By Susan Knox
/ Nonfiction /
I was a forlorn five-year-old in 1946 when we left the bungalow where I’d lived all my life. I loved that little house and how the light was different in each room. The pink flamingos on the shower curtain made me giggle. The small kitchen table with benches built into the wall was snug and cozy. Doting neighbors enjoyed my company. The brook at the edge of the yard tinkled like a music box. The steep wooded hill behind the house was a fairy-tale forest.
We left the new house my parents had built and moved a mile away to an eighty-seven-acre farm and an eighty-year-old Ohio farmhouse. Dilapidated and dingy, the house needed extensive renovation. The kitchen had worn linoleum, a rusty refrigerator, and a woodburning stove with an ugly aluminum pipe to carry the smoke outside. There were vermin. One of my earliest memories of the farmhouse is cowering in the kitchen doorway while my parents, brandishing brooms, chased a big brown rat running round and round the kitchen table.
The main rooms were wallpapered and papered and papered. My parents rented a steamer to loosen eighty years of decoration and used putty knives to scrape away the detritus. The floors needed covering. Upstairs, there was one bathroom for the six of us. Some of the five bedrooms had closets; others had black wire hooks behind the door. None had heat.
I decided to run away. I packed a small valise with pajamas, buttoned up my winter coat, and announced, “I’m leaving. But first I need to warm up.” I stood on the hot air register in the dining room. I remember the amusement on Daddy’s face, almost admiring my audacity, but he didn’t forbid me to leave. Instead, he left me alone as I continued to stand on the register. His absence allowed me to make a dignified retreat to my bedroom.
I recently opened a box of old snapshots my mother had collected and found a professional photo of the house taken on a sunny day long before we moved in—probably in the late 1800s. The photographer had stood about fifty yards from the house. Five red maple trees marched up the long front lawn in a single row adjacent to the driveway. A solitary maple towered over the back porch. Mature, well-trimmed boxwood bushes bordered the front porch. The exterior was painted white with dark grey trim. White fish-scale siding decorated the top of the second floor to the roof. A long, slender window at the gable marked the attic. It was a grand-looking house. A bentwood swing hung from an A-frame stand on the lawn conjured the image of a languorous woman in a white-linen dress relaxing with a book.
The attic window drew my attention. I spotted something between the glass and the curtain. Daddy often told the story of two spinster schoolteachers who’d lived in the attic. Could this be one of them? As a child, I was captivated by the story. I couldn’t imagine how they managed. The attic was freezing in winter and blazing during Ohio summers, and the windows didn’t open. Using a magnifying glass, I studied the attic window. Yes, it was a woman there. Maybe she wanted to observe the photographer not realizing that she would be in the picture. Maybe she was simply gazing at the red maple trees and low hills in the distance. Maybe she was wishing she were somewhere else.
The handsome photograph of the farmhouse taken years ago inspired me to reconsider my negative opinion of my childhood home. Come with me on a tour and I’ll tell you some stories of farmhouse.
I didn’t venture into the attic alone until I was nine. Before then, I’d walk up the stairs to the second-floor landing and the door that led to the attic. I’d crack the door open, look at those steep wooden stairs without a handrail, and realize my legs weren’t yet long enough to make the climb.
One summer day, I finally made it up the stairs. I had no idea the attic was so big. It encompassed the footprint of the house. There were tall windows at each end of the space, but they were permanently closed. The air was still and smelled like our Ford coupe after it sat in the sun on a hot day. The roof peaked high above the center of the room and sloped downward until it met the joists at the top of the second floor—like an A-frame house. The portion of the room where the roof was high enough to accommodate an upright adult was floored with wide wooden planks. There were boxes, cardboard and wooden, trunks with brass fittings, and canvas garment bags placed near the edge of the perimeter. The area without much headroom had no flooring but there were some boxes balanced on the wood beams. Warned not to enter this area, I was told if I slipped off a beam, my foot would break through the second-floor ceiling below.
As I grew older and bolder, I continued my attic exploration. I often thought about the two schoolteachers and wondered what they were like. Living in an attic reminded me of a Dickens novel. Maybe their spirits lingered here. I never sensed their essences, but I did find two wooden crates containing their books. Black buckram-bound books with small gold letters on the spine. I took a few to my bedroom and tried to read them, but I was frustrated. The pages were tissue thin—so thin that I could see the faint print on the succeeding page. Sometimes a book was incorrectly bound. A page or section was missing or misplaced. I don’t remember the title of any of the books I tried to read. I do remember loving the sense of the past, the circumstances of these women who bought expensive books but lived in an unheated attic.
It took me a while to muster the pluck to step on the raw beams with no flooring, but once I did, I uncovered a collection of modern books. I ran down to the kitchen where Mommy was rolling out piecrust. “Mommy! I found a box of books in the attic. Where did they come from?” “Those are mine. Before I married I belonged to Book of the Month Club. You can try to read them if you want.” “Of course I want to!” I ran back to the attic and dragged the box onto the main floor. I sat down, cross-legged and pulled out the books one by one. These were books with bright glossy dustcovers. The Good Earth, Rebecca, The House in Paris. My mother’s books. I’d never seen her read a book. Why did she hide the box under the low ceiling, away from the other storage containers? I suddenly realized that as a busy farmwife and mother four, she had no time to read. She must have loved reading when she was younger. I made a vow that day. I vowed I would always read, no matter what. I did and I do.
The second floor included four bedrooms, a storage room, and a bathroom. The storage room was converted to a bedroom when my father’s youngest brother, Jack, needed a place to sleep. Jack was six when their mother died. When Grandpa remarried ten years later, Jack was the only child still at home. He finished his last year of high school and went off to college. When he came home for the summer, his stepmother, Nettie, stopped him from going upstairs. “Your bedroom is sealed,” she told him. “I’m fumigating it. There’s nowhere here for you to sleep. You’ll have to find someplace for the summer.” I don’t know why Grandpa didn’t intervene, but Jack went to my parents with his predicament, and they took him in. In the fall, he returned to Ohio State University. Jack lived for ninety years and often fondly remarked on my parents’ support that summer.
A narrow hallway, its floor covered by a thin runner, stretched the length of the second floor and ended at a window. At one time or another I slept in three of the bedrooms.
My parents’ bedroom held alluring objects like my mother’s pink lace wedding dress and her jewelry box. Old letters and photos were stowed in the closet. I was never forbidden to enter their bedroom except one December after I discovered a cache of toys in Mommy’s cedar chest. I rushed to tell her the news. She was upset. “Santa stores some of your Christmas presents here because he has so many to carry. You are not to go near that cedar chest until after Christmas. And do not say one word to your sister and brothers.”
I believed, and I obeyed.
My favorite bedroom faced east. In memory, it’s the trees—red maples, five of them, eclipsing the grey slate roofline. Trees to muse by. From my bed, I watched their dark-green leaves shimmer in summer breezes as I dreamed about my future.
It was in this room that I shared my deepest secrets with my best friend. It was in this room that I first experienced sexual stirrings. It was in this room that I received a vision of becoming a writer.
The stairs to the second floor ran the length of the dining room with oak balusters spaced vertically between the stair steps and the ceiling. My younger sister, Nancy, and I liked to sit there and peer through the openings when my parents had parties. One night, Nancy fell asleep and tumbled down the stairs. She broke her collarbone. I heard Uncle Clay say to my mother, “Maybe Susan pushed her.” I was horrified, but my mother knew better and disabused him.
The stair landing was where Mommy took me when I asked if there was a real Santa. She whispered the truth and she swore me to secrecy.
Every room except the kitchen had wallpaper that my mother hung by herself. She set up two sawhorses with boards between them, cut a length of paper just the right size and with a big brush, smeared paste on the plain side. Then she somehow pleated the paper on the pasted side so she had a tidy bundle when she climbed the ladder. She smoothed the edge of the paper at the top of the wall and gently unfolded the strip so that it hung to the floor. Using a wide dry brush, she quickly smoothed the paper as she descended the ladder. It was always perfect.
The light-filled dining room was ideal for my mother’s pink and purple African violets. The table seated ten and could be folded into a neat side table. This room was special because it had pocket doors that closed off the living room. I envisioned them as a stage curtain. I announced to my three younger siblings that we would put on a play and perform for company. I don’t recall a lot of enthusiasm on their part, but I was having a great time running this creative effort. This was my first venture into writing. I wrote the script based on Rumpelstiltskin, my favorite fairy tale, cast the parts, held rehearsals, and designed costumes from bags of clothes Aunt Helen sent us when her children were done with them. I particularly admired a bronze taffeta dress with a full skirt that touched the floor—perfect for a princess. The adults—aunts, uncles, parents—sat in the living room, a rapt audience. They always clapped and lauded us, and I believed we had been wonderful.
The living room was large with ten-inch oak baseboards. Sheer white curtains covered the windows. A heavy oak door with an oval beveled-glass window opened to the front porch with a swing for two suspended by metal chains. The living room held a holly-green sofa, my father’s vibrating recliner to ease his arthritis, my great-grandmother’s black-walnut platform rocker, an oak table for a hand-painted glass globe lamp, and a Philco console radio, where we gathered around to listen to The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his dog King. We named our collie King in his honor. A few years later, Uncle Sherman brought us his old Raytheon television and climbed an extension ladder to the roof where he attached the antenna to the chimney. Our excitement was quickly dashed when we realized the three channels available to us were broadcasting the weeklong 1952 Republican National Convention, gavel to gavel.
Adjacent to the living room was another room of the same dimensions. I thought of it as an orphan room. We didn’t have enough furniture to furnish it so Mom hung a curtain across the opening. This room was the perfect place for my piano.
The upright piano was old and ugly. The black finish had bubbled over time and instead of a smooth glossy case, the piano was pocked, like the skin on a plucked chicken. Six keys were missing ivories. Low G was mute. But I didn’t mind. I knew my parents didn’t have money to spare, but they bought me a piano because they knew I loved music. Every Monday after supper, I tied two quarters in a handkerchief and hurried down the dirt road that passed our farm to Gretchen Elliott’s house for my piano lesson.
I practiced every day, and my piano became another dream space. As I made music, I considered my world as a grownup and imagined possible careers. Sometimes, I thought of life after college. I visualized my own apartment in a city, my sports car parked in the basement garage, my closet full of lovely clothes, a baby-grand piano, and the walls lined with my books. Very much the way my home is today.
Everyone entered the farmhouse via the back door to the kitchen—the hub of activity. A round oak pedestal table covered in a red-and-white-checked oilcloth stood in the center of the room. Around the perimeter were oak cabinetry, a GE stove, a white Coldspot chest freezer, a Kelvinator refrigerator, and hanging on the wall, a ten-party-line wooden telephone with a black Bakelite mouthpiece and receiver. Our ring was two longs and three shorts. A sturdy wooden armchair resided in the corner where my grandfather sat every Sunday morning talking to my mother as she prepared dinner. Mom always gave him a shot of Seagram’s Seven whiskey. She always offered a refill. He always refused.
Mom periodically painted the kitchen. She liked change. Dad teased her, “Marie, you like change so much, I’m surprised you haven’t changed me for a new husband.” One time, she painted the kitchen walls sunflower yellow with a scarlet ceiling. It was not successful, but I admired her experiment—she was willing to take a chance.
We ate most of our meals in the kitchen and my father’s brothers and their wives often gathered round the table with coffee or a beer to chat. I loved listening to them. They gossiped a bit, but what I enjoyed most was hearing their future plans. Junior was the most vociferous, boasting he’d be a millionaire by the time he was forty. He turned out to be the poorest of the nine children and died first, crippled by arthritis and alcoholism.
My parents often sat at this table at night doing taxes or balancing the bank account or discussing how they could increase their income. It was at this table that I told my mother I was pregnant and planned to go to a home for unwed mothers. It was at this table that my parents informed me I would marry the father. It was at this table my siblings, our mother, and I gathered the evening my father died.
The stairs to the basement seemed perilous. There were no risers attached to the treads. A flimsy handrail was mounted to the right side of the stairs; the left side was open. Every time I went down these stairs I imagined how easy it would be to slip to the side and tumble to the concrete floor below.
The basement was reminiscent of a dungeon with a few small rectangular windows at the ceiling that admitted some light. Everything was dark grey or black—the coal room, the furnace my father stoked with shovels of coal that produced black cinders we later spread on the driveway to provide traction, the smooth, lead-grey concrete floors, the rough-hewn stones that lined the walls.
The basement was big but not a place you’d situate a rec room or install a Ping-Pong table. This was a basement for work—laundry and ironing, egg processing, storage of Ball canning jars filled with homemade ketchup, tomatoes, jams and jellies, cherries, peaches, pears, peppers, green beans, and corn. Along the far wall burlap bags held russet potatoes and yellow onions. A large ceramic container for sauerkraut and another for lard sat on the floor and balanced on sawhorses were three oak casks of my grandfather’s grape juice fermenting into wine. Grandpa periodically sampled the contents and when needed, added raisins to the liquid for sweetness.
Home brewing was a family tradition. Daddy often told the story of his mother’s efforts. During Prohibition, when forewarned by a neighbor on an adjoining farm that revenuers were in the area, she took an ax to her peach brandy vats. I never met my grandmother, Lizzie, but I delighted in her quick thinking.
Mom handled the eggs. She gathered them, washed them, weighed them on a tiny scale made just for this purpose, and boxed them in cardboard egg cartons according to size—small, medium, large, and extra-large. She sold the eggs to Fry’s Grocery Store for her pin money.
Monday was laundry day. Mom used a Maytag washer with a wringer and two tin rinsing tubs. Weather permitting, she hung everything outside on long clotheslines with wooden poles supporting the line to keep the laundry off the ground. In winter, the weekly wash was hung in the attic from white rope clotheslines strung the length of the room. She ironed the bed sheets and my father’s work clothes on a Kenmore mangle press.
Those basement stairs. They felt shaky. Over time, the stairs became even more rickety. My mother brought this to my father’s attention, but he pooh-poohed her saying, “Marie, those stairs are fine. Don’t worry about them.” I thought it only fitting that when the stairs did collapse, my father was the one on them. Mom heard him hollering for help. When she found him, he’d managed to grasp the threshold of the basement doorway and was dangling in mid-air.
* * *
Dad died in 1980. Five years later, Mom sold the farm. I haven’t been in the house since then, but after my mother’s funeral in 2003, I was in a nostalgic mood and drove by the house.
I’d heard the new owners had made some changes, and they were conspicuous. A circular drive had been incised in the yard near the house. Instead of being graceful, the drive only served to isolate the expansive, now barren lawn. All the plantings had been removed—the two full viburnums that anchored the yard near the road, the peach trees my parents planted on the other side of the driveway, the tall lilac bush that was always the last to bloom in the spring, several black oak trees, the Bartlett pear tree that never bore fruit but had perfect limbs for me to climb and sit in its crook and read my books, and the flowering plants lining the whitewashed wood fence my father built to divide the pasture from the lawn—honeysuckle, larkspur, lobelia, daylily, dogwood, bearded iris, forsythia, trillium.
I fondly recalled the red maple that had a perfectly straight strong horizontal branch, to hold the swing my dad hung on it. Another one of my dreaming spaces. I spent hours on that swing seeing how high I could go, and when I tired of that, twisting the rope as much as I could then twirling until I was as dizzy as I would get on the Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the annual homecoming festival. But the swing tree was gone—my beloved red maple trees, over one hundred years old, were gone. I was grieving my mother, and now I was witnessing another death.
In 2008, the owners lost possession of the house, and it has since stood empty. My brother, Jim, toured the house ten years ago. He found it much as he remembered, but when he climbed the stairs to the attic, the windows were shattered. It had become a roost for birds.
Mom loved the farmhouse. My enlightenment came after she and the trees were gone. She would have rejoiced that in my memory, the red maple trees still stand—soaring and resplendent.