(A Tribute to my Aunt Janet and Uncle Max)
There’s an old dark brown Victorian house with white trim that sits at the bottom of a hill, through a wooded path, from my childhood home.
This is how I remember it.
The sidewalk that leads from the driveway to the back porch is the perfect slope, the perfect ramp for riding Big Wheels and tricycles down at top speed. If we couldn’t slow down enough by dragging our sneakers (which usually had little to no treads left from doing just this), then the steps to the porch would stop us. Or we’d roll off onto the grass and tip over. We never rode the skateboards down standing up, we just sat on them, like a sled with wheels.
There were two “garages” on the property in the back yard. Also dark brown with white trim. They were so very old, with creaking doors. It was dark inside and I could never see the back wall. It was filled with piles of stuff and boxes, weak sunlight filtering through the wavy glass of the old windows. I’m sure at one point the bigger one held a car, or maybe farm equipment. I just remembered them as the place that held an overflow of big Barbie toys that belonged to my cousins. The dream house, the Barbie cars, the big pink cases that held the dolls and their clothes, like a portable wardrobe. I used to love it when they’d pull out their Barbie toys, and I wanted to play with that stuff all the time.
There was no front yard to speak of. Even though the house was at the bottom of the hill in relation to my house, it (along with most of the houses on that side of the street) sat high on its own hill above New Hanover Avenue. Two very long, very steep flights of stairs led from the front door to the sidewalk below. The banks on either side were so steep I remember being scared of them as a kid.
The house belonged to our great grandfather. My dad remembers those banks well as a kid. They were “un-mowable,” too steep to pull or push a mower up or down, or even to go side to side. The only acceptable way to keep the grass cut, according to Great-Grandpa Gardner, was with a hand-held sharpened sickle. Apparently it was once suggested to Grandpa to try a newer cutter, one with a motor. He would hear none of that. And so those banks were cut with a sickle until he was no longer around.
I remember loving the view of the front of the house as we would drive by on the street below. It looked so regal sitting there atop that hill, above all those stairs. It was so familiar to me, and yet I felt as if I were also seeing it through other people’s eyes. “There’s that beautiful old Victorian house up there- it looks so much fancier than all these other houses.” It was nestled in between one-story ranches, small Capes, and a few duplexes. I knew it was the oldest house on the street (I’d seen pictures from when it was the only house on the street), and that it had watched the neighborhood grow up around it.
The backyard was where we played. The backyard was actually cut in two, by a gravel road that ran parallel to the street, and served as an access road/driveway to all those houses on that hill. At one time there was an above ground oval pool in the back yard near the house.
There was a big beautiful maple tree next to the garage closest to the house. In the fall it would drop so many leaves, it took very little effort to rake together what seemed to me the Biggest Leaf Pile In The World. We’d take turns burying each other in it, and circle around chanting, “Yay! The monster’s dead!” over and over and over until said “monster” arose from the dead… er, pile, and jumped out to tag us.
There was a metal swing set on the back part of the property, near the path up to my house. It was the kind that when you were swinging too high, the poles would start to lift up out of the ground. We learned to make sure that two of us weren’t swinging the same way at any time, lest the whole thing pull up out of the ground and tip over while we were on it. That was a real fear in almost every back yard at the time.
There was a big sand box there too, but I only remember playing in it very infrequently. Aunt Janet had warned us away from it because the neighborhood cats had taken to using it as a litter box, and if we played in there, we’d get impetigo. I didn’t know what impetigo was, but Aunt Janet was a nurse, and surely if she said stay out of the sandbox, then we surely stayed out of the sandbox. It was nothing worth risking, impetigo or getting in trouble. What Aunt Janet said, went. No questions.
The windows of the house itself were tall, seeming to stretch almost from floor to ceiling. At least it seemed that way to a child. The kitchen had a counter we could sit at, and a pantry with a window. Floor to ceiling shelves in the pantry- I thought it was so neat because my kitchen only had just plain cabinets.
I remember sitting at that counter eating a peanut butter sandwich. I’d left the crusts on the plate. My aunt tried to persuade me to eat the crusts. “Crusts make you have curly hair,” she’d said, as if that should be all it would take to get me to eat them. I stared silently at my plate. I didn’t want curly hair. At all.
The living room had a set of three tall windows that pushed out, hexagonal style, so the room had an odd shape to it. I loved the shape of that room. We rarely played in there.
There was a lot of dark wood, the trim, the furniture. I remember a dining room set of dark wood, and crushed green velvet seat cushions. It seemed very special and formal when I got to eat dinner in there with my cousins and aunt and uncle.
The staircase leading to the second floor had a door at the base of the stairs, which I thought was completely bizarre, but intriguing. I remember my cousins putting their pet hamster in his hamster ball for some exercise. We must have forgotten about him, and the ball thump-thump-thumped its way down the narrow stairs, banging into the door. With the poor hamster inside. Once we knew he was okay, we laughed about that for a long time.
Was I really there the day this happened? Maybe, maybe not. I may have heard the story so many times as a kid that I incorporated it into my own memories. I could see it happen as if I were there.
There was one bathroom in the whole house for four kids and my aunt and uncle at the top of the stairs; shades of golds and browns on some sort of patterned wallpaper, with a sloped ceiling. I remember it as cozy, my aunt probably remembers it as small.
The three girls shared a bedroom. They had the coolest room set-up I’d ever seen. I spent large amounts of time wondering how I could get my parents to make my room look like that. Two loft-style beds stood end-to-end, covering one entire wall, with rows of drawers underneath. Except for where the third bed poked out perpendicular to one loft bed, kind of bunk-bed style, but kind of not. They had a table with benches and storage compartments in them- which seemed cozier than a desk. And of course more practical for three girls sharing a room.
I don’t remember much about my cousin Max’s room, probably because I was never allowed in it. I seem to recall a curtain of beads in a doorway, typical 1970’s style, but I could be mistaken. Dark wood bunk beds could be seen from the doorway, on dark red carpeting. His sisters, I don’t think, were allowed in there either.
Our great-grandfather had lived there with all of his kids, and then with just his daughter, my great-aunt Esther. Then it was my uncle’s and his family’s. My dad remembers that the walls were made with horse hair plaster, and that at one point in his childhood there were open-flame gas light fixtures on the walls in the rooms. I didn’t really appreciate it back then, but today it is so rare to have a house “handed down” through generations.
I grew up surrounded by family- my Gram’s house faced mine, and two families of aunts, uncles, and cousins lived on adjacent properties. I essentially had four yards to roam and play in, an endless supply of hide-and-seek spots. And almost constant playmates because Gram babysat for many of my cousins.
My kids love to hear the story of how, when we were about 8, my cousin Alison called me on the phone one day, “Can you come over?” she’d asked.
“Lemme ask my mom,” I put the phone down and ran to ask my mom.
She said yes, as she almost always did, and I burst out the door, jumped down the three steps, and ran down the path in the woods that connected our back yards.
I reached her back porch, breathless and banged on the door. When she didn’t answer, I went in, and called her name. I mean, she’d just called to ask me to come over- I knew she was home.
I walked upstairs and found her sitting on her parents’ bed, with the phone to her ear.
“Who’re ya talking to? ” I whispered.
“You!” she said.
I laughed and realized I’d never given her an answer after I asked my mom if I could go to her house. The phone was still sitting off the hook at my house.
I ran all the way back home so I could hang up the phone.
Then I ran all the way back so we could get down to the business of playing.
I grew up with my cousins as my first best friends. And I share stories about them all the time: Christmas Eve parties and spring yard clean-ups at my Gram’s, endless summers of kickball games and fort building, and winter sled runs carved out of those paths. One day my kids may look at me and roll their eyes as I share a story for the eleventeenth time. But I’ll probably never get tired of sharing them. I want to breathe life into these memories as I write about them. The brown Victorian may have been sold decades ago, but to me it will always be my second home with my best friends in it.