Saturday, November 1, 2014

In My Life #1 - House Memories

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain


- "In My Life," Lennon-McCartney
© SONY/ATV MUSIC PUBLISHING LLC



I was reading a book the other day (Susanna Kearsley's THE ROSE GARDEN) that was so evocative, it made me look back on places in my life. The story is set in Cornwall, so my first memories were of my first visit to Cornwall in 1975. But then, since my granddaughter is never far from my thoughts, it got me wondering about her. She's been coming here regularly since she was six weeks old and she's two years and a few months now. As often as she's been here, I wonder how much she'll remember our place when she's older. If we're still living here by the time she's school age, I'm sure she'll have some memories of it, but maybe not. If she does remember it, I wonder what things she will remember.

My grandparents moved to Evanston, Illinois in the 1940s and they lived in the same house there until I was married. When I moved back from England in the early 1980s, my grandparents moved to Adams, Massachusetts, the town where my grandmother grew up. My grandmother was eager to rediscover the town where she had so many memories of her own parents and grandparents, but I was sad that the house I'd known my whole life was no longer going to be in our family. I'm the oldest of five kids, and as our family grew, we moved several times - mostly within the same Chicago suburb - to houses that could fit us all. The new houses were great, but my grandparents' house had always been the constant.



The house itself was a typical red brick bungalow, a style common in the area from about the 1920s-1940s. It had a detached garage backing on to an alley and a miniscule backyard. The basement could be reached from inside the house or by stairs out in back, and we kids were discouraged from playing down there. My grandmother said it was cold and dirty - the attic, reached by a steep staircase at the back of the house, she called "hot and dusty". I loved the attic but was rarely allowed up there unless my uncle Jim invited me up to see his train set. The main thing I remember about it is that it belched smelly, oily smoke. My uncle Dave stored his WAA-MU show treasures up there, too, but I wasn't allowed to touch those. The only other things I remember seeing up there were stacks of National Geographic magazines, a red child's car of some kind and, I think, an old bicycle. (The American Pickers guys would have found some treasures there, for sure!)

The basement was my grandfather's territory. The main part of the room is where he propagated begonias on an old ping-pong table, with GRO-lights hanging from the ceiling. There was a closeted area where he stored hyacinth and narcissus bulbs on shelves, along with packages of Jell-O from the 1940s and canned food from the same era - my grandparents' version of a fall-out shelter, I guess. Under the stairs there were cabinets I wasn't supposed to fool around with. I remember finding some of my Uncle Jim's Big Little books there - chubby little comic books. My grandmother thought they might be valuable one day so we weren't allowed to play with them.



At the back of the basement was my grandfather's work table. I never saw him make anything there, but I was fascinated by the heavy iron vice that was clamped to the table. (How my brother and I managed to make it through childhood without smashing our fingers on that thing, I'll never know.) At some point - before I was born, I think - my Uncle Jim lived in a room walled off at the end of the basement, across from the worktable. It was pretty scary, not the least because of a picture hanging over the bed that showed a train that looked like it was about to chug right off the canvas. 

The upstairs - the main part of the house - was of far less interest to me as a kid. One of my earliest memories is of the curtains that were in my grandparents bedroom (until they remodeled with a more stylish but less memorable fabric). I remember laying in bed, staring at the old roses when I was too little to know what they were.



 My grandfather and I would have big bowls of blueberries for breakfast, with lots of milk and sugar. And then he would show me his collection of silver certificate one dollar bills. I'm afraid those might have vanished during the move to Massachusetts, since I never saw them again after that.

I can't remember where the clock was - in the living room or the dining room - but I remember whenever I spent the night there, I'd fall asleep to the loud ticking of the clock. I've always loved that sound!

My uncle Dave got married when I was four - I was the flower girl in his wedding - so I don't remember his room at my grandparents' house. My uncle Jim, who is about ten years older than I am, slept in the back porch bedroom for awhile, but the middle bedroom, next to the bathroom, is the one I always connect to him. The wallpaper in that room - until it was redone when I was a teenager - had a white background with a gold and green pattern like spokes on wagon wheels. One day I noticed that some spokes had letters penned between them and - what a surprise! - they spelled girls' names! I was into Nancy Drew books at the time and I felt like I'd stumbled across a secret code. My uncle, who didn't want his current girlfriends to know he had a list of former girlfriends hidden in his bedroom wallpaper, bribed me to keep quiet about it. 

The kitchen and dining room were my grandmother's territory, but they weren't much interest to me. I did like the built-in china cabinets, but I'd like those more today than I did when I was a kid. I liked the living room, especially when my grandfather got a big log fire going in the fireplace. He had a habit of laying down on the carpet in front of the fire and taking a nap. He also did that sometimes when there wasn't a fire going, and when the family was visiting. The first time my soon-to-be-husband met my grandparents, he was shocked to see my family calmly stepping over my grandfather's body as he slept on the living room floor. We were used to it, but it looked like a crime scene to him! The living room also housed the grand piano my grandmother played with her arthritic fingers, accompanying my grandfather who, with his amazing tenor, was a regular soloist at their church. I also loved a painting that hung over their sofa - a painting that is in my bedroom now. I don't know anything about it, but I still love it.


My grandfather was treasurer of Northwestern University for more than twenty years - my parents and aunts and uncles went there, but no one from the current generation. I used to love going to the WAA-MU shows every spring, and I'll always think of the Northwestern campus as a sort of extension of my grandparents' house.

My grandfather was an avid gardener but since his own yard was small, he grew a lot of plants at his victory garden. I remember we'd stop at Miss Margaret Reiter's house to get rhubarb from the giant plant in her backyard. Miss Reiter also worked at Northwestern University.

I could go on and on about Dr. Hedge's Annabelle hydrangeas growing next door to my grandparents' house, my friends Linda Smith and Jeanie Hamer, and the other neighbors. I remember going carolling once or twice in their neighborhood, and going to the carillon service at the Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve. I hope my granddaughter has lots of memories of our place. I know my kids have lots of memories of their grandparents' houses, too!

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