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A Light—and Some Plants—in the Attic

by | Nov 18, 2013

When I answered the doorbell last week, two boys stood on the back steps with rakes in hand. After learning that we do our own raking, the tallest one said, “I just have one question. Does this house have three stories?”  When we described our attic, he said elatedly, “I knew it!!”


I used to visit this house as a little girl. The attic was then a mysterious, exciting, unfinished place. There were old iron beds up there as well as bookshelves, and a young reader might choose a book and fling herself across the mattress to get lost in print. She would need to watch out for wasp nests or baking temperatures under the naked tin roof. But the enchantment of a second stairway left room for endless possibilities.

At that time, I never imagined that the house built for the grandmother I never knew would be the home where I would raise my children. Theirold attic became my old attic. It was up to us to finish off the walls, ceilings and floorboards. We added a warm carpet, tucked cubby holes under the eaves, and even added an extra window or two. For our children, the attic was a place of endless sleepovers. It was the only place in the house you could watch television, so planning to see a movie was an expedition requiring a climb up two flights of stairs and a well-packed snack tray.

Things really came full circle the day I found my grandson Everett crouched on the carpet by the shelf of children’s books, transfixed by a Calvin & Hobbes comic book.


As November nights chill down, however, my attic has become home to different kinds of children, the kind with their roots in the ground.  In some ways, it feels like the spirits of long-gone relatives are coming up the stairs with them and finding a sunny cool spot for the winter.


There’s the stiff yet graceful and exotic tree fern that Robby’s mother kept in her sunny great room on the York River. I’ll never duplicate that ecosystem here, but at least I’m keeping it alive.

There’s the plant my mom always used to have in a sunny north window. I never knew its name, but I heard many times how treasured it was as the last plant gift she had received from her sister Rowena. Rowena died 20 years ago, but the plant is still going strong. It has thick creeping leaves and gives off a scent of maple when conditions are right. That scent alone, withits nostalgia, brings me right back into my mother’s home.

There’s the Christmas cactus ready to burst into bloom with memories of our dad; I got the start from my sister Peggy, not only because it’s beautiful but because it was a gift our Daddy chose for her years ago.

In the fall of 2009, Hurricane Ida scoured our home with winds and rain, and left her calling card: a plant I definitely did not want in our attic.  It was a double-trunked white oak that measured about fourteen feet in circumference at its base.


Rain poured in on the books and papers in my writing studio. Plaster and boards came down on our personal African art collection. The place was a wreck.


Today, after all the work of rebuilding and re-arranging, I’m happy once again for the light in our attic. There is light coming through the new casement windows toward the east, tending my winter plant collection. There is the tiny light that shines out through the snowstorm, saying “All is well once more.” The old attic is ready for its next hundred years.