The house has always been our retreat, our safety net, and our childhood. The sturdy red and white-shingled walls seem barely to contain the memories accumulated during fifty years of our family’s history. I imagine them bursting out at any moment, ready to spring forth and clutter our present. The chronicles change depending on the narrator; the common denominator is our parents, who made the simple wooden structure a home. And now, it is being sold, our parents too frail and weathered to tend to a house built for a lively family of children, pets and friends.
Our family was complete when my parents purchased the house. Its price was a stretch on a coach’s salary, but the dwelling in which we’d lived for three years was simply too small for our family: five children, father and mother, one dog. The opportunity presented itself when the builder-owner declared bankruptcy. The house was just one more asset to be disposed of quickly. For my family, it was a jewel, a gift from heaven, and a true find.
I was three years old on moving day. We three girls couldn’t get enough of running up and down the stairs; the two stories were a novelty. The bedrooms were cramped with unpacked boxes; our beds were mattresses on the floor for a few days. Our mother efficiency unpacked, sorted, shelved and kept track of each child underfoot. Janet and I shared the oblong bedroom under the eaves, its walls and ceilings finished in knotty pine. At night, passing car lights made silhouettes of strange animals along the walls, the patterns ever changing, as we imagined wonderful shapes made by the ephemeral light. Beneath the eaves were cubby holes, one on each side of the room, perfect hiding places for our girls-only clubs and the telling of ghost stories, scary enough to hold tightly to one another, not so bad that we stopped.
The house seemed enormous, sitting in the middle of a half acre. The yard was slightly sloped, perfect for sledding in winter and spacious enough in summer to let our imaginations run wild. We played “cops and robbers” and tag, set up hurdles for imaginary track meets, hosted barbeques, roller-skated around the garage at dusk, cared for rabbits, cats, numerous dogs and chickens, hosted the neighborhood circus and sunbathed in the privacy of the northwestern corner, hidden from passers-by, the activities changing with our interests.
My parents staked out their third of the yard for sustenance, planting all sorts of vegetables, potatoes, corn, green beans, peas, onions, eggplant and tomatoes. We enjoyed them fresh in the summer and frozen for winter. We spent hot, stifling summer days paring apples and pears, husking corn, chopping tomatoes, shelling peas, as Mom and Dad encouraged us that our summer work would be rewarded with great winter culinary delights. We resented the interruptions to endless summer fun, but we did enjoy the fruits, so to speak, of our labors throughout the cold months. We harvested an abundant bounty from our yard; in retrospect, we should have marveled at our parents’ ability to cultivate such luscious foods for us. They were city slickers as children; yet, they seemed to effortlessly grow what we needed to eat.
The apple and pear trees were my father’s pride and joy as well as his nemesis. He sought to outwit the inevitable bugs and worms, to coax the bees to pollinate the blossoms each spring, to carefully prune errant branches. Each summer, he reported on the number of Jonathans or Macintosh or Golden Delicious apples, sometimes too numerous to count, other times barely enough for one apple pie. Over the years, the garden became smaller: the number of mouths to feed diminished; my parents’ traveling interfered with the daily care required; finally, the planting, weeding and pruning became too much for them. Except for a few raspberry bushes and the occasional tomato plant, the vegetable garden and fruit trees are gone, replaced by lawn.
The garage is almost a replica of the house, set toward the back of the property. I once marked off a corner for my own bedroom. It was cold, drafty and dusty, but I was convinced I needed a place of my own, even going so far as installing lacy curtains to cover the windows and blocking out a section near the non-working chimney with chalk, the imaginary walls a barrier to any siblings who might happen to wander inside. For a time, the garage housed a chicken coop, my mother’s attempt to save a few pennies on eggs and chicken dinners. (That project didn’t last very long, as she had no volunteers to help clean the pen or gather eggs.) The garage was the perfect venue for scary Halloween parties, rainy day roller-skating, school art projects, even an outdoor refrigerator in the winter.
One Thanksgiving, the neighbor’s dog absconded with our turkey, foiling the much anticipated “day after” meal of turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce. During Anne’s “horse years,” it became a tack room, too, stuffed with bridles, saddles, and sacks of sweet oat feed, horse brushes, and all the paraphernalia for a teenage girl’s horse fancy. Today, the garage is empty, the myriad bicycles, tricycles, pogo sticks, stilts, bats and balls owned by three girls and two boys given away or otherwise disposed of. The garage is now just that, a place to protect a car and a beaten-down truck from the weather.
We used the maple tree, situated at the exact southeastern corner of the lot, as the lookout to monitor the comings and goings of neighbors and visitors. I dutifully carried old boards up to the wide branches of the maple tree, building and staking out the tree house for my own. I knitted a pink and white blanket, sort of a benchwarmer—but the blanket was too hot for summer and we didn’t climb the tree in winter. One summer we painted the slats white; somehow, we felt compelled to flick bits of paint onto passing cars. We were horrified, though, when one slowed, then stopped, certain us hoodlums would be found out. A lady from church (Mrs. Wilkerson, her hair with a purplish tint, typical of elderly ladies in our youth, her mouth in a frown) gracefully climbed from the car and walked up the sidewalk to the house. She didn’t acknowledge us girls hovering in the tree nearby. We sighed with relief; she hadn’t seen us. Surely our behavior was unacceptable. If detected, we’d be on the road to ruin. And more practically, how would we have removed the spots of paint—white on a black car? We vowed to keep this episode very quiet. Now, the tree, too, is gone, the victim of disease and lightening.
I was eight years old when Judy, one of the neighbor girls and part of a sometimes uneasy threesome, and I decided to color between the bricks of the chimney in our upstairs bedroom. We thought our bright oranges, blues, reds and yellows added greatly to the otherwise plain brick red and white mortar. My mother’s immediate reaction was telling: “What if we try to sell the house? How are we going to remove the crayon marks? What were the two of you thinking?” We didn’t answer, but of course, we hadn’t been thinking of the consequences at all. We weren’t able to remove the marks and, as far as I’m aware, no attempts to sell the house have been thwarted by my inartful and innocent decorating scheme.
My interior design attempts were quickly stifled—until my ninth grade home economics project. Then, I finally had my own bedroom (no sharing with sisters, no imaginary line dividing the room in half, no unwanted guests, no drafty garage). I conceived of the perfect room: light blue walls, frothy white curtains, antique white dresser, blue and white bedspread with matching pillows. My father and brother painted the walls while I made the curtains and bed coverings. I photographed the room for the class project. I was ecstatic. Not only did I receive an “A” on my remodeling efforts, I didn’t have to move to the garage or the tree house to realize my dream of a space of my own.
The floor under my bed was another hiding place, most often used when a friend or sibling hurt my feelings. More than once, my father found me there after scouring the house for hours, only to spend more time coaxing me out from under the safety of the narrow bed. He assured me that I would survive another day, I would want to play with my friends again, and my sisters would include me in their next activity. His adage that “Sticks and stones will hurt your bones, but words will never hurt you,” didn’t always hold true. I cherished my talks with my father over the years, but I thought he was wrong: words could be painful; my heart could break from some verbal assault. Sometimes even the absence of words was hurtful, especially to a sensitive, sometimes chubby young girl.
One night, as I reached beneath my pillow for my nightgown, I saw a creature—and immediately screamed and ran down the stairs to the kitchen. I didn’t take the time to examine what was lurking in the half-shadows. My mother’s arms immediately grabbed me and held me tight, not knowing what could have caused my fright. She ventured upstairs—alone—and discovered a crayfish, dead and brown, between my sheets and the pillow. She instantly suspected that my brothers were the culprits. She’d seen them earlier in the day, tiptoeing down the stairs, with a look of glee of their faces, whispering something about how surprised their sister would be. The boys went without dessert that night. But for years afterwards, I could not bear to be alone upstairs at night, especially if I had to turn out the light before heading back downstairs. I would gladly have paid any increase in the electricity bill not to be alone as the room darkened to all sorts of unlikely creatures lurking under the bed or in the closets or cubby holes.
When I was ten, I was diagnosed with encephalitis, a complication of the childhood mumps. During the waning weeks of the disease, my days and nights melded together as I lay in bed in a suspended state in the back bedroom. Then, the house was my womb, a barrier from the bright lights and noisy goings-on of the others. Outside, my sisters and brothers frolicked in the hot, arid summer blazed, riding bicycles, running through the sprinklers in fits of laughter, playing badminton, dodge ball and kick-the-can. Inside, I walked through the drape-shrouded house in the mornings, the semi-darkness alleviating the heat and protecting my eyes, before retreating to my room to sleep.
The red house has good bones. It is as advertised, certainly: two bedrooms and bathroom upstairs, two bedrooms and bathroom downstairs, a family room, living room, dining room and kitchen, a utility room with plenty of space for kids’ boots, jackets, jars of canned fruit. I’d embellish the basic description, though. The yard is spacious; a gathering place for children and their friends. There’s room for a pool or a tennis court or another garden. The garage could be enclosed as a guesthouse. An outdoor barbeque could be installed. Birds come each spring to build their nests and lay their eggs; some remain all year-round, knowing the feeder is filled each day. A family could inhabit this house well; forge their own memories; live together through several generations. That’s what I’d say if I were the real estate agent hired to find a family for the house located at the end of the road.