Thursday, March 05, 2009

House Stories: From 100 to 99

House Stories is a collection of personal narratives, a teaching experiment in History of Domestic Architecture (Wesleyan ARTS 637). See Introduction, and Table of Contents.

FROM 100 TO 99
by Katherine Chabla

Part I: Orientation

The storehouse of my memory opens most fully in a wood frame house on a straight flat suburban street. A short sidewalk, curves up to concrete slab serving as a stopping point, at number 100. From that spot I have counted the steps it takes to get to my current home, another wood frame house. A mere 52 steps, in my short stride, brings me back home again across the street. The house I have lived in since 1986 is one I have known since 1961. I grew up looking out upon its façade, admiring the lines of its entry, knowing its first floor interior spaces but never dreaming that it would one day be mine.

Backing out of the garage in the rear view mirror of the family station wagon I could see number 99, the white colonial house which I now call home. The route I took from 100 to 99 was neither short nor direct as that driveway. It was more like the curving walkway that joined our front porch to the town sidewalk, the street and the world beyond.

My earliest recollection of this house comes not actually from the house itself but from one of the triple bay garage doors. Opening vertically, the paired paneled doors swing out on metal hinges, lock into place, and are released by a pull chain. While functional they create a sound, which in the early morning would drift across the street, past the bold, raucous sounds of blue jays in the dogwood tree outside my window.

Mr. Johnson, a classic New England gentleman, produced that sound with punctuality as he went out to work in his dark green truck labeled in fluid gold letters “Johnson Brothers Painters”. I admired that truck, but never went inside it. I loved that man too, for his craftsmanship, his knowledge and because he cared tenderly for Mrs. Johnson, his wife who had become crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. They were the original owners of the house, which they had built in 1930.

As a tradesman he was the expert neighbors would turn to for advice on projects. He was not the know-it-all type, but rather the resourceful sage whom one could go to for instruction on any practical matter. A neighbor told me how Mr. J. would not interfere with efforts over a project, but wait, watching you struggle and fumble towards resolution. He drew the line sharply between knowledge and tools. Knowledge he would lend when asked, never interfering with advice until asked.

Tools which he had in abundance and variety, we would never ask to borrow, as he in fine New England reserve would not lend.

Tools and hard work were the foundation of this house. He built this house with profits from his commercial painting business. Tools were the means by which he supported his family. I learned then that a person reveals much about himself in the use, handling and care of their tools. I heard and saw Mr. Johnson using tools and ladders. His tools led to the soul of this man, the means by which he earned money, what he used to build this house. The 99 house was an extension of my home at 100. I heard it, gazed out upon it and occasionally entered it. I was an admirer, looking out from my childhood home upon the simple lines, the stateliness of a house between two trees, fringed with porches, showing New England grace and reserve.

The two entries intrigued me. On the back porch there was an entry enclosure where we left baked goods, and other food offerings for Mr. Johnson. A small open box was labeled “messages”. It had a circular pattern of holes drilled into it.

The front entryway was a glass enclosure which sheltered the front door. The house protected Mrs. Johnson, who in her later years, spent many hours immobilized by her illness, on the couch in the living room. She endured much disfigurement and pain. Mrs. Johnson was a crotchety character whom I also loved, because she was difficult, demanding. She had the raspy voice of a smoker. Mrs. Johnson could release the front door from the couch via a mechanism which Mr. Johnson had configured. My siblings and I did whatever she wanted. We would bring flowers to her, and go on errands to purchase her cigarettes. We were trained in neighborly compassion. We did not to cut through their yard, ring their doorbell or let others cross the boundary of respect that the house and its occupants merited.

Until, one day, many years later, when my husband did the unthinkable. He told Mr. Johnson, who was then in his late 70’s, a widower of many years, that if he ever considered selling his home we would be interested in buying it. I nearly fainted. The obvious and evident excellence of this house had never occurred to me as anything other than Mr. Johnson’s home. Nor had we discussed this unthinkable plan. As I recovered from the audacity of the statement, we sat in the backyard of my childhood home discussing the merits of the 99 house. When Mr. Johnson died a few years later others were interested in buying the property. His two sons came to us. All the years of neighborly concern and gestures made the house ours. This house was bought with compassion, shown slowly over two and a half decades.

Subsequently, we learned he had designed the entryway while his family rented nearby as the house was under construction. Horses were used to dig out the foundation; peaches were a favorite of the Johnson’s, evidenced by the concentration of peach pits in the spit of ground outside the back door. He taught my dad how to harvest and make beach plum jam.

His spirit is here, we summon him, when needed. I petition him regularly when I can’t figure out some domestic mystery. He comes through for us. He scribed shelves and storm windows with numbers, left his lead based paint formulas on the work bench in the basement. Mr. Johnson provided a personal narrative which we found behind the wallpaper, which he hung on winter months when his own work was slack. They are dated letters, note weather and economic considerations, and are poignant missives from his inner self. In one he awaits the arrival of his first grandchild, in another he sadly notes that his wife is no longer able to ascend the stairs.

We are happy to inhabit his house, it has become our home. His frugal economy and hard work during difficult times made it his. Money, good fortune and foresight on the part of my husband made it ours. It was his architectural eye which made me consider the possibility of making Mr. Johnson’s house our first home. In the years of staring out the windows of 100 I never considered I would live here. Forty years later, I still recall the squeaking metal sounds of Mr. Johnson opening the swing doors of the garage. Now that sound is ours, as it resonates through the years.

Part II: Disorientation

A mockingbird calls in the hush of night, repeating harsh tones from a tree top height deep in the hours of darkness in which we lay dozing. Awakened, I respond and reach, with some type of muscle memory, for the first available light switch that will not disturb the dreams of others. I drop my left hand down along the cream colored wall seeking the thermostat and switch. It is not there.

The house I awoke in is across the street from where I grew up. They do not share the same layout. Memory reaches out and turns on the light in the household of my youth. The switch is there, not here, it never was. Light switches don’t move, at least not overnight.

Tonight, here in the home of my adulthood, all our children are dreaming. Now downstairs, in the darkness of my dining room I check to the right of the door molding. The switch is there, but I no longer need it. Touching, without flipping it, assures me that I inhabited the house of my childhood in my dreams. When I awoke to the call of the bird, I reached for the light switch in the house of my youth. Reassured, I go upstairs again, to return to our sleeping family, here in the house which holds our dreams.

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