Everything about my childhood best friend and her brother – who was the first boy to tell me he loved me – was unique. They talked with an old dialect charm, “deaf,” was pronounced “deef,” and other words came out slightly differently than modern pronunciations. They were the only kids I knew who grew up in a house that had no electricity. Our house had electricity put in the year before I was born. They were also the only kids I knew that did not have running water. They had an old hand pump, perhaps twenty feet from the door into the kitchen. Eldon carried buckets of water for his mother every day that I knew him. Their father had been a blacksmith, as was his father, and grandfather, and their father before them, and all on that same property in Sanilac County, Michigan.
For lunch in the winter, they each carried a huge foil-wrapped potato to school for lunch, and each of them had half a stick of oleo to put on their potato. The oil heater in the back of the school was hot enough that they could put their potatoes on the top of it in the morning, and have perfectly flaky baked potatoes for lunch. In warmer months, they carried cheap white bread sandwiches of either peanut butter or of oleo, which is half margarine and half lard, and sugar. They carried their lunch in an old covered tin pail, just like kids of a century before.
Donna could touch her tongue to the tip of her nose, which was always fascinating to all of us other kids. Both of them were born after their parents turned 40. Eldon was born first, and then Donna, 18 months later. Their parents were religious, steady people, Christian Scientists who did not believe in going to a doctor. While they were growing up, Donna and Eldon never saw a doctor, though they probably saw the same eye doctor the rest of us did when we were taken by our teacher to a medical fair somewhere in Saint Clair County. I believe she used the pretext of the 4-H Fair there to have that exam done, and to get some of the children vaccinated. I doubt their parents were ever told about either.
The house they grew up in was old, perhaps the oldest house in the immediate area. It had been built by their great grandfather. It was a wood frame house, with an immense front porch which rested pretty much right on the ground. I don’t know what kind of foundation the house had, if any, since building codes were a long way in the future when that house was built.
The house was cut up into several small rooms. The kitchen was small, and had a large wood cook stove in the center of one wall. On either side of the cook stove, which burned summer and winter, was an opening with a curtain nailed to the top of the door frame. One room was a pantry, with shelves and drawers for dry and canned goods. The room on the other side was where they took baths in a galvanized tub, so they could dump that water out the front door when they were done. That room was used only during the coldest months. They bathed outside, between the house and the adjoining woodshed, in warmer months. It was an area that could not be seen from the road or from the fields.
The kitchen had a buffet cabinet for linens and more. Attached to that was a mirror, which had long since seen better days. An image of me, as I looked at myself standing in front of it, was yellowed and wavy. Above that was an even older print,depicting the five senses. That was probably the most secular decoration in the house. Other decorations were needlepoint Bible verses, and cross-stitched crosses. I was frequently troubled by some. They scared me.
Off the kitchen was the parlor. It was never called a living room. It had furniture from before we were born, and perhaps before Donna and Eldon’s parents had been born. The sofa, very close to the pot bellied stove, was an old horsehair sofa; the hair prickled my legs whenever we sat there. It was Eldon’s bed the entire time I knew him, from age 7 on. His job was to get up at night and put more wood or coal in the stove to keep the fire from going out in cold months. It was the only other heat the family had. Off the parlor were three small rooms on one side. One was their grandmother’s bedroom. She was the maternal grandmother. I never knew her first name. Like Donna and Eldon, I called her Grandma. She made some income for the family as a seamstress. She made the most beautiful, small, perfect hand stitches I have ever seen. I once saw her making a bridal veil for someone. It was perfect when she was done.
One of the rooms on that side of the parlor was their father’s bedroom. I don’t think I ever went in that room. The center small bedroom was filled with religious icons and an organ, the kind that used foot pedals to pump the air, and a variety of knobs, that when pulled changed the key. The room was used as a prayer room, but no one in the family played the organ, except the occasional foolish and discordant play from the three of us kids. I was fascinated by it and wondered about how Eldon felt about a room that could have been a bedroom for him but was used for this organ, a vanity in a household of non-musicians.
One last bedroom downstairs was on the other side of the parlor; it was their mother’s room. It held not a bed, but a sleeping couch, a divan, with no arms, but the head of it curved upward. It was likely a chaise, and was covered in an old velveteen fabric, in a color of unknown origin. It was covered with heavy quilts in every season. I once asked Donna why her parents did not sleep in the same room. She said it was because her mother had violent nightmares almost every night; she screamed and flailed about in her sleep.
At the top of the stairs was Donna’s bedroom. No door separated her room from the stairs, so she could get the heat from below. Their mother always had a Puritan suspicion of what her son might do when alone with his sister, so he was forbidden from ever ascending those stairs. Donna had a nice bedroom set, including a full size bed with a real mahogany headboard and foot board and the vanity I loved so much. She had many trinkets: a hairbrush with inlaid mother of pearl, a matching hand mirror and comb. She had a hope chest, in which girls kept hand embroidered linens in for their hoped for future, marriages. Donna explained it had been her mother’s chest, and her mother’s things, before it had been passed to Donna.
Donna said her mother had been engaged once, before she was married to their father. “The night before she was to marry, her fiance killed himself,” Donna whispered to me. “My mother never wanted to look at these things again, so they are mine.” The vanity had been a gift from the groom’s parents, and they did not want it returned to them after their son’s death. It was the vanity where Donna and I sat and did each others’ hair and where we whispered about the boys we knew.
A door next to the vanity opened to three successive bedrooms, non-utilized, except for storage. They were full of every kind, color, and shape of clothing from that era and for perhaps a hundred years back. Donna and I loved to play dress-up in some of those clothes, when the weather was not so hot we sweltered, nor so cold that there was frost in the air. We spent many hours up there doing that and modeling in front of a full length mirror on a stand.
They were hoarders, before that word was applied to people like them. They had copies of every Sears and Roebuck catalog and Montgomery Ward catalog, that had ever been printed, stacked in chronological order in their woodshed. They frequently had a neat and imposing stack of newspapers, the Port Huron Times Herald, in a wooden box in the kitchen; that wobbly stack of papers often rose nearly as high as the ceiling. Ones that were not used for fire starting were lovingly bundled with twine, in dated order, and stacked in the woodshed beside the catalog collections.
Two big barns, fenced barnyards, pig pens, calf huts, chicken houses, and perhaps two or three sheds, rounded out the immediate buildings. In addition to those, was the blacksmith’s shop, where their father did welding, since there were no more horses to be shod. It was so full of this and that kind of thing that the work area had dwindled to a space just large enough do repairs. After their father bought a used car and got a job in a nearby factory, he parked the car in that end of his work shed. Their father, a good man named Floyd, was slow in everything he did. Slow to speak, and his words came slowly when he did decide to speak; he drove slower than anyone I have ever known. I rode with them a few times, and he crept along, never getting used to a pace faster than a horse could go when ambling along. He was well-liked by many, despite his disdain for speed of any kind.
Their mother’s name was Anna. She was the most deeply religious woman I have ever met. She earnestly believed if she had enough faith, and God willed it, he would cure her cataracts. She loved her children, and was intent on putting the fear of God in her children and in me if I happened to be asked to stay for a cookie or two. On these days, we all knelt, including Anna, on the cold, cracked linoleum floor of the kitchen, our palms together in front of our faces, and our elbows on the seat of the chair in front of us. She read from the Bible first, a verse or two, and then immediately would launch into a sermon of her own making that almost invariably included some references to what happened to bad children and hellfire. I was patient enough and pious enough on the surface to sometimes merit two homemade cookies when we were done praying. I was not so pious on the inside. Eldon never pretended to be and often giggled and pinched his sister. He got his cookies, anyway.
I saw these two children every day at school and walked with them after school for the seven years we all attended the one room school. They had hard lives, never having enough to eat, never having central heat, nor running water in their house. They were my friends, and I loved them for who they were, and what they didn’t have was less important than who they were to me. We had many baseball games in the yard, climbed trees together, ran the fields and woods, and played together in my grandmother’s more manicured yard and garden, in her barns, and in the grain storage part of her chicken house. We caught pollywogs and turtles together and went through puberty together.
When the one room school closed, and we went to different town schools, I missed seeing them every day. They were two of the most unique and interesting kids I ever knew. I loved them then, and I love them to this day. Eldon still lives on his parents’ property, though the old house and woodshed are gone, caught on fire in a lightning strike after Floyd died and Anna had gone blind and was in a nursing home. I think the house was tired of living, and did not want to live after Floyd, Anna, and the old woman were gone. Along with the fire, went a way of life that is gone forever. I miss it, and I miss them.
Other articles and poems by Sandra Snow:
“Airborne,” a poem. http://voices.yahoo.com/airborne-12255705.html?cat=47
“Left at School,” a memoir. http://voices.yahoo.com/left-school-12274141.html?cat=47
“Sweet Apology,” a poem. http://voices.yahoo.com/sweet-apology-12255696.html?cat=41
“The Thumb of Michigan and a Dozen Things to do There,” a travel piece. http://voices.yahoo.com/the-thumb-michigan-dozen-things-there-12247304.html?cat=16