I had a strange experience Saturday afternoon. I am in my home town in Northern, Illinois for my 50th High School Reunion. I decided to drive by my old neighborhood to see what my childhood home look like. So much has changed since I left that house almost 50 years ago. The swamp I used to play in is gone and there are houses there. I loved that swamp. The clear water, filled with cattails and frogs and tadpoles and water bugs was
fascinating to me. My playing down there did not please my Mother. As a result the backs of my bare legs developed an unfortunately close relationship with a willow switch as she walked me back home – damn that tree. That did not stop me from returning often to the swamp. The cornfield that was half a block away is also filled with houses. One thing I noticed had not changed was that there still is no curbing on the street.
I slowed down the van as I came around the corner on which the house stands. There was an older man in a wheel chair on one end of the large front porch. I slowed to a stop when I saw a woman come out the door of the house and sit down near the wheelchair. I got out and went up on the steps telling the woman that I had grown up in that house. She did not seem to understand. She patted the man and said “Daughter,” while pointing to the house next door, the Latham’s old house. I asked if his daughter was home. The Caregiver seemed to understand and answered that she was.
I walked over to that house on the other side of the vacant lot I used to play in, stepped
up on the porch and rang the doorbell. I saw a window shade next to the door move just a little. I waited. Then I rang the bell again. I waited. I decided that whoever was in
the house didn’t want to open the door to a stranger, so I went back to the van. As I was walking I noticed the woman on the porch making a cell phone call. I was hoping she was calling the man’s daughter. I got in the van and started to drive away. Then I saw someone come out of the front door on to the front porch of the Latham’s house.
I pulled in the drive, walked over and explained why I had stopped. His Daughter asked if I would like to see the inside of the house I grew up in. Of course, I said, “Yes.” She went in to get the key and said she would meet me at the house. She entered the back door and let me in the front. The front porch looked much as it did when I lived in it, except that the screens were gone. I looked up to see the same old bead board ceiling that was there when it was my house. When I stepped into the house, the living room, dining room , and the arch in between the two were just as they had been. The wood floors were the same. The
chandelier was gone, the one my brother Dave used to kick when he was walking around on his hands. His Daughter became an award-winning Gymnast in college.
The kitchen had changed some. Mary, seemed to enjoy the history I shared describing the way it looked when I was a child. She was curious what had changed and what appeared to be the same. They have been trying to restore the house in a way appropriate to the years our family lived there. The rooms all looked the same. They had a keyboard where we had the piano. They did some much needed remodeling of the bathroom, but had not made major changes to the basic layout. The doors were the very same doors that were there 50 years ago.
She took me upstairs where I saw the oddly shaped storage rooms, my Sisters’ bedroom, and the small front room that served as my bedroom when I was young. As soon as my Brother Dave moved out, I got his room, which I remember as my bedroom through most of my childhood on through high school. It is there in that room that Mary opened the closet door and I said loudly, “It’s my closet!” The closet is narrow and long with an odd configuration not particularly conducive to hanging clothes and getting to them.
We walked down to the basement and I pointed out the ledge next to the back door on which the Milkman put the glass quart bottles of milk, the ones with paper lids. Usually Mom ordered four homogenized and one with the cream separated and floating on top.
The cream would be whipped with powdered sugar for whatever dessert demanded it.
Greg and Mary are remodeling the basement to make it into an apartment. I showed Mary where the water had gushed into the basement every time it rained in our years there. I pointed out the area that had been the coal bin, and described the way the coal was delivered. The truck backed into the driveway next to the basement window that opened into the coal bin. The driver got out a portable conveyor belt, lifted the bed on the dump truck and slid the coal into the bin. It was a great spectacle for a young fellow.
Dad’s and my job when I was older was to use the coal shovel to fill a bucket multiple times, each time pouring the bucket of coal into the stoker, a metal container with a worm drive at the bottom. The worm drive provided a steady stream of coal to the fire that ran constantly. One of the strangely entertaining jobs I got to do on occasion was take the clinkers out of the fire. Clinkers were produced as the coal burned. Whatever was not consumed would clump together in various sized remnants. The smaller pieces went to outside to keep the cinder driveway firm and dry. There was a bit of anticipation that came with the task as I hoped to come upon a very large clinker. It was much like a fisherman seeking a catch that was worth talking about. Gravity carried the heat through the arm-like ducts that connected to the smaller ducts in the walls leading to the various rooms in the house. The huge furnace was gone and a much smaller and more efficient natural gas furnace was in its place.
We walked through the back yard, talking about the history of the houses and the people
living there, at least to the degree we knew and remembered it. The row of Lilac bushes that I remembered was still there. The nine large, stately Dutch Elm trees that stood in rows by the side and front of the house were long gone along with all but a handful of the other Elm trees in Aurora (Dutch Elm Disease). One treat was to see the restored 1930 Ford in the new garage. My first memory of a car was my parents’ 1939 Buick.
I met Mary’s Husband and children as we stood in back of their house (where the Latham’s had lived) and looked at huge trees I remember the Latham’s planting. Mary and Greg had installed a huge waterfall and pond. Denny Smith’s house on the
other side had been removed and replaced with a gazebo surrounded with gardens
filled with blooming flowers.
What a remarkable experience. Time seemed to be moving like a slinky that day, compressing and expanding at will. It is as if after almost seven decades of living, my life is beginning again, this time starting with a lifetime of experience. One writer refers to this time in life as falling into the second half of life. If that is an apt description, I have no idea where I will land.