Object Lesson

Illustration by Carly Larsson

When I was growing up in 1970s Ashland, my father, a schoolteacher turned builder, began moving our family of four every two years. As we moved, we collected objects, including art from local artisans, to suit each new house’s character. Some of my favorite pieces were for the yard: functional and decorative objects made of wood, or clay, or stone – earthy materials that reflect origins.

The moves were all hard on me, as I worked to fit in with new people and navigate the inherent changes involved. Each area of town had its own personality. I didn’t know anyone else in Ashland who moved around, not just as often as we did but at all. I craved the kind of one-home stability I saw in my friends’ home lives.

In a small town, there is big charm in knowing where to find people, knowing that others know where to find you, and then going and doing exactly that: finding each other in real life, not by phone, email or Facebook. Social media while I was growing up was when you handed your neighbor their newspaper because you were on their front porch ringing their doorbell.

Once I graduated from high school, I began moving again. And moving. And moving. I didn’t want to and didn’t intend to, but it happens so easily in young adulthood. Transience can happen throughout our lives, I’m finding. Choices often mean change, and human progress is increasingly blessed and cursed by both.

Soon after I left home, our family household split and moved in separate directions. My parents divorced. I moved into my first apartment, my sister moved to her own place and all the household items of my childhood dispersed. I took the things that belonged to me, but I also took some that simply belonged to the houses along the way, including a piece of white-clay wall art that came to be known as “The Lady’s Head.” It is a hanging sculpture meant for a covered outdoor space, a bust of a beautiful woman, perhaps a Greek goddess or siren, sculpted into dreamy tangibility. The opening at the top makes room for a vining plant to cascade into the woman’s loops of hair.

She came with me to my own first front door to greet my guests. In the lower level of a house turned duplex, she was the reassuring beauty at the bottom of a concrete staircase entrance. I enjoyed the feminine loveliness of her and, over the years, never chose to mar the purity of the white clay with dirt and vines. She looks now just as she did when I hung her by that first front door.

Then I moved and moved. I moved to other states, and when I returned to Oregon, I moved to other towns. Each time I moved, though, I’d hang the bust near my entrance. It never occurred to me to put her anywhere else.

One day, after I’d returned to Ashland, a friend stopped by to see me in my new place. She told me she couldn’t remember the apartment number I’d given her, but that she didn’t end up having to wander around because she’d spied the head by my front door and knew that was my home.  

Something clicked when my friend said that to me, and it became an immediate and lasting comfort, one I cling to still. I’d known that stability can make a house a home and a rooted place, and I’d wanted that. In a stable home we can be found, sought out, visited by the people we want finding us, and I’d wanted that, too. I had long thought, though, that stability meant sameness: It meant not moving around.

I have come to realize that true stability in a home is a welcoming availability, a consistency, and for me, “The Lady’s Head” has become its cherished symbol.

Our grown daughter visited us on college break recently and brought her two best girlfriends to stay with us. It’s not the house she grew up in but a home we moved to while she was away at college. When the three young women approached the front door of this house, one friend asked:

“What’s the head by the front door for?”

My daughter, glancing, said, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about that before, but it’s always been there.”

Yes, Love, I thought: It’s always been there. It’s always been by the front door of our family home.