The Old House
This weather reminds me of the “old house.” The “old house” was where we lived while, after work and on weekends, Dad was building the “new house” in the backyard. Then, and mostly since, that was the time in my life when I couldn’t wait to get out of that old house.
A brown, Siegler brand oil stove in the middle of the living room was our only source of heat, in the old house, and when it got cold like it’s been here the last couple weeks, we kids toasted our blankets on it before bed, and then wrapped them around us for the hop up the one-lane stairs to what was really an attic, where my sister, Linda, slept on one end and where my brother, Stan, and I slept on the other. I’d fall asleep before the blanket was cold.
After falling asleep to a howling wind one night, Stan and I woke up to discover a little snow drift had found a home across the foot of the bed we shared, snow that had blown in through the cracks around the window, snow seeking shelter from the storm with us. We shook it off and got ready for school.
I know I was sick and missed a lot of school in second grade, but what I remember about that now is pretending to be asleep on the couch to sneak a peak at Mom kissing Dad goodbye on his way out the front door with his lunch bucket, wearing a grey baseball cap pinned with his Fisher-Body work badge.
What I remember of being home while the other kids were in school is looking at a mirror facing upward in front of me pretending that I was walking on the ceiling.
What I remember is kneeling over the back of the couch silently staring out the window across the barren winter yard at the barn, for maybe an hour, or longer, who can tell, without moving.
We didn’t have a kindergarten where I went to school so when I got to first grade already reading it gave me an advantage that served my whole life, a gift that kept giving. Linda, who would go on to teach third grade for 42 years, taught me to read when she was 11. I was four. I was a circus act; I could recite the alphabet backwards and sound out words so that things made sense that I didn’t really understand. I was showing off when I hit first grade, beyond already the third book of Dick and Jane and counting, into forever. “Looky there,” I thought. “Infinity.”
My relatives and people at church told me I was smart and I believed them. Probably, I wouldn’t have thought I was smart in a city, say, around formally educated people. But there, around Point Isabel, where only the teachers had attended college, I did. I remember that the first thing I ever knew about college, was that I was going to go.
I remember Mom plastering our schoolwork all over the floral pattern wallpaper in our little dining room. None of it ever came down.
I remember, there was stuff to read everywhere you looked in that old house: the daily Marion Chronicle-Tribune and the weekly Swayzee Press, Life Magazine, Look Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and Readers’ Digest. Some kids we knew weren’t allowed to read them, but comic books were always all over the floor around and underneath our bed: Superman, Batman, and Sgt. Rock, good guys beating bad guys. And Archie: good guys being nice.
My first i.d. was a library card. Mom got us encyclopedia at the grocery store We had children’s books at every level, picture books and short story collections, books about Abe Lincoln (who lived in a house with only three sides, you know) and Davey Crockett and astronauts and basketball and baseball players. Dad liked Mark Twain, American history, the Civil War and westerns.
Saturday nights he made popcorn and I watched Have Gun Will Travel and Gunsmoke with everybody until I fell asleep and he carried me upstairs to bed.
I know that oil stove couldn’t heat the whole house, but I don’t actually remember being cold; I remember getting warm.
For the new house, Dad made a plan, leveled the land, dug a trench and poured a foundation; he framed it, put down a floor, and put up the walls. He installed the windows and doors, plastered and painted and trimmed and insulated and had problems, I’m sure, that it was not like him to talk about.
I remember telling Dad on the way back from Wicks in Elwood with a load of lumber for the new house it took him six years to build in the back yard that I could tell him the make, model, and year of every car on the highway. He nodded and said, “That’s something.”
We had moved out to Green Township from Marion in the fall of 1957. We began to move into the new house in the fall of 1963.
We changed houses gradually, eating in the old one and sleeping in the new one for a while.
I don’t remember where we watched President Kennedy’s funeral on TV, but the Beatles singing “All My Loving” on The Ed Sullivan Show was definitely in the new house.
I read a book last month that made me think about all of this.
In River of Consciousness, author Oliver Sachs says that on a plant, if a branch is cut off, a particular path of potential evolution is lost forever. ‘And if it isn’t cut off?’ I thought.
There must be a million branches in a lifetime, twigs in a river that alter its course forever. At the start of a cold new year, I’m thinking about only two branches: the warmth of that old house and how, when I was four years old, my sister taught me to read.