“Learning the Liability of Having”

By Beth Kephart, WTP Guest Writer

A portrait of nonfiction writer Beth KephartEverything here now is clean. My pantry picked pure of rainy-day supplies, my crisper chilling nothing but air, my dresser sluiced of its delicate slips, my closet shorn of diaphanous dresses I’d once loved to wear…

My life. My words. My sentences. My stories.


The kind of clean I learned in the year I spent at my father’s side, dismantling the family home. My mother had been gone nine Decembers. She’d left us to pale peach roses and white calla lilies, a warm wind on a winter day, deer in the fringe of the woods where we’d buried her beneath the songs of carillons. She’d left us gifts she’d bought but never gave, dresses she’d ordered but never wore, the yellowed newsprint she’d tucked into cookbooks, pantries, behind the loveseat. The fragility of a wedding-dress sleeve.

My father and I cracked the history of the house. We cracked. We cracked. But always there was more. Perpetuating things. A plate, a cup, a spoon, a porcelain bunny. Dumbo in a circus soar, donning his blue hat and a feather in his trunk, his big ears flapping up from the pop-up album cover. Dr. Doolittle talking to a snail in the blue-black grooves of a record. Sancho confessing to Aldonza.

Day after day I stepped across the threshold and up and down the steps and out into the air. Day after day I disassembled, bubble-wrapped, dumpstered. I stood among the discarded and felt a wild empathy for every crushed and wayward artifact, every bypassed legacy, every vanquished interlude of song. The rusty planer. The drill and its bits. The electrical outlets and cords. The shark-teeth saws.

The letters left forgotten.

The books no one had read.

We peeled the house down to floors and walls, until everything was bones and light. Until the house was a house built of graph paper dreams and blue notes, a hill’s hole, a concrete pour, a system of frames, finishes, glass, a laundry chute that bled one floor into another. I was in the walk-in attic of split planks working through a final shelf of final things—my high-school microscope, my ladybug ball, the box of sand dollars I had bleached after a summer in the south, my Mary Poppins doll—when I found the last box and lifted the lid and scrunched the tissue back. Got myself into better light. Slid my glasses from their hair-band position to my nose.

I heard myself gasp.

I was holding my parents’ wedding in my hands.

“Look at you,” I said to my father, when he came to stand beside me beneath the bulb of light. “Look at her.”

She was Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, only more stately, her dress crinoline and sweeping. My father stunned, in a white jacket, black pants, the auburn lights in his hair reading as auburn despite the faded black and white. I turned the pages of the album slowly, met my mother on her bridal day, watched her eyes fill, her flowers fall in a diagonal swath.

“Oh my,” my father said. “Oh, my. What will we do with this?”

Yes. What?

You see how it was, learning clean. Learning the liability of having, the politics of possession, the sound of time crashing time, the ache of what is loved and what will be lost. Days before, I had been pulling and ripping and pushing and tossing when I found my childhood self in green Oxford files and split my finger on the evidence. My adverbs. My puffy similes. My extravagant, long-winded musings about—nothing, really. The bloody mess of me.

What had I tried to say? Why couldn’t I say it? What do we do with the too-many words we have left behind, the pretty rhythms that obscured the truth, the excessive enthusiasm for the complex sentence, the image that falls in a diagonal swath?

Before noon on a Saturday in June, I returned to my father’s house for the last time. The grass was growing between the driveway stones. The spindles of new trees were rising in the garden. I fumbled with the key.

It was wood and white and air inside. It was everything gone. I stood in the fallen sun of the living room, where the Christmas tree once raised its needle arms and the Regina played its music-box songs. I counted the steps going up and the steps going down and circled through the dining room into the room where my mother died. I remembered the James Taylor I sang to her, the recorder hymns my brother played, the hospice aide on the couch, the slow morphine, the hour I left when I knew my mother wanted the time, the space, to drift alone, to be finally free.

When I looked up, I found a reflected me in the glass pane of the connecting door. I lifted my camera and snapped.

I returned home, then, to my own house, and continued to clean. Emptied everything of what I would not need. Whatever engine had been juiced on in the year of extreme cleaning had no OFF, no means by which to cut its motor. Somewhere in the distance my husband watched. Somewhere in the distance, I heard: “Can’t you stop? Can’t you stop obsessing? Can you not clean?”

No. I scrubbed and scoured and clipped and demanded sheer enough, light enough, naked enough. When at last my own house had been rid and spared and picked, I fell upon the stories I write, which, it seemed, had gorged upon themselves in my absence, bred extra lines in the dark, decorated themselves in secret, multiplied as cells might in a warm petri.

Make them, I thought, virtuous. Make them clean.

Clean as an Alice McDermott image: But it was at this hour, when the sun was humming gold at the horizon, or a pale peach, or even just, as now, a gray pearl, that she felt the breath of God warm on her neck.

Clean as a Bernard MacLaverty sentence: If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.

Clean as Inara Verzemnieks’s seeing: Sometimes a house stands still long enough to admit that it is abandoned, portions of the roof skinned away to reveal blackberries growing on the inside, the surrounding fields neck-high and riotous.

Clean as the lines of a Chloe Honum poem: The fluorescent light/goes off and the shadows/fall apart like a cardboard fort.

Clean. Cleaner. Less and then more less. More condensed, more compressed, more precise, until my own books become chapters and my chapters become pages and my pages become just this one small essay titled “Clean.”

Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of twenty-two books. A partner at Juncture Workshops, she has recently published the illustrated memoir workbook, Tell the Truth. Make It Matter.

Read Beth Kephart’s work in WTP Vol. IV #10.

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