HOUSES – Part II
In the first 10 years of my life, I lived in five “houses.” [Details in Thursday’s Child post, February 3.] I use quotation marks around the word houses because one of them wasn’t a house as we usually define it.
After school was over the year I was in fifth grade, my stepsister went back to California to live with her mother.
The rest of us—my mother, stepfather, and me—packed up and moved to southern Missouri, where we lived on a red-clay hilly farm eleven miles from the Arkansas border. The landscape was lovely, though unsuited for farming as we knew it in Illinois, and our location in the foothills of the Ozarks meant we had hills and hollers, winding roads, and a small mountain (remember, I’m still about 10 years old then) behind our house, just across a creek.
We also had a variety of poisonous snakes: rattlers, water moccasins, and copperheads. I had two experiences with snakes. Once a humongous snake slithered through the yard and went right under our house. (Adult knowledge says it was a harmless black snake, but I was still 10 years old.) I had nightmares for weeks, waiting for that big old snake to come up through the floor into the house. (It didn’t.) Another time, I was sent to the hen house to gather eggs. As I went out the door, Mom reminded me, “Look before you put your hand into the nest, there might be a snake there.” That time I almost didn’t look first, and snatched my hand back just in time to avoid an unfortunate meeting with a you-know-what. I dropped the egg bucket and fled screaming to the house.
I attended another one-room school, eight grades, maybe sixteen students. Being from the north, my accent was “funny” to the other kids. But I had books to read, and a library in a nearby town, only four or five mile as the crow flew, but by road. . . .
After southern Missouri, we moved to Wichita, Kansas—and that was much less stressful. (No snakes.) Even though Wichita was the largest city I’d ever lived in—300,000 in the early 1950s—I knew about streets, traffic lights, and noise. I walked to school, sometimes with my neighbor across the street, sometimes alone. We lived in half of the downstairs of a two-story house—two apartments on the ground floor, sleeping rooms on the second floor, and the landlord’s apartment in the basement. About all I remember of that year is that I liked seventh grade—different rooms and teachers for every subject; I learned to love art—made a marionette for the show we put on and was chosen to be the voice of Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast.”
The only downside of that year in Wichita came in the spring when my mother got sick. She felt bad enough to go to a doctor, unusual in our family. Only later did I learn that her health was part of the reason we left Wichita and moved back east, nearer home.
The next year, our little family split up. For eighth grade, I lived with my dad and stepmother in Charleston. Mom and my stepfather moved to St. Louis where they got jobs in a factory.
Eighth grade was rather fun. I was once again in my hometown, and I recognized kids I’d known in third and fourth grades at Lincoln School. We lived in one of many small ranch-style houses my dad built in Charleston, and I rode a bike all over the south side of town near the college. Dad bought a television set that first summer, and I got my first taste of game shows and soap operas. They were all right, but my real love was listening to Cubs games on the radio.
Then school was out, my mom and stepfather returned to Illinois, and I went to live with them in a small town called Lerna, population about 300, located several miles southwest of Charleston. As soon as school began in the fall, I met a girl a year ahead of me; we rode the school bus together to Charleston High School, and became great friends. I often spent time at her house, partly because she was one of five kids, the only girl, and was needed to help her mom with cooking, laundry, ironing, and cleaning. The other part of spending time with her was so I could experience what it was like to live in a big family, have older brothers who teased, and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Her house was old and run-down, but I don’t recall ever thinking that was a bad thing. Just different.
Our two-story house was the former Methodist parsonage which we lived in rent-free in exchange for janitorial duties at the church next door. For the first time I had an upstairs bedroom from which I could look out over the little town and make up stories about the people who lived there.
We lived there all my freshman year in high school and part of my sophomore year, until Mom was diagnosed with cancer and had to have major surgery. In the mid-‘50s, hospital stays could be quite long. She was in Decatur a few weeks, then transferred to Charleston Hospital. By the time she returned to Charleston in October, I was told her illness was fatal and she wouldn’t live very much longer. She died the end of April 1956.
During Mom’s hospitalization and after her death, I lived with my dad and stepmother in various houses. Dad would buy an old house for us to live in, build another next door, move into the new one, tear down the old one. Repeat. I don’t know how many times we went through that cycle, build—sell—build another.
Our last abode was a big trailer, or mobile home, perched on a narrow lot above a deep ravine at the edge of town. I didn’t sleep much while we lived there. Central Illinois is in the heart of Tornado Alley—high winds from the west made the mobile home rock. I became a worrier par excellence during those two years “on the edge.”
Houses—of whatever type—have always meant a lot to me. I’ve lived in so many that I no longer have an image of the ideal home. But in my heart, I recognize that any house can be a home if the people there love each other, or have love to share. I now live alone, without a dog to talk to (though I often talk to myself, another story there), but I’m not lonely. The love that sustained me through the years of living in many houses is still with me.
Today I celebrate the love that keeps a house from being merely a place to go to when it’s time to eat or sleep. May you have that kind of love in your life.