The Third Marj
Part One - Going, Going, Gone...


 

Part 1

 

Going, Going, Gone ...

 

THE HOUSES of my childhood ... warm, comfortable sanctuaries full of loving care and affection where I learned the things a little girl needs to know in order to grow into the fullness of womanhood ... are going, going, gone ...

My tall grandma's house with the front porch that was shaded in summer by the heavily leafed clematis vine with its deep purple flowers climbing up the lattice and its tendrils holding on to the shingles on the roof ... where grandma and I used to sit on the wooden porch swing and swing our legs and sing until we heard somebody walking down the Haynes street sidewalk and then grandma'd whisper, "Sh- wait 'til they go by" and we'd giggle and peek out through the vines until we saw whoever it was walk on down the street ...

My little grandma's house over on Richard street, just a block away, with its sunny dining room windows where grandma used to hang the yellow rinds of half grapefruits, filled with black earth and planted with seeds so a little girl could watch things grow during long winter days when all the neighborhood children were in school and she was too little to go ...

My great-grandma's house, another block away on the same street, where she read to me from the children's books printed in German and let me sit in great-grandpa's big chair and hold her rag doll if I was good ... where the hired girl, when she was sure grandma wasn't looking, would very quietly open the built-in china cabinet door, the one with the telltale squeak, and take a handful of candy from the dishfuls grandma kept behind the stained glass doors and she'd share with me if I promised not to tell on her ...

And even the house where I was born, two doors away from Grandma Rhodes' house on Haynes street, the little cottage with the two big maple trees that my father planted as saplings the summer I was born.

Soon-gone, too. All the houses of my childhood-gone. Nothing remains except neatly combed and filled in stretches of barrenness - with, here and there, the shell of a little old house, empty, doors standing open, windows broken, ravaged by scavengers, marked for demolition.

This is one of the by-products of progress.

Progress is making a big broad highway called Route 35 with giant clover-leaves swinging wide to provide easy entrances and exits. Progress is gearing for the future's mass transportation.

Progress is providing giant machines with hungry maws that hack out the little old neighborhoods that have outlived their usefulness and spit them into piles of broken bricks and chunks of concrete and rotten boards that splinter at a touch.

Progress is obliterating all traces of backyard gardens of phlox and marigolds, zinnias and bleeding hearts ... obliterating the back-porch grapevines that gave shade and fragrance, juicy pies and clear purple jelly and, now and then, a jug of wine that held a summer's sunshine in one warm taste melting on the tongue.

Progress is leveling all the neighborhood petty quarrels with the spire- fences ... all the running back and forth between houses with a pan of hot biscuits under a soft white linen napkin just to share ... all the night vigils sitting up with the sick man across the street while neighbors took turns during the days cleaning the woman's house and comforting her children and putting food on the table ... all the shared neighborhood talk, coupled with helping hands, where there were new babies, extra company, sudden death, drunken relatives and runaway daughters ...

Progress is leveling it all into a common burying ground without tombstones or a handful of flowers.

Progress will lay ribbons of concrete over all the old remembered places. Progress will light the landscape with great bowls of electricity that will illumine the safety-engineered curves the better to see the bloody wrecks of bodies and cars that will be the freeway's harvest.

Progress will make it convenient for us all to go from here to there without seeing anything in between.

Only in memory will the peddler's horse and wagon clop slowly down unpaved Haynes street while the farmer goes from house to house with his ears of sweet corn and his baskets of snap beans, and a watermelon put down in straw in the back of the wagon ...

Only in memory will the neighbors run out on their front sidewalks to peer down the street when they hear the cry "Extra, extra" and hope the boy doesn't run out of papers before he gets up to them ...

Only in memory will a little girl frown for the itinerant photographer when he lifts her-sunbonnet, long stockings and all-into the goat cart and tells her to "watch the birdie" and she's so embarrassed because all the neighborhood turns out to watch this annual summer custom that seems to delight her mother and grandmother ...

Is it possible, is it wise to retrace the steps of childhood-to judge the present by the past? Every facet of my adult character today was fashioned and forged in that old neighborhood which was once the edge of town, new houses built where apple orchards flourished pushing back the farms, high ground untouched by the flood waters of 1913 ...

If I am punctual, it is my training under a stern disciplinarian, Theresa Corcoran, principal of McKinley school that is now an empty lot covered with grass because it burned before progress arrived ...

If I am truthful, it is because my mother would accept no fibs ... if I am compassionate, it is because my little grandma taught me how to love newborn kittens and how to coax a fly outdoors so we wouldn't have to swat it ... if I am at times (as my mother insists) full of devilment and ready to kick the traces, it may be because I loved so much my tall grandma who could dance a cake-walk, who when challenged could eat a quart of ice cream at one sitting, who would bake a grape pie with the seeds in if she didn't feel like taking the seeds out ... if I wear now an heirloom pin, it is because I remember how it looked when it was pinned to great-grandma's starched lace collar, the pin great-grandpa brought home from a trip to St. Louis ...

The houses of my childhood are going, going ...

Snaggle-toothed and forlorn, the old neighborhood around Haynes, Richard, Parrot, Hulbert and Highland and the empty space where the majestic red brick two-story McKinley school once reigned is marked for oblivion.

New highways, new clover-leaves, new people are spreading progress. By two's and three's every week for months now, moving vans have rumbled through the quiet streets, loaded the chattels of still another old family and rumbled away to new suburbs. The city trucks have followed in their wake, workmen turning water off at the curb. The demolition crews, the rubble rousers, the scavengers tearing out plumbing fixtures, woodwork, anything portable that is left behind ...

Finally, here and there, one by one or by couples, sad and quiet people returned for a last look.

They're the people who used to live in the old neighborhood, who started their families there, who bought the brand-new houses and weathered the 1913 flood which never touched their high ground, survived the famous flu epidemic, lived through the First World War, planted gardens, sat out on their front porches in the cool of a summer evening and nodded to their neighbors across the street on their porches ...

They're the ones who put cards in their front windows for the iceman and walked out to the curb to buy fresh bananas from one of the neighbors who started with a push-cart and worked it into a supermarket chain for his sons.

One of the wives in the neighborhood loved flowers so much her husband built her a little greenhouse in the backyard. Soon they had so many flowers, the neighbors wanted to buy them for special occasions -and a thriving florist business grew into a livelihood for the next generation.

My great-grandfather ordered all the flowers for his home and business from this neighborhood friend, and both my grandmothers did, too. Always in autumn, when father brought home two enormous yellow chrysanthemums for mother and me, we knew he'd stopped by Bowers on his way home to pay the bill-and old Mr. Bowers had thanked him with beautiful greenhouse-grown posies.

On the day of my graduation from the eighth grade, I left home early (we lived two blocks farther out, on St. Nicholas avenue, by then) so I could stop at Bowers and pick up long-stemmed dark roses and place one, anonymously, on each teacher's desk before anyone saw me do it. It was so natural to say thank-you like this because I'd been brought up with Mr. Bowers' thank-you flowers ...

Years later, I remember how tremblingly I ordered my wedding flowers-fragrant gardenias, white carnations and rosebuds with great regard for their cost because this was The Depression. And how they wouldn't accept money but wanted to share in my happiness by giving my wedding flowers as their gift ...

Bowers greenhouses are among the last buildings still standing in this old neighborhood that has disintegrated in the path of progress. From their Haynes street windows they can see across level land clear to Richard street, and the freeway ramps are a figurative stone's throw away. They're talking now that when the demolition crews mark their greenhouses for oblivion, they'll simply pick the last flowers and write finis to the business.

My parents went with me to pay our respects to the old neighborhood in its last hours. I could not share their thoughts as they stood on the old sidewalk and looked at that little white bungalow, where father had taken mother after their honeymoon, where their first child was born in the front bedroom upstairs.

"Your father built that porch," said mother in a flat voice. A woman came out on that porch, peered suspiciously at the three strangers on the sidewalk and said, "You people want something?"

We shook our heads and mother said, sadly, "The little iron fence is gone."

"Probably went in the scrap drive in the Second World War," commented father. "But look how big those two maple trees are." He turned to me. "I planted those trees the summer you were born. Grandpa Snyder's old stableman-he was old, a Civil War veteran -found them in the woods. They were just little straight sticks. Look how nice and full they grew." He was silent for a bit and then said, "They'll go down under the bulldozer. No use saving them. They're too old." He walked away, slowly.

They talked at random, sometimes answering each other, sometimes unaware they both talked at once, their voices gradually fading when their eyes could take in no more of the desolation. They stepped off the short distance between their first home and that of Grandma and Grandpa Rhodes.

"I remember when Mom and Pop built this house," said mother as she walked all around the broken little building with the gaping holes for windows. "It was build solid." She stared at the broken fireplace tiles spilling from the parlor out onto the side porch.

"Built to last," said father, marking the decorative siding now hacked by scavengers. "Watch out for that broken cement."

Mother stepped around the crumbling sidewalk. "Pop would never have let things go like this," she sighed.

The parents wouldn't go inside the ruined house because the city already had posted no trespassing signs. But I know this was only a convenient excuse for them to shut their eyes to what they didn't want to see.

They walked and talked slowly down the block to Bowers, a welcome oasis in this desert land. "The blind boy lived over there," said father. "Charles played the piano and we'd all listen," mused mother, remembering still another neighbor boy. "I used to push Marjorie's buggy down this way."

She turned to me. "Do you remember the lost kitten your father found one snowy cold winter evening when he was coming home to supper and he put it in his overcoat pocket and didn't tell us until we saw his coat move on the back of the door? No, I guess you were too little to remember. You were in your high chair then and you loved that kitten for a long, long time until it was an old cat."

Their voices gradually quieted. Their deliberate steps led them away from the past.

I made up my mind, suddenly. I've got to go back, I said. I've got to walk through grandma's house once more. Are you coming with me?

"No, Sister, you go on without us." They walked on together, that young couple who had been newlyweds in that little white frame house, who already have celebrated their golden wedding anniversary ...

The houses of my childhood are going, going, gone ...

How large and spacious they seemed to a child who knew only love and care and an affectionate but strict discipline. How small and pitiful they are now as they fall, one by one, before the relentless onrush of progress.

That little house on Haynes street, where my grandparents, Margaret and William Rhodes, lived when I was a small child running back and forth between their home and my own, two doors away ... I thought there never could be a bigger house than that one-it had TWO parlors and an extra little room with colored glass windows where grandma kept her sewing machine and I kept my doll buggy.

Nothing could be bigger, not even a palace, except maybe the house a block over on Richard street where my great-grandparents, Lena and August Snyder, lived. Their house had three parlors, one up and two down. The front parlor had a player piano where great-grandpa and I would perch together on the bench while he pedalled "Red Wing" and we sang at the top of our lungs until great-grandma came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her big apron, saying, "Ach du hirnmel -such noise!"

But then, the other house on Richard street where lived for a while my grandparents, Amelia and William Evers, seemed enormous to me, too. That winter I started to kindergarten, the snow was so deep the men could shovel only a narrow path down the main sidewalks. They piled the snow on either side of the path, and the walls of packed snow were higher than my head. I remember starting to walk between the snow walls with confidence which oozed away the farther I went. My heart pounded in my throat as I ran to get away from the dark cold tunnel. The relief I felt when I scrambled up grandma's wide steps and saw her standing at the front door waiting for me is well-nigh indescribable. She believed fresh sugar cookies and a glass of milk cured any scares a little girl had ...

How puny, how wretched are those houses of my childhood now that progress has looked them over and found them wanting.

When I went for a last look at the physical surroundings of a pleasant childhood, I felt drawn to grandma's house on Haynes street more than to any other place in that bulldozed, leveled-off wasteland being prepared for progress.

The house was broken and abandoned to its misery. Vandals had corrupted its windows, scavengers had torn away everything that would tear or break, the walls were scarred, the floor littered. I looked at the sign the city had nailed to the porch wall. I turned to my brother. You know we'll be breaking the law if we enter, I said.

He stood at the broken doorway to the front parlor. "Remember how nobody was allowed to use this door?" he said. "Let's go in this way for the first time-even if it's the last"

This room used to be so big, so big, I said. I remember they set up a big wooden bed in this parlor when I had the measles one winter and grandma brought me rock sugar on a string. Look, there's the wall where the big picture was of a man with two girls. It was called 'A Rose Between Two Thorns' or was it the other way around ...

"Look at this," said my brother, kicking at broken green tiles from the fireplace. "I wish I'd known these weren't wanted-I'd have used them in my own fireplace."

Look-the bedroom. Remember grandma's heavy glass perfume bottles that stood on either side of her dresser? And here's where she kept the china hair-receiver, the one with rosebuds painted on it. And remember the great big starched pillow shams she used on the bed?

Our voices and our steps echoed through the empty house. "Look, here," he called. "The kitchen pump was on this wall, and the black stove over here ... "

And here's where grandma's table stood, against this window, I said.

She'd lift me up on the table and I'd sit there, watching her spread butter on a big slice of homemade bread, then dip her fingers in the sugar crock and sprinkle brown sugar all over the buttered bread and she'd always say, "Now, don't tell your mother!"

My brother wandered through the kitchen door onto the sagging back porch. All these things I remember happened when I was very small, years before you were born, I told him. Do you remember much about this house? That back yard used to be about the biggest area in the world to me, with grandpa's paint shed away back there by the alley, and now look how tiny it all is. Can you remember how big this yard used to be?

"Can I?" he laughed. "I had to cut it!"

I turned then and caught sight of the colored glass windows in the little sewing room with the trap door to the cellar. Grandpa Rhodes left the trap door open one day when I was five, and I backed into it and fell down the whole flight of steps. It was a family crisis. Dr. Griep came on the run because I was knocked unconscious. He checked me over and said I had measles again-I didn't even have a bruise from the fall!

Those bits of colored glass still glowed with true primary colors. One or two were broken but miraculously, though vandals had destroyed everything in sight, the rectangles of pure color remained as mute evidence of happy memories.

My brother watched me. He touched one of the pieces of deep blue glass and it came away in his hand. He held it out to me. "Want it?" I wish I could have them all, I sighed.

"You got 'em," said my brother, giving a little push to the two rickety old frames and they fell out of the wall. He picked his way through the rubble- strewn floors and carried the abandoned, discarded, worthless windows to the car.

I know you think I'm silly, I said to my brother, but I love those worthless little pieces of red and green and blue glass. I remember how the sun used to shine through and make colors on the floor and on the sewing grandma used to have piled on her lap.

When I see those colors, I see grandma treadling that sewing machine at a fast clip and I hear her sing "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I'll Be There" ...

The houses of my childhood-gone, all gone. But they glow in my memory as surely as the sun will shine again through those bits of colored glass ...

Nov. 13, 1965

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