This picture must have been taken very soon after we moved into the house because I was 10 months old when my mom and dad bought it and that’s about the age I look in this picture. I see the twin to the “piano bench” mentioned in this story sitting on the front porch and my dad has already seeded the lawn which appears to be growing. Those boards were soon replaced by a thick layer of grass and a row of elm trees that grew up with me.
A House Divided
When I was ten months old, my father decided it was time to buy a house big enough for three girls and his wife. It wasn’t that he hadn’t offered my mother a nicer house long ago, but my mother had suggested he use the money to buy cattle instead, and it had been a good decision. By the time I was born, the ranch that my dad had begun when he purchased the 640 acre homestead of his parents had grown to over ten thousand acres. Some in town saw him as an opportunist, but as I see it, someone had to buy the land foreclosed on by the bank or given up on by men like his father who just did not have it in them to work the land and my father was a good guardian of the land and a generous benefactor to his town and church.
The house my father bought was a very large house owned by a man and wife who were horticulturists. My sister remembered a big room upstairs that looked like a laboratory but was actually a room used to grow plants. Since the house was both too big for his wallet and too big for one city lot, my dad, an enterprising man, actually bought half the house. My mother tells of seeing the men on the roof with saws, sawing it in half, then carpenters and plasterers sealing up the open walls on both houses.
She also tells of the perfect plastering on both the original walls and the new one—and after successfully moving the house the five miles into town on two flatbeds moving side by side down the night time highway, the shock of seeing the house slip off the jacks as they settled it on the foundation and hearing the plaster cracking and crumbling so that in the house I lived in, the surface of the walls was not exactly even—some seams jutting out a bit and not quite matched to the texture of the original plaster.
As a baby, I occupied the downstairs room that later became our dining room, but even after I was moved upstairs with the “big” girls at the age of 3, the place we ate 99 percent of the time was a sort of wide hallway between the living room and kitchen. We kids sat behind the table on what we called the piano bench, but it was actually one of the two bench-high dividers that separated the two parts of the living room. Wanting to create a more spacious feeling in the room, my mother had the two dividers removed so the living room became one giant room that extended across the entire front of the house. On the left part of this room that you faced as you entered the house was an entire wall of bookshelves, filled with books and my mother’s salt-and-pepper shaker collection.
One of the lower shelves was stuffed bottom to top with comic books—a fact that made our house a favorite with Jimmy Kerlin, who would sneak in the front door and sit for hours on the floor, poring over Mighty Mouse and Superman, Little Lulu and Richie Rich comics. Our favorite family story was the about the time we got home from a day’s shopping expedition in Pierre—sixty miles away, to find Jimmy sitting on the floor in the corner, nose in the last of a long progression of comics he’d been reading all day long. Unbeknownst to us, he’d been sitting there reading when we left in the morning, locking all the doors to the house. He had remained happily reading all day long.
Whether his mother noticed his absence has gone unremembered in our version of the story, but may remain central in his family’s telling of it, although I believe that other than his younger brother Tommy, all members of that family known to me are now deceased.
A genre of comic books Jimmy might have found little interest in was not to be found on those shelves, for what we called “love comics” were forbidden by my mother. She had told Jack Mowell, who was the the local pharmacist/comic-book vendor, not to sell them to us, but we had an agreement with him. So long as they were buried in the stack and not on view on it’s top layer, he merely asked us “how many” without inspecting what exact comic books we bought.
At ten cents each, we usually bought them ten at a time, so quite a few love comics could be accumulated so long as one “Archie and Veronica” comic was positioned atop the stack. This portion of our library was kept at our friends’ houses or buried far beneath our beds or mattresses. By the time we were the least interested in this questionable reading material, our mother rarely ventured into our rooms since we were the ones responsible to keep them clean and orderly, to make our own beds, change our own sheets and carry our own washed and ironed clothes from the back porch washer/dryer/ironing room up the steep wooden stairs to our rooms.
I was only 10 months old when we moved from the east end of town to that big house on its near western edge. By the time I had an actual memory of that house, it had been much influenced by the taste of my 11 years older sister, who painted our upstairs bathroom chocolate brown and chartreuse and our living room different shades of maroon and puce to coordinate with my mother’s choice of living room drapes: maroon-ish sansevieria leaves on a chartreuse background.
The couch was a greyish-toned sectional that took up a good part of one half of the living room. In the room with it was a big blonde modern coffee table—unusual in its day and covered with a chartreuse planter and ashtray (even though no one in our house smoked) as well as current issues of Redbook, Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. On the other end of the room next to the fireplace, another long blonde coffee table next to my dad’s comfortably padded and uphostered rocking chair was covered by stacks of his reading material of choice: True West, Saga, Argosy, Grit, and the Mitchell Daily Republic newspaper.
In at least one of his magazines of choice, there was always a centerfold picture of scantily dressed or nude women—which furnished me with one of my first glimpses of the sexual nature of the world that I would have otherwise had no idea about. Certainly, the love comics were tame by comparison, and I’m surprised that my mother didn’t see fit to remove those portions of my father’s magazine library; but she never did and from a very early age, I was attracted to them like a magnet the minute no other member of the family was around.
It was a good house to grow up in. There were three rooms upstairs—one room each for each of us girls, once I was old enough to graduate from the downstairs nursery to the girls’ dormitory upstairs. I think we were the only house in town with three bathrooms—one upstairs for us girls, one downstairs for my parents and anyone present on the main floor of the house, and one in our largely unfinished basement—to be used either by whatever hired man might be living down there or whomever was in urgent need of a bathroom when the two others were filled.
Only our living room was carpeted––in a maroon tightly woven carpet. The floors of all of the other rooms, including all the bedrooms, were covered in linoleum, the colors and patterns of which each of us was able to choose for our own rooms. Mine was green with big leaves that coordinated well with the yellow walls and my ruffled white bedspread covered in big yellow flowers with green leaves. My sister Patti, 4 years older, chose a charcoal linoleum with pink and white and black flecks—dark pink walls and white painted furniture. My 11 year older sister Betty chose a green motif with green and white and black checked drapes and bedspread.
Thus, from a very early age, my mother encouraged our developing of an aesthetic unique to our personalities. To my knowledge, the ordinary was neither encouraged nor demonstrated in our family. In seeking to be different, my mother taught me that it was okay as well—and this has been a guiding principal in my life.
Thus it was that the house I grew up in—from its very inception by my father who, lacking the finances or terrain to buy an entire house, had the ingenuity to buy half of one––to my mother, who stepped outside the bonds of conventionality in her color and fabric choices as well as her taste in decorating elements––helped to form aspects of my personality that sent me out in life not seeking to meet the expectations of others but rather to follow my own impulses—to Australia, then Africa, California and Mexico. Not bad for a little girl from Murdo, South Dakota, population 700, on the wide empty plains of South Dakota.
The prompt: Our House––What are the earliest memories of the place you lived in as a child? Describe your house. What did it look like? How did it smell? What did it sound like? Was it quiet like a library, or full of the noise of life? Tell us all about it, in as much detail as you can recall.https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/our-house/