Wednesday, July 28, 2010
When a House Grieves... an Interview with Author Virginia Lloyd
Virginia Lloyd was just 34-years-old when she lost her husband John to cancer; they had been married only a year. In the tumultuous months that followed, their old Victorian double-fronted home badly affected by rising damp, appeared to grieve alongside her. As she was forced to watch her house dry from the inside out, its walls rendered, painted and transformed, she also watched herself move from a grieving widow to becoming a stronger woman with her own future to paint.
It is this story about the parallels between ourselves and our homes that became the basis of her beautifully written memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. The paperback edition was selected as One of the 50 Books You Can't Put Down as part of the 2009 Books Alive campaign, which encourages Australians to read.
For Virginia, home was central to both her grieving and recovery. ‘Any home is unique if you live there with the person that you love but it becomes such a potent place when you have lost that person you love most in the world.’
As John’s condition deteriorated, home became a very private place. ‘We experienced great joy and happiness alongside great sorrow and pain within those walls. Here was a place we could just be ourselves, be together and have our intimacies. After John died it was the place I most wanted to be but equally the place where I most felt his absence.’
Virginia likens her grief to an open wound; damaged and bruised. ‘You can’t avoid it; you’re always aware of it and you don’t realise how much you need something until it’s gone. The reality is that when you lose a spouse, you grieve their loss for the rest of your life, no matter what happens or who happens. It’s a loss that can’t be repaired.’
But for Virginia, what could be repaired was their home. While largely unaware of the problem of the rising damp when John was so ill, it was evident soon after his death that the house needed extensive attention. For Virginia this became perhaps a sanity-saving project.
‘Focusing on the house and upending every drawer, shelf, cupboard, sorting, de-cluttering, looking through old photo albums and literally immersing myself in every nook and cranny of the house was both a part of grieving and a part of gaining some sense of control in a life that felt completely anarchic.’
‘I had plantation shutters installed quite early on after John’s death. We had talked about having them so I thought it would be a good project for me; I needed to organise quotes and choose the ones I wanted.’
Having to deal with tradesmen and service providers was also therapeutic. ‘It was quite surreal and I remember being intrigued and almost seduced by the way inviting these people into my home was so impersonal. I could have a friendly exchange with a stranger who knew nothing about me. There was something refreshing about those experiences, which was divorced from the reality that was going on. In a way it made me feel I had a life going on outside the walls of my home.’
Virginia, of course, did have to go out into the world everyday: she would catch the bus into the city to work, buy groceries, talk to people and come home again where she would then collapse ‘in a puddle’.
‘It was like being a different person. When I left the house it felt like putting on a suit of armour. Inside that suit of armour I could get through what I had to each day. While it was invisible to others I was very conscious of wearing it.’
Home became the only place where she could be herself. ‘I could watch mind-numbing DVDs or flick through magazines. It was a long time before I could concentrate on reading anything longer than a paragraph and as a great lifelong reader that was shocking to me.’
During this time, Virginia allowed the hedge at the front gate to grow disproportionately high while the vines covering lattice on the front porch grew very thick, hindering light coming through the house. The back garden, where she and John were also married, offered a private sanctuary with more tall trees and seclusion. In her own words, she sequestered herself.
But it was the home improvements that gave her a sense of hope for her own recovery; those plantation shutters did more for Virginia than look good over a window. ‘Even though I might have been in tears on the floor late at night, I would look at those shutters and think, “Well, something has changed here. Something looks better.” Even though I felt on an emotional level that nothing had changed or that it was impossible that anything might change how I felt, I liked the fact the house was improving.’
As the rising damp dried out and the house was rendered and painted the changes to both the house and Virginia became more visible. ‘When the walls were rendered, I finally saw how much the house was the canvas on which I’d painted my grief. That was when the idea of the metaphorical relationship occurred to me.’
The very last stage of Virginia’s home improvements was the garden. She had the hedge trimmed right back and tore down the vines. The light could now shine into the house and anyone walking by could see past the hedge.
‘It was very symbolic, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I just acted. This really reflected my journey of being completely inwardly focussed within the walls of the home to gradually reaching out and connecting with the rest of the world.’
Fortuitously Virginia had won a Green Card to work in the USA in the annual lottery a few years previously. After the renovations were complete, she decided to move to New York for 18 months. ‘My identity was in a state of flux. After John died I didn’t know who I was. I was a jumble of what I had been, what I’d done, what I wanted to do and what I was afraid to do. All those things were exciting and confusing.’
In New York she finally had geographical and emotional distance. ‘The fog cleared and I was able to write the book in a small apartment in Brooklyn.’ Renting out the house to friends of friends meant she still felt a connection to it. ‘I had one foot in and one foot out that front door’.
On returning to Australia, she assumed she would happily move back in and get on with her life but ironically the publication of the book made her realise that to truly move on, she would need to leave the house behind.
‘I was fortunate to have lots of radio and newspaper interviews when the book was first published and I found myself waking up several mornings a week inside this house, preparing myself for the same run of questions about this house, going out and talking about this house, then returning to this same house in the evening.'
‘Soon after I became really sick with the flu and was literally housebound for a couple of weeks. I was so ill and so fed up with myself and one day looked around and thought I’d turn into Miss Havisham if I didn’t do something about it. I didn’t want to become the old lady swanning around behind the hedges.’
It was only then that Virginia felt she had reached sufficient detachment of herself from the house. ‘The house had finally become a house. It wasn’t John; it wasn’t our home. It wasn’t even my home anymore.’
For Virginia, the home she shared with John had very much become a reflection of their love. ‘I was afraid of losing my memories of John and our marriage (which was very short) if I left. Psychologically I had latched onto the house as an emblem of our relationship and it took me a long time to realise our marriage had nothing to do with the house; that they were separate.'
When it came time to sell, Virginia admits that her heart was in her mouth, yet she also knew it felt right.
Today, she likes to think of a new family enjoying all the wonderful things about the home both she and John loved. ‘It’s right for them to be doing that. It’s not right for me to be kicking around there trying to create a new life when the old life was so apparent.’
All photos © Virginia Lloyd