The House on the Hill

Last week I was getting books together for a friend who is ailing. I was in my office going through the bookcases, looking for things that might tempt her. Of course, I was distracted and started looking through the books; I found an old newspaper clipping of a book review, a five dollar bill, a note in someone’s hand I didn’t recognize, a bookmark from the Getty Museum – it’s curious what we leave behind. I came upon a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and I stopped to thumb through it. I haven’t read it in ages, saw the movie (and the BBC miniseries) long ago, but I was struck by the first lines, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It goes on to describe the narrator’s – the second Mrs. de Winter’s – dream of returning to her former home – a great house on the Cornish coast.

The dream sequence continues for several pages and I was riveted. It’s so well written and haunting and moody, but there was something more. I realized that I too have had a similar dream – of my old home where I grew up with my family. I would have the dream often, for years. As in Rebecca, I am on foot and it is twilight or dusk and the drive winds and winds until our home comes into view. In my dream sometimes the house is a combination of my family’s old home and my great grandmother’s wonderful stone house. Sometimes, I can walk in and pass through the rooms, other times all I can do is look through the windows. I am so thrilled to see it again, to recognize familiar things. Like the narrator, “I stood, my heart thumping in my breast, the strange prick of tears behind my eyes.” When I awaken, or the dream ends, I have an achy feeling in my heart, both elated and crestfallen.

I never mentioned the dream to anyone even though it occurred frequently. That is, until I was deeply involved in a romance of my own. I must have had the dream and it was weighing on me. The man, who was older than I and fairly intuitive about women, saw my distraction and prompted me to tell him. So I did. He listened carefully and intently. When I was done, he said, “You want to go back to the house on the hill.” He was right. The house, both of them in fact, were gone, yet the desire to return to the house on the hill remained. I do believe he understood, even though we were at that moment on another continent in another hemisphere, but I knew vaguely that there was a house on the hill for him as well. Entirely different, and not a house per se, but  a place and time no less powerful. If I had continued with this man I would have been a second Mrs. de Winter of a sort, and was keenly aware of living up to a memory of another woman who had died. The dream, the memory of my romance, the novel, images of my home and my great-grandmother’s were all shuffling through my mind. Then, I remembered that I had gone to a lecture at Princeton on The Odyssey and the speaker discussed the idea of the eternal returning – not just of Odysseus but of all life travelers. The need, the yearning, to come home. An ancient theme no doubt, it’s in Genesis as well, I think.

As I write this, I think of all us through those years: playing, running, throwing our bikes in the grass, catching fireflies — and the day ending as the lights would come on in the house. I can see my father in his study reading, my mother talking to one of our dogs or the cat while she readied dinner, one of my sisters at the piano, a thriving hive of activity and halcyon memory. Like Manderley ours is no longer, our Manderley is no more. Even so, as the narrator in Rebecca writes, “Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Clare Irwin