Friday, March 01, 2013

The House We Lived In

Whenever I walk to Suffern
    along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse
    with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I've passed it a hundred times,
    but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house,
    the house with nobody in it.

The place now known as Milford, Ohio, has been someone's home for thousands of years.

During the time of Christ, it was occupied by the mound builders of the Adena people. By the end of the first millennium, it was home to a settlement of the Hopewell Nation, a once-great empire that flourished along the Ohio and mid-Mississippi River valleys. By the time of the European incursion, the nations of "the Woodland period" were forgotten, and the area had already long been the hunting ground of the Miamis. By the dawn of the twentieth century, rows of corn covered the fields east of a village first settled in 1806, carved out of a parcel awarded to a Revolutionary War officer.

John Nancarrow had never personally set foot on the land ... but, that's another story.

By the mid-1950s, the rural expanse to the east of Milford would become the site of homes to families of men, most of whom were just out of the Service. With its developers only aware enough of the land's prehistory to use it as a marketing device, a development known as Indian Knolls was built on the hill overlooking the cornfield below, which had already been developed as Clertoma Village. The streets of both developments were all named for the indigenous nations of the continent long vanquished by the white man -- Choctaw Lane, Mohawk Trail, Powhatton Drive, and so on. The houses were all virtually identical cookie-cutter starter homes, distinguished by exterior finish, but all of the same floor plan, with three bedrooms, one bath, a tiny kitchen, and a separate dining area, all totaling about 850 square feet, not counting the unfinished basement. It was typical of many such communities based on the model that was Levittown, New York. But near a small town in southwestern Ohio, and for only $15,000, a piece of the American dream could belong to a man with a decent living wage, and a family on the way.

I never have seen a haunted house,
    but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits,
    their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn't haunted,
    and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn't be so lonely
    if it had a ghost or two.

In the summer of 1956, one such young couple with a toddling son, and a daughter as a babe in arms, bought a piece of that dream at 29 Winnebago Drive, and life began from there.

To those who lived in the old and established part of the town, the new development was known pejoratively as "Crackerbox Village." What manner of progress what this? Who were these upstarts, tearing down their quaint drive-in movie theater, replacing it with something called "Rink's Bargain City"? Emerging from the surroundings were not just one, but two new shopping centers, each with something called a "supermarket." It occurred to those firmly planted, that the days of the old A%P store downtown were numbered. Over time, the ancien regime came to accept the inevitable, but for years after it came, they resented this crass intrusion on the picture-postcard setting their new neighbors called home.

I can tell you my very earliest memory in detail. It was a cloudy Saturday, perhaps in the spring. I was about two or three years old. I was walking from the steps of the back porch towards the driveway. My father was washing the car, a muted lime green 1953 Ford sedan. I remember little else of that day, but my consciousness would appear to begin at that moment. I wonder where it was before. But in the months, in the years that followed, many other families with children arrived. The streets, the front yards, and the places in between were their domain. Summer days found them playing baseball in the street, Halloween nights were teeming with hundreds of them in costume, and the Christmas season was ablaze with a wonderland of multi-colored splendor. Everyone knew their neighbors, even those who went each their own way.

It was about 1964. I was playing in the yard with other kids -- so many other kids there were back then -- at a house down the street from mine. The husband and father of the house was a Southern Baptist minister. I didn't give such things very much thought, which is why I was surprised to see his name listed on the mailbox near the front door as: "Rev and Mrs Firsten Lastname." My reaction was a natural one for a precocious little boy, I suppose: "Hey, Beanie, this says your dad's a priest. I didn't know your dad was a priest. How can he be a priest if he's ..." Suddenly the front door opened, and an insistent lady of the house emerged: "He's not a priest, he's a minister, and he's just as important as your priest!" Boom! The door slammed shut, and that was that. Hey, I was nine-and-a-half years old. What the hell did I know about anything? This was the early 1960s, and the times were still relatively innocent. But tensions derived from cultural differences, and the co-existence in the face of the melting pot that was our little world, were still lurking in the dark corners. Children learned to put aside the differences that made adults uncomfortable. America elected a Catholic president, his cohorts in the faith could not be seen proselytizing through the children, and the Freemasons who lived among them could not be seen resenting these self-assured "Catlickers." Eventually these differences subsided, or at least were buried in polite company.

This house on the road to Suffern
    needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk
    and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles,
    and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all
    is some people living inside.

By the end of the 1960s, families grew in size, or in expectations, or both, and were leaving behind their humble abodes, with grand visions of four-bedroom split-levels, formal dining rooms, and half-acre lawns gracing the hillside out beyond the village limits. The years came and went, children came of age and sought their fortunes, older couples passed on to Florida, or passed from this life. The trees grew taller, some homes added garages, patios, and other extensions. "Crackerbox Village" was taking on a character of its own. One family, namely the Reverend and his wife and children, moved from the house down the street to the house next door. There were summer nights before the days of central air conditioning, when the windows in our bedrooms were left open to the screens and the cool breezes. My brother and I had the little room at the end of the hall. My bed was near the door. Mom and Dad would want it shut, but I wanted it open at a 45-degree angle, enough to use the full-length mirror to see the goings-on at the other end. As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear the Reverend and his family and friends, gathering around the upright piano, and singing hymns from the Old Baptist Hymnal.

Meanwhile, with each of us ending our grade school years, our parents eschewed the free education at the public high school at the edge of town, for a Catholic high school in an upper-class neighborhood closer to the city. It was a ride on a public school bus ten miles away, but it may as well have been ten thousand miles, as the kids from Milford brushed off the taunting of would-be city-bred sophisticates living near the school, about being a bunch of hicks from a small town. It got old after four years. Fortunately, it was over by then. Time went on, and the place we called home remained.

It was September of 1977. I was interning at a public television station in West Virginia when I got the call from Dad. He had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis only seven years earlier. Procter and Gamble gave him the consideration worthy of a loyal and dedicated company man, transferring him to a less stressful position away from the headquarters building, to the local district sales office. He had been working half-days for several months by now, but it only delayed the inevitable. Come that Friday, on his fifty-second birthday, he would leave on full and permanent disability. I remember Mom's first reaction, that of Dad being in the way all the time. But while Dad ruled the roost, Mom ruled the rooster, and one of the signs of a successful marriage is the ability to renegotiate what one might call "the balance of power" when fortunes change. And so, in many respects, Mom became the "man of the house," taking a more visible role in certain decisions, and being the "handy man" when things needed fixing. Growing up on a farm, pitching hay and driving a tractor by the time she was twelve, all this had prepared her for this role.

If I had a lot of money
    and all my debts were paid
I'd put a gang of men to work
    with brush and saw and spade.
I'd buy that place and fix it up
    the way it used to be
And I'd find some people who wanted a home
    and give it to them free.

By the end of 1980, I left the town where I was "bread and buttered," not for the nearest city, but for one far away. Destiny led me on a very different path from the other three siblings, as I left the city I knew, the town outside of that city, and the house we lived in, for another city. I would return once or twice a year. It seems foolish to imagine it now, but I honestly expected things to stay just as they were when I left. Life doesn't work that way, and those we leave behind are no exception. Our parents get older, our siblings move on, our friends drift away, or we make new ones upon returning. After my marriage fell apart in 1990, I would return more often. I went from annual visits to coming home three or four times a year. Making a social life of my own in Washington proved a challenge, as I found the city to be brimming with self-important people who couldn't give you the time of day without checking their schedules. Cincinnati gave me solace, an escape, the illusion that all would be well without much suffering. I would arrive at the house, and within an hour, the phone would ring, and Mom would hear a woman's voice. It was for me. It always was. I went dancing, to parties, to nightclubs. I made new friends introduced to me by old ones. It went on and on.

At the 1990s came to a close, it was clear that the house we lived in would not accommodate a man becoming increasingly disabled. Getting through the hallways on a wheelchair, going to the bathroom, taking a shower, all proved more difficult. Mom and Dad considered their options, including moving to another house that was better equipped. The chapter that was ours on Winnebago Drive would have come to an end, but not for the decision to subject the house to an extensive renovation. While they moved to a two-bedroom apartment nearby, the kitchen, dining, and back patio areas were completely transformed. A master bedroom with a wheelchair-accessible full bathroom were added. In the process, Mom got the dream kitchen she never imagined she could ever have. The wall that separated one of the bedrooms from the living room was torn down, making way for a larger "great room" which combined a living and formal dining area. After more than a year, and repeated delays, Mom and Dad moved back in.

All was reasonably well for a few years, until January of 2001, when Mom woke up one morning and had a minor stroke. As she was in the hospital, however briefly, the four of us considered what was once an unlikely possibility, that Mom could meet her demise before Dad. Being independent, and having Mom take care of Dad at home, even with some assistance from the family, was beginning to take its toll.

It was then that my own relationship with the house changed. I was coming less often. After more than twenty years away, I was finally making a life for myself back east. It was just as well. Even if I were to stay at the unaffected end of the house, with my own bed and bathroom, it was nonetheless considered likely that I would be in the way. I could no longer stay at the house we lived in. In fact, if I came to visit, I had to call ahead.

Yes, you read it right. I had to call ahead to visit my own parents.

Now, a new house standing empty,
    with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish,
    like a hat on its block in the store.
But there's nothing mournful about it;
    it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it
    that it has never known.

That took a while to sink in. My siblings were very matter-of-fact about it, of course. They lived with it every day, and could not understand how one of their own who did not, would react any differently. It's one of those things that, if you have to explain it, you can't, so I didn't. But in fairness, one or the other did open their home to me whenever I was there. Meanwhile, as a geriatric nurse, Mary could advise them on their care, and accompany them to the doctor. Steve had charge of their financial and other affairs, and eventually took over the upkeep of the house, with the assistance of the grandsons. Pat had a very promising career as an administrative assistant to the general manager of a regional transit authority, when she was discovered to have a rare form of cancer, one that only four doctors in the entire country could treat. Fortunately, one of them was in Cincinnati, and she beat the odds. But it was the catalyst for considerable soul searching, and with her husband as a successful sales representative, she gave up a career to look after Mom and Dad. At first, she would come in the morning a couple of times a week to help Mom with Dad's "activities of daily living." As the years went on, she was driving across town at least five times a week. Dad's slow deterioration was being joined by Mom's, as both were slowly falling apart, each in their own way.

Then in September of 2011, it happened. Mom started down the basement stairs, lost her balance, and fell to the bottom. Bleeding from a cut to the head, and a broken neck, she crawled up the stairs to the telephone and dialed 911, while Dad sat helpless in his Lazy-boy. She was taken to the hospital, and into intensive care, while Dad was looked after full time. Mom had to go into rehabilitation, and the family could not care for both in separate locations. A retirement community with a skilled nursing wing was found north of the city, and Mom and Dad were together again. But in the year prior to the accident, it was clear that the current arrangement was coming apart at the seams. Steve would "pop in" every evening after work, and qualified in-home care was difficult to find, and even more difficult to oversee, especially with a woman more accustomed by this time to giving orders than in taking them.

The long goodbye for our father was also coming to a head. I would be in Washington for three weeks, and hurry home for one. I stayed alone in the house we lived in. I awoke at 6 in the morning, went to gym for an hour, and occasionally visited friends. But social calls were few and far between. Most of the time, I was visiting with family. I would go to Skyline Chili for the occasional dose of "comfort food," and the fellowship among strangers that I forgot how much I missed. Old neighbors, old classmates living nearby, all provided a revisiting with my past, a time that time forgot. I would retire at nearly midnight listening to Chopin's Nocturnes, only to be up again six hours later to the sounds of Mozart.

I was also busy making preparations for a funeral Mass. I knew what Dad would have wanted, and I knew how to bring my influence to bear in getting it. Thankfully, the parish was very accommodating to our wishes. Guidelines from the parish were reviewed by the family, and an assessment was presented to the siblings as part of the proposal. In the end, as with everything, there was consensus.

But a house that has done what a house should do,
    a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms
    around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby's laugh
    and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it's left alone,
    that ever your eyes could meet.

Then, in February, the call came from Steve. Dad was leaving sooner rather than later, and how quickly could I get there? Twenty-four hours, I told him. I arrived on a Tuesday. By Friday evening, Dad stopped taking water. By the evening of Monday, I got the call at the house; it was time. As all were present, and Dad was taking his last desperate breaths, I laid my hand on his forehead, and said the ancient commendation for the dying, the Proficiscere: “Go forth, O Christian soul, out of this world, in the Name of God the Father almighty, Who created you; in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, Who suffered for you; in the Name of the Holy Ghost, Who sanctified you, in the name of the holy and glorious Mary, Virgin and Mother of God; in the name of the angels, archangels, thrones and dominions, cherubim and seraphim; in the name of the patriarchs and prophets, of the holy apostles and evangelists, of the holy martyrs, confessors, monks and hermits, of the holy virgins, and of all the saints of God; may your place be this day in peace, and your abode in Holy Sion ...” There was no movement for a few minutes. I checked his pulse. While waiting for the nurse to confirm what we all knew, I continued: “Subvenite, Sancti Dei, occurrite, Angeli Domini, Suscipientes animan ejus ...”

We could not keep Mom in the house we lived in. No amount of live-in home care would endure her cantankerous nature, and the charge over her own domain. The day after Dad was laid to rest, we moved Mom from the skilled nursing wing into her new one-bedroom apartment on the other side of the complex. She cried when she walked in, seeing the furniture in what seemed as a transplanting of her own abode to another, more accessible place. There were activities during the day, three meals prepared in the dining room, and Mass on Saturday night. Pat or another family member visited her every day. As the months went by, and she awoke "with the chickens" to do her crossword puzzles in the morning paper as she had done for years, she became accustomed to her new surroundings. The question then became, what to do with the house we lived in.

In the wake of Dad's passing, friends and neighbors had come to call. One of them was the man whom we once knew in childhood as "Beanie," the preacher's son, whose father lived next door. His mother had passed away only recently, and his father was getting on in years. For the young man and his wife to live in the same house with him was becoming a challenge. As I gave them a tour of the house, especially the addition in the back, their interest was piqued. And now, several months later, they approached Steve with a proposal.

I would come to stay at the house when I was there; for Father's Day, for the sixtieth wedding anniversary in June, for Mom's first Christmas without Dad. Eventually the cable television was disconnected, and so was the wireless connection. I had to bring the latter on my own, in the form of my iPhone. There was nearly sixty years worth of memories to go through over the past year, nestled in the many corners of the house we lived in. Mom was an incurable packrat, the destination of first and last resort for any school or Scouting project. Everything was meticulously organized, to the point that belied just how much of it there really was. I have to give credit to Steve; for a guy very much "in charge" of things, he managed the process with remarkable collegiality. With a complete inventory of furniture, books, personal records, photographs, and the like, there was consensus all around, and a desire that each of us achieve our satisfaction without the expense of another.

Among other things, I got the silverware, and my paternal grandmother's old clock, now being restored to its former glory.

So whenever I go to Suffern
    along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house
    without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof
    and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can't help thinking the poor old house
    is a house with a broken heart.

There were three visits to Milford in as many months; three round trips of a thousand miles each, as if to say in stages the long goodbye to the town I left behind so many years ago, but which never left me. I drive through its streets, I visit the places I frequented. My conscious mind sees them as they are now. And yet, there is a land of shadows, one in which I see them as I did growing up. Each house cannot be remembered by who lives there now, but who lived there then. It could never belong to those of the present, not in this place that I visit, a place ever present, but never to be seen again.

It was late last month, on a Saturday morning, that I gathered what I could into my 2005 Scion XB, and prepared for the nine-hour journey back to what was now the only home I could call by that name. On this date, after nearly fifty-seven years, with the deal having been signed, sealed, and delivered, the house we lived in at 29 Winnebago Drive is now the home of the Reverend Daryl Poe, pastor of New Harmony Baptist Church, and his devoted wife Jacqueline. Daryl had a long and distinguished career in law enforcement, moving from one assignment to another across the Buckeye State over the years -- a police department here, a sheriff's department there -- before answering the call to follow in his father's footsteps. And so, those who are of the Southern Baptist tradition have a new home, as does the man who serves them. But however beloved it was by those who did so before, however much it is by those who do so now, it is, at the end of the day, not really a home to either.

No, there is another ...

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)

Life goes on, at the house we lived in.

“The House with Nobody in It” was originally published in Trees and Other Poems, a collection of Joyce Kilmer, by the George H Doran Company, New York City, in 1914.


Karen said...

I loved this! As I was reading it I could see the streets in our old neighorhood I grew up on Potowatomie Trail and my sister still lives there, and you are right, it just isn't the same. When we talk about the houses we say the old Smith house or the Smoots old house never by the new owners names.
Thank you for bringing back the good memories!

SAF said...

I'm a "local" reader, also a transplant to the DC suburbs. And just a few years younger than yourself.
This post does resonate.
Very, very well-done.

David L Alexander said...

Well, dammit, people, what we need is a reunion. I propose a sixty-year anniversary commemoration for Clertoma Village (and Indian Knolls, I suppose) in 2015. We'll meet in Clertoma Park. If there's rain, we'll have a contingency.

Who's with me?