Monday, February 28, 2011

The house on the highway, Part 1

The house on the highway was in north-central Missouri, three miles from town, or more precisely three miles from a place on the edge of town called Reed's Corner. The house was a farm house, but it was not the farm my mother grew up on. That farm was much farther out, away from things. It was a large farm for that time and area, and was doing well. The coal company, though, wanted to buy all the farms in that area, and wouldn't unless they sold their farm, since it was the biggest. My grandparents, and my grandfather's brother, felt they had to sell it, because the other farmers really wanted to sell their farms. They had begun to be worried, anyway, about being out there. The farm was too far out in the country, too isolated, too hard to get to. My mother's father was much older than her mother, and there was a concern that there would come a time when her mother would be all alone. They moved to this farm, the house on the highway, in 1952, but it was not my grandfather's first choice.

This farm had a better location, but it had a lot of work that needed to be done. The land was worn out, and needed a lot of fertilizer. The fences needed repairing. Even the barn needed repairing, because the owner had taken boards from it to repair the house. My grandfather was already in his late seventies. My mother thought it had a much better location, though, than the place he preferred, and she convinced him to buy it.

His older brother, my Great-Uncle Doc, refused to partner with him in buying it, though they had co-owned the previous farm. Even so, Uncle Doc joined him there, staying at the house with the rest of the family.

The house was set back from the road quite a ways. The road had broad deep ditches on each side, with long slopes covered with green grass. As the land rose back up from the ditch, it gradually came to a hedge running around the somewhat raised yard of the house.

The part of the house that faced the road was actually the back of the house. A gravel road left the highway and ran beside the hedge, gradually curving around, to eventually go up a gentle slope leading up to the garage, at the far side of the house. Beside the garage, on the town side, three or four concrete steps led up to the door. Beyond the door was a long hallway, leading eventually on the town side to the kitchen, and beyond that, on the other side, to some small rooms, behind the garage, where Uncle Doc stayed. At the far end of the hall was a window, looking out toward the yard and the highway. The kitchen was a tall step up from the hallway, but I don't think Uncle Doc's rooms were like that.

The hall had some things hanging on the wall, including a swordfish sword with a handle cut in it, just a slot you could put your fingers through. It was a gift from some friends of the family who had gone deep-sea fishing. When I was little, I said that it looked like it was made out of wood, that it had wood grain. They insisted it was from a swordfish, and I had to believe them, but I couldn't figure it out. In recent years, looking at it, I can see where it sort of has kind of a grain-like look in places, but it's not something that would ever be mistaken for wood.

The hall had some other things on the walls too, and I think that was where the picture of President Harry Truman, wearing Masonic clothes at a Lodge meeting, was kept.

Another feature of the hallway, though not always there, was a large galvanized metal tub, a few feet from the door to the outside. It was the slop bucket, and food scraps and some leftovers were thrown in there, for the hogs.

The kitchen had its own door, and in the winter, patterns of frost appeared on the window in it. They would melt when food was being cooked, and then reform.

The kitchen had a door to the basement. Wooden stairs led down, and the air there had a strange, damp, kind of moldy smell. A small grinding stone with a hand crank was mounted on the railing of the stairs. A lot of stuff was down there in the basement. A modern (for the times) washer was down there, but some appliances from the old farm were also there, including wash tubs and a double roller to feed clothes through to squeeze the water out. There was also a big, simple wooden table that had small stacks of newspapers and some magazines on it. They were getting a bit mildewed, because of all the moisture in the air. There were many other things down there too, including, I believe, an actual icebox, that had to have ice put in it for it to keep things cold. It wasn't used anymore, of course, since we had a refrigerator up in the kitchen.

One time down in the basement I saw an old comic book on one of the stacks on the table. It had a cover with Elmer Fudd sitting on a motorcycle frowning, while Bugs Bunny. playing a service station attendant, wiped Elmer's goggles. I may have taken it back up with me. In any case, it did end up in the main part of the house, eventually in with a stack of magazines, on some shelves behind a narrow, wood-framed glass door, probably in what I later learned was called Uncle Doc's bookcase. Only part of it was really a bookcase. It also had a big fold-down section to the right of the door, with cubby holes and tiny drawers inside, and above that a flat surface with a mirror at the back of it. Underneath the fold-down section was a door that swung out, with more shelf space inside it. The comic book, oddly, seemed to disappear from it one year, and then reappear the next. This was in the 1960s, at a time when we lived somewhere else, and visited once a year. My grandmother was beaming when I pointed out that the comic book was back. I think she probably had something to do with it.

Along with the refrigerator, the kitchen had a modern gas stove, and a kitchen table with a gray patterned plastic top with metal around the edges. The pattern was of different sizes and shades of gray blobs and streaks, on a lighter background. However, over the years, I noticed that that table changed, the pattern being sort of the same but somewhat different, and at least one of the tables had a brownish tint to the gray. There was also sometimes a second table, out in the room behind the kitchen, or close to it.

The kitchen also had various cabinets and cupboards, of course, and a cupboard that had shelves behind glass doors, that had dishes and glasses in it. Some of the glasses had pictures of flying geese on them, just colored outlines of the geese and the scenery, the lines raised up on the glass. We sometimes used them, and my mother used to talk to me about them, and slowly sing a song, mostly talking, that went something like "my heart goes where the wild goose goes, my heart knows what the wild goose knows."

The kitchen sink was next to the door to the hallway, on the left side of it. It was a big square sink, and when I was little I sometimes was given a bath in it, which was a lot of fun. When I was a little older, I had at least one bath in it with my little brother, which was also a lot of fun. We laughed and splashed in the water.

The room behind the kitchen held more kitchen things, including a flour bin and a long metal surface to work on, with metal cabinets and drawers at the back of it, and probably under it. This was all placed on the wall that it shared with the kitchen. This room was given a specific name, that I don't remember now, but was essentially the far end of a long room, with occasional partial divisions, that ran all along that side of the house, the side that faced the highway. The long room was given the name of the sun porch, because sunlight came in through the windows there.

Going along the sun porch, past a partial wall to the left, my grandmother had some little shelves where small things were on display, little ceramic figures and things generally, I think. There was also a cabinet or two, with glass doors and shelves behind them, with more things on the shelves. One of the things was a fancy white plate with a black and white picture of my mother, probably taken when she was around 20, more or less. I think she said it was something they got in St. Louis. It's possible one of the cabinets was in the kitchen, with glasses and plates in it. I'm pretty sure that there was something like that in there.

Further along the sun porch was an organ. It had big rectangular cloth-covered wooden pedals under it, that had to be pumped to push air through it, and lots of little knobs in a row, that they called stops, each with a name on it. They could be pulled out to change the sound. It used to have some kind of ornate railing on the very top of it, my mother said, but when she was young she didn't like it and convinced them to get rid of it. She said that she regretted it, because she thought not having it lowered its value.

The organ had a special upholstered stool that was supposed to be used with it, but we frequently used a little narrow wooden table instead, as a kind of bench seat. In later years the table was almost aways used, as the stool had problems staying together (the seat wanted to come off) and was in any case not as easy to use as the table.

Past the organ was an opening to the rest of the house, to a living room. On the other side was a door to the outside, toward the yard and the highway. Past the door the sun porch continued for a bit, with I think a small couch and maybe a sofa there, and maybe a small table with a drawer, that a lamp sat on, and perhaps some low small shelves, that books or magazines might be put on.

The living room had an old fashioned couch, that my grandmother sometimes recovered with new fabric. The fabric was always fancy, with a texture of rich swirls. Sometimes it was a shade of gray, and sometimes a more purplish color was used. Big brass tacks went along the front of the arms, holding the material in place.

The living room had various other chairs, most or all upholstered, and she sometimes reupholstered some of them, too. In probably the late 1950s the living room gained a picture of a deer, in panels on both sides of a light bulb. It sat on a lamp table, and the light inside it could be turned on to illuminate the picture of the deer from within.

A television set was in one corner, the corner toward town and away from the highway. I was told I liked to pull the knobs off it when I was very little, and they had to put something in front of it to block it from me. I have some memories of doing it, mostly just of reaching toward them.

Among other lamps in the room was a very wobbly floor lamp. It had a long sheet metal pole that fitted into a round sheet metal base, but it was always wanting to tilt one way or the other, the base not securing the pole very well. I think the lamp was kind of a tan color.

On the floor of the living room was a very low dense carpet, mostly gray but with some kind of pattern. In one area it had a small rectangular darker gray rug on top of it, with a rabbit with rounded glass eyes. Decades later, my mother talked about a small blanket with a rabbit on it that my grandmother was given by my grandfather, back before they were married, and she would put it on her legs to keep them warm, when they were out riding in what was apparently a horse-drawn carriage. We decided that the rug on the floor must have been it. The blanket had originally been black, but it could have faded with the years.

The floor had oval rag rugs in places, too. My grandmother made them out of pieces of different colored cloth, frequently red and black, frequently patterned, that were rolled up and sown to each other, then wound up into the rug shape and then sewn across them.

On the end of the living room was what they called a picture window, because it was just a sheet of glass with no divisions, like a picture in a frame. It faced toward town. In the early and mid 1960s, when my mother went to town to buy groceries or do other shopping, I would sit on the floor with my brother and, when she was a little older, my sister, and we would pay attention to the cars that sometimes went by in the night, hearing them as they approached, and seeing their headlights, and wondering if they were our mother coming back. Eventually, one of them would turn out to be her car, and it would slow down and pull off the highway, hidden for a while as the gravel road dipped down, then would eventually go past on the other side of the hedge, just the top part of it visible.

In the daytime, the picture window looked out on the broad side yard, with its green grass, and a flowering plant in some kind of big bucket in the middle of the yard, and then more grass and finally the hedge. A time or two I saw a gray rabbit out there in the grass, huddled down in it, with the wind sending waves through the grass.

On the other side of the living room, on the side toward the front of the house, away from the highway, were I believe two little rooms. One was a sewing room, where my grandmother kept a lot of sewing materials and a Singer sewing machine, along with partially finished projects. She used to do a lot of sewing, and made quilts and clothes and couch pillows and other things.

I don't remember a lot about the other room, which was right on the corner. I think it might have been used for storage. It might have been the place where they kept the old clocks. They had a lot of old antique clocks, some of them fairly large. Or it's possible the clocks might have been in the sun porch, or perhaps some of them.

On the other side of the sewing room was an opening that led to a bedroom, through another opening right on the corner there. On the other side of the opening to the bedroom was the furnace, used to heat the house. It was a large thing, and sat at an angle across the corner of the room there. I sometimes played behind it when I was little.

One time I left my Jack-in-the-box there, and it melted its head. The box it was in was metal, but the head was plastic, and it got too hot. I worried and worried about it, so I've been told, though I only remember a little of it. Finally, one of the men said to go to town and get that child another one. It was secretly substituted for the old one, and when the head popped out I looked surprised, maybe even startled, then left it and started doing something else.

I only remember a little about the whole thing, mainly about being warned not to go back there and the Jack-in-the-box getting damaged, and feeling sad about it. It probably happened sometime in the mid to late 1950s. The concern about going back there was maybe a little about getting burned or somehow getting hurt by the gas, but was probably mainly about the electric cord going from the furnace to the wall. My mother worried that I might get shocked in some way, either through a problem with the cord or by playing too near where it plugged into the wall, that I might touch it in the wrong place and get shocked. There was some validity about this, besides the general concern a parent might have about kids poking something into the wall outlets. The cord was old and it had a place where the cloth outer cover was very frayed, broken through actually.

The room between the living room and the kitchen was the dining room, though we normally ate in the kitchen. The dining room shared the carpet of the living room, but the kitchen had linoleum. The room behind the kitchen may have had linoleum too, but if so at some point along the long room it changed, perhaps to wood slats. I'm not sure now. I'm pretty sure the hallway that went from the kitchen to the front of the house had a wood floor, though.

The dining room had a massive wood table that we used to play under. It had huge wooden legs, with heavy curved ornate pieces of wood connecting them near the bottom. The table had a tablecloth, with one or more doilies on it, and some decorative things set on it. Some of the chairs in the living room had doilies on them, too. Some of the doilies were real lace, but some were one piece flexible plastic. We used to take the plastic ones and put them under a paper, and then draw on top of them with crayons, making designs on the paper in different colors, the hard edges of the lace pattern catching the crayons as we went back and forth with them, causing the pattern of the doily to show through.

A short hallway led away from the living room toward the front, ending in a bathroom. On each side of the bathroom was a bedroom, with doors in the hallway to them. Another bedroom was reached through a short narrow hallway from the kitchen. The bedroom may have also had a door in the side, to another bedroom, but I'm not sure now. The short narrow hallway to the kitchen had shelves on each side, and a red curtain of heavy cloth. My mother said I used to go through it head first when I was little, going into the kitchen in the morning, and everyone would stop what they were doing and talk to me, saying things like "Who's that?" I only remember a little of it, mainly of pushing through the curtain with my head, and happily and expectantly going into the kitchen, my head peeking out as the cloth parted and fell away, and the other people being there, sitting around the table, their heads partly turning toward me, as they paused in their conversation and said things to me.

I played with my little brother a lot, when he was old enough for me to do so. I remember one day in particular, where we played and laughed all over the house, and in places outside it, going everywhere it seemed. At the end of the day we lay together on the floor, looking out the door toward the yard and the highway. We were there for a long time, watching and talking as the day gradually faded into night. In my mind I later called it the bestest day, not because I would actually have talked like that, but because it seemed to fit the theme of being young and happy. Years later I saw a picture of the two of us laying on the floor in front of the open door. I was astounded, because my brother looked so young. He was just a baby in diapers, with little crooked legs sticking out. I asked my mother if it could have been possibly that time, and she quietly nodded and said yes, smiling. I wondered if she could have been right, there might have been other times. Still, it all seemed to fit somehow.

Sometimes in the evenings the family sat outside the house, in the yard that faced the highway. The door had a drop down to the ground, but not as nearly as much as on the other side of the house. There may have been a small concrete area there in the yard, next to the house, but I'm not sure. In any case, chairs were brought out, I think there was already a picnic table there, and the adults talked while my brother and I played. Sometimes a lot of fireflies were out there, and they tended to congregate around a large cone-shaped evergreen tree, near the house on the end with the kitchen.

Sometimes we were out on the other side of the house instead. I remember one night, probably around 1960, or even later, when the sky was mostly overcast and heat lightning kept flashing in the clouds in the distance.

My father was in the Air Force for most of the 1950s. He joined to prevent being drafted. If he enlisted, he could choose what branch of the service to join, but not if he was drafted. He particularly didn't want to be in the Army, and maybe end up a foot soldier. He had to be in the Air Force had a longer period of time, though, four years on active duty and four years on reserve. It started out before I was born. He was stationed in different places, and they were in Texas for a while, then they ended up in St. Louis I think, at a time when I was a baby. My mother finally went back to the farm with me, to the house on the highway. My father visited every couple of weeks or so, for a weekend. I remember seeing him one time when I was out in the yard. He had parked by the front of the house, the side away from the highway, at the edge of the gravel road, and was walking across the yard at an angle, heading for the front door, wearing his uniform, a big grin on his face. I was playing near the house, not far from the corner, and he didn't seem to see me.

Continued in Part 2.

The house on the highway, Part 1
The house on the highway, Part 2
The house on the highway, Part 3
The house on the highway, Part 4
The house on the highway, Part 5
The house on the highway, Part 6 - Some things I missed

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