Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 03.13.18
Stanstead, Quebec


All cluttered up and no place to go

STANSTEAD, QUEBEC | When our son came home for his break, he began to chuckle as he looked around the kitchen, as if it were all strange to him. And that was his point: everything was strange.

"You ever look at the things in this house and wonder why they're there?"

He pointed out one of the corner shelves next to the cupboards: a plate, a bell, a souvenir spoon, a wooden top and -- why not? -- an Easter egg candle. They've sat there for years, catching dust.

I've thought the same thing myself, and so I joined in, pointing out the plastic tentacle sitting in a dish above the sink; the slender bottle that I filled circa 1995 with coloured water that now may be capable of spawning primitive life.

I could go on. The magnets on the fridge, the tiny soundless bell that hangs from a red ribbon on the cupboard knob, the giant pine cone, salvaged manila envelopes to be used later (AKA never), rarely referred-to reference books, the unopened Star Wars Mini Body Wash Collector's Set (mango and apple scented) -- and we still haven't left the kitchen.

As in life, our living spaces succumb to inertia. The painted papier-maché goblet on the dining room shelf between the cat mask and the conch shell isn't doing any harm, so why move it? We acquire this clutter and then it settles into place, eventually becoming invisible.

Every now and then, though, a catalyst for change comes along. In our case, we changed some things recently because of insurance, which is like deciding to alter your lifestyle after a prostate exam.

Our insurance inspector noticed a number of irregularities during her tour of the house, and, no, not the fact that there is a very sharp cactus growing out of a ceramic bowl marked "POPCORN."

For one, we need to replace our water heater. I thought it was maybe 10 years old. More like 20. Time flies when you're having baths.

Then there's the oil furnace. It's an old converted coal furnace, a real octopus of ducts and vents. There's no fan. Instead, the heat naturally rises. It naturally rises and keeps rising until it's all the way outside. We need to have it inspected, which I'm reluctant to do because I'm afraid of what they'll find. (See "prostate exam" above.)

I've already taken care of a couple of tasks. One: replace the plastic dryer hose with a metal one. Easy.

Two: cover the exposed Styrofoam in the basement. The Styrofoam encases what we refer to as the cold room, though, given our furnace situation, all rooms are cold rooms. This quasi-insulated room came with the house when we bought it 23 years ago, and it has indeed served as storage over the years for various pickles. More recently, though, it's been storage for gift bags and wrapping paper. The Styrofoam, I gather, is a fire hazard. No mention of the paper kindling inside the room, but the Styrofoam had to be covered.

But I didn't do that. We don't need a cold room. I just don't pickle like I used to. So instead of covering it, I removed the Styrofoam altogether. Much of it had already disintegrated, courtesy of the cats, but the rest came away easily. Underneath, I discovered on the bare wood a shaded circle and around it dozens of holes. A dart board had once hung there. How long ago was that? Did anyone use it, or after a few enthusiastic rounds did it just hang there unused, blending in?

I'm now startled when I go down to the basement, all that bare wood where there used to be white. Even the shiny dryer hose takes me by surprise. How long will it be before I stop noticing these changes? But right now it feels good, like I made the house a little less cluttered, like for once I haven't lowered the property value.

My mother keeps a porcelain frog on her kitchen table, on a doily and always pointed one way. Growing up, I would make fun of this frog and sometimes turn it the other way, just because, and Mom would always turn it back.

As I write this, I'm staring at a ceramic green bowl on our kitchen table. It's filled with garlic bulbs and a pack of cherry tomatoes. Sometimes it holds lemons and avocados, sometimes my lens-cleaner cloth. The other day, it was empty. So I put it in the cupboard. My wife moved it back.

Now I understand the frog; sometimes the clutter you don't notice is actually supposed to be there.