Sunday, July 2, 2017

Reminiscing: The House of Yesterday

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the trees at my grandmother’s house that had been torn down. I stated during that article that I would reprint an essay that I wrote back in college about that house and my special attachment to it. There was a lot of family history in that house. Three generations of the family owned it throughout the years. It was the place we all congregated for the holidays. I wrote this in December 1994.

I had known it my entire life and I could not picture myself without it there. According to my family, it had been around a lot longer than I had. It was an integral part of my childhood and how it was slipping away. There was no way I could prevent it. It was only a house, but it was filled with all our memories.
David, Craig, MeMe, and Kristy celebrate Christmas

Since MeMe had died, there was the question of what to do with the house. Everyone had their own ideas, even if impractical. My parents said they would move in and fix it up, but neither my brother nor I wanted to live in Lyndonville. My aunt and uncle said they would buy it, but there was a question of money. Even I had my own idea. Against my earlier protests of living in Lyndonville, I said I would buy it. Again there was the money problem. The only thing that seemed practical was to sell it. That was a horrible thought.

I could not bear to let other people invade the house and destroy the memories of my life and family. There is an old saying about walls talking. I firmly believe that they can. Those four walls surrounding a person can force memories of yesterday to the surface -- a familiar picture or a crack in the ceiling has the power to invoke recollections of an earlier time.

The house was being cleaned out. I had to go there to see it before other people put their signature on it. The house sat by the road, dark and silent. No welcoming warmth was drawing me to it this time. The inside was the same although the rooms were nearly empty. I walked through them trying to picture them full of life. The walls screamed out to me. I heard the echoes of laughing, talking, and crying from days past.

I stopped in the living room. Here there only remained a couch and an easy chair. The area used to be so full of life. My footsteps reverberated off the walls. I remembered all the Christmas celebrations there. It wasn’t often that all of us ever got together, so the holidays were very special. Eight grandchildren caused such a ruckus that the adults took refuge in the kitchen while we trashed the living room. Eight young children invariably find something to argue about. My cousin, Charlie, once ripped his new Monopoly money in half because he didn’t like how someone else was playing.

I got along best with Charlie’s brother, David. We were the closest in age. We used to do the strangest things to occupy ourselves. There were two registers for the furnace in different rooms. David used to station himself at one and I’d be at the other. We pretended that one of us was in space and one was on Earth. And talk to each other through the vents.

After dinner downtime in the kitchen
I remember Christmas so vividly. So many things could, and often did, happen. It seemed that every year the power went out when the coffee maker was plugged in and turned on. The whole house plunged into darkness. That meant going down into the basement to flip a breaker. The white door that led to the basement held my fascination. I envisioned great horrors lurking behind that door. We were always told never to open it or attempt to go downstairs. Our parents told us stories of rats and monsters dwelling in the darkness, waiting to get us. When I look back at this, I have to smile. Rather than scaring us, their stories probably intrigued us all the more.

When I was finally permitted to venture beyond the sacred door, I was disappointed. There was nothing scary, no monsters. I did notice that it closely resembled a dungeon. It had a stone and dirt floor with large stones composing the walls. I could picture a prisoner chained to the wall. I used to wonder if maybe there were skeletons buried beneath the floor or even behind the stones. Sometimes I still get the urge to take a pick and shovel down there.

Although the basement was a great mystery for me, there was still a greater mystery. A long time ago, there had been a fire at the house. Most of the burned area had been repaired except for one room upstairs. There, I met another locked door. We grandchildren occasionally were allowed to go in there, but most of the time we found ourselves peeking through the keyhole. It wasn’t very interesting. It was a charred room with tattered remains of wallpaper hanging from the walls.

The big mystery about the room had to do with a stained glass window that was on the front of the house. It couldn’t be seen from anywhere in the house. I was told that it was a window in a dormer. It kept my attention, and I made it my duty to find it. Matt Herman and I got permission to go into the burnt room to begin our search. Armed with flashlights, we first explored the ruins before finding a small door to a cubbyhole behind the wall. We crawled in on our hands and knees, brushing the cobwebs from our faces.

It's a really comfortable couch.
We were in what used to be a closet. It was very small. Even though the door was less than three feet high, there was room enough inside to stand. There was no damage from the fire in there, but there were bare wires poking out of the floor. We were careful the stay clear of them. There was still no sign of the window. Across the front wall, there was a piece of insulation. I could feel a draft coming from behind it. Matt and I eagerly ripped it aside, hoping our beloved window would be behind it. Instead, we exposed a dark hole heading farther into the eaves of the house. Not wanting to give up our adventure, we squeezed through the tiny opening.

We found ourselves out above the porch roof. There was only about thirty inches of headroom and the ceiling sloped back to meet the floor. It was a tight fit for us. Matt was forced to crawl back through the hole and stick his head through to watch me. There still was no window, but I could see sunlight shining through from a crack in the wall above my head. I looked all around for a secret door or removable panel through which I could gain access. Sadly, our adventures came to an end. We returned to the rest of the family downstairs to report on our lack of success.

The mystery of the window kept my imagination very active. I pictured the dormer as a hideaway for runaway slaves and that they left a journal. I was imagining there was a fortune stashed in the dormer, waiting for me to find it. Those images were shattered when my uncle, who eventually moved in after MeMe died, tore apart the upstairs to remodel it. There was no entrance. The dormer had been built for looks. It was completely empty in there. My uncle decided to make it a sitting area outside his bedroom.

Even though there was nothing as mysterious about the house as I would have liked to believe, I still liked to think of it in that way. Now, my aunt and uncle live there and have kept it a part of the family. It makes it easier to know that loved ones occupy the house. There is still something to remind me of the past every time I walk through the door. I hear the walls laughing and talking, and I remember the joy I felt throughout my time there.

The house eventually passed out of the family in 2002. The people who moved in after pretty much destroyed the place. It is heartbreaking to drive by it now, especially with the trees down. I’m fairly certain no one lives in the house right now. It sits empty and alone, waiting for some love to brighten its windows once again. From 1927 until 2002, it had us. Somewhere, there must be another family to give that house 75 years of protection.