Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The 100 Year Old House

Does a building have a soul? Can a structure possess a spirit? Is it possible for a house, the wood, cement, metal, paint, (duct tape), and glass, to somehow contain an aura of some metaphysical force, something our eyes cannot see nor a camera record? Clearly, without verifiable information such claims cannot be made. But when I see the home of my mother’s childhood and turn the steering wheel which pilots my van to exit State Highway 33 and enter the plot of land legally claimed by my family and step foot on the aging wood porch the question of whether or not this house may withhold some essence of an unseen entity capable of surviving within the very edifice itself.

Since 2006 the family home, located between the small hamlets of Driggs and Tetonia Idaho, can be called the 100-Year House. A family reunion to celebrate the structure’s century mark occurred in the summer of the home’s auspicious birthday bringing family, some traveling across the country, together, each reunion participant having their own recollections anxious to share with whoever will listen.

I close my eyes and I see the house, though the scene playing in my mind occurred decades in the past. The house exists, but it looks older 30 years ago than it does today. Behind the aging home is a small yard surrounded barely by picket fence in a state of much-needed repair. A spigot can be found a few yards from the home’s back door. Beyond the picket fence lies a barn. It barely stands. Inside the barn dairy cows—only a few—stand at attention as my grandfather, a widow now married to the work of keeping his farm operating, hooks up the automatic milking machines, he winks at his grandkids as a suction sound emits from the milkers as they spring almost magically to the udders, the sounds of milk drawn echoes inside the space, a space filled with the thick, almost musky smell of hey, bovine, and manure. When finished, the milk filled dull gray milk cans which were placed in a ditch in front of the house, a ditch where water birthed from the snow pack high in the Teton mountains kept the milk cold until a dairy truck came along and collected the fresh milked. In exchange the dairymen left empty cans to fill with delicious Teton Valley milk.

There are other buildings on the farm, but my mind’s recollection is fuzzy on their condition. The smell of the barn, however, remains with me to this very day, as does the smell inside my grandfather’s home. We usually visited my grandfather in the summers. I do remember a time when we were there in winter. It had to be winter for it was in that house I experienced one of the coldest nights of my life. I slept in the front room, a room my cousin’s family uses as a family room today. I was very young when I slept through that dark cold night, but I distinctly remember the weight of all those blankets heaped upon me. My uncle in his memoirs wrote of the cold winters growing up in the house, commenting on gaps in the walls where the bitter cold wind felt little resistance in its attempt to gain entrance inside the abode. I have little doubt if I slept through a windy evening, the only thing between myself and the outside weather was the dead weight of all those heavy wool blankets.

For any child, the thought of a hidden room, a mysterious area in an unfamiliar house is fascinating. Grandpa’s house held just such a space, the attic. With my eyes remaining closed, I can see the attic. Just south of the kitchen there was a door. Open the door and a set of stair greets any who dare enter. If my recollections are correct, I believe the attic was not an area in which our parents wanted a group of curious grandkids rustling about, the reason being an unsafe set of stairs and an attic floor rife with floor sections unworthy to be called supporting. But oh, the treasures in that attic were wonderful! I just wish my mind could remember the specifics. Without these details, I have no factual evidence the attic held any object of any worth, however, when I enter an antique store, I imagine the items in that attic would most likely eclipse the antiques contained therein. I believe I remember my brother and cousins identifying a shortwave radio once owned by my uncle, though I never saw any radio. As I think of it now, it is highly possible they were identifying the spot in the attic where my uncle set up his radio, a place where he heard from other shortwave radio operators during World War II, each relaying important news from the war, news of battles on both fronts, and even news of soldier’s deaths. Upon hearing of a fallen soldier, my uncle would send a postcard to the family telling them of the terrible news and offering his condolences in the off chance that the family had not yet heard the news and needed to know what was happening. As my uncle tells the story, he imagines now that these families most likely received mail across the entire company with similar notices of regret at the unfortunate news.

The attic was not the only interesting place in Grandpa Knight’s house. Inside the kitchen stood a huge wood-burning stove complete with swinging door in the front where wood or coal could be fed into the metal beast and stove top covers, thick and heavy, that required a tool with a hook on the end to remove them and allow the stove to accomplish the tasks for which it was made. We moved from the kitchen into the home’s family room where another stove, placed immediately on the other side of the kitchen stove, heated the communal space. Wood paneling lined the walls and furniture, better suited to a home in the 1960’s, filled the meager room. Things I notice in homes now, things like pictures, the color of paint, even square footing of a given room, the mind of a child five, or six-years old would not perceive, and nor did I. How I would love to be able to transport back in time to stand as an adult in that room, peer at the home as I see things now. Observe the furniture, the incredible simplicity of the stoves as the home’s only source of heat, once again climb the rickety stairs and survey the visual feast of family history contained in one abandoned space above the home my grandfather’s father built in 1906. Since I cannot control the time-space continuum, the best I can do is to close my eyes and see it once again as I saw it then, not a true representation I am sure, but the closest I will ever get.

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