the world I remember.

Ashling said...

I love the idea of names and phone numbers indelibly recorded on the walls, serving as a 'peek through the keyhole' as a friend described it, into the daily lives of decades of residents....

Town and Country Mom said...

We have some dear friends who always asked party or dinner guests to sign the inside of their pantry door. The door beccame quite a treasure, and when they sold their house, they installed a new door for the new owners and hung the "old" door in their new kitchen--an idea I love!

TwoMaisons said...

I once became the owner of my brother's home and the hall wall chronicled the growth of my nephew. The memory of repainting that wall still gives me chills but I carefully crafted a template to be used in a future art project. I know at the right time it will be appreciated but I also came to realize that I was living the memory and they were living the moment.

Elle said...

Ooohhh I love this idea, and I think it's becoming more popular with the popularity of chalkboard paint... one of my favorite things about my grandparents home is the doorway where every member of the family and many family friends have their heights marked throughout the years... just seeing those scribbles on the way feels like a homecoming every time I walk through the door!

Helen Ellis said...

I love my old black rotary phone so much that I made a video blog about all its joys at www.diaryofaluddite.com (search: rotary).

Marija said...

I'm not sure what it is that I like about the phone numbers on the wall. But something tells me it's simply not the same if I set out to do it; it's the organic nature of it that I think I'm attracted to...

Lilly C said...

A high school friend who hosted most of our junior and senior year parties had a wonderful finished basement with bar (legal age for drinking was 18 at the time), pingpong table, poker table and a "back room" for couples. All of this was going on with his Mom upstairs. In the back room he started a tradition of having everyone sign the wall, which was covered with posters. It was a great honor to be asked to sign, and people spent considerable time determining location of their signature. It was a great study in who was dating whom at any given time. For others - by signing next to a name, it brought them closer to a secret love.

scribbler-unfocused said...

I remember Rowan Oak from the time I lived in Oxford, MS. I must have remembered incorrectly about the writing -- I thought it was for "As I Lay Dying" -- but I lived there along time ago.

scribbler-unfocused said...

I remember Rowan Oak from the time I lived in Oxford, MS. I must have remembered incorrectly about the writing -- I thought it was for "As I Lay Dying" -- but I lived there along time ago.