Father scrubbed the steps, Mother kept the peace
THE brown stone fa,cade and white stone steps, which my father used to scrub, had endured. The hot Chicago sun gave the stone a hint of a sparkle, like a pebble picked up and kept because it has a special mix of nature's ingredients. This house was special. It was built in the late 1800s when workmanship was exceptional. My family had moved into the house in the 1930s. I had come back to visit my childhood home.
I turned the brass-plated doorknob and, stepping through the vestibule, opened the second door. In the front living room the huge wall mirror caught my reflection.
I stood and looked up at the ceiling. The hand-painted rose border was faint, but visible. The doctor who rented this house to my parents so many years ago did not resent a black family with six children. He had requested that my father not paint over the roses.
This front room was a special-occasions room. Flowers had banked one corner when a sister married here. I had been a bridesmaid.
It had been a World War II wedding, hastily gotten together while the groom was on leave. Nevertheless, with all helping, the wedding was beautiful. The bride wore white and the groom had on khakis. Another sister and two brothers also got married in this room.
Our Christmas tree, complete with electric trains encircling it, had adorned the front windows. A player piano had stood in one corner. Lace curtains, starched and dried on an adjustable stretcher by my mother, had hung at these windows.
My steps echoed on the once beautiful hardwood floors, now stained by a water leak. This second ``parlor'' had been our family room, a phrase not used until many years later. I opened the door of the closet under the staircase. Our only phone had been in that closet. It held secrets of conversations shared from adolescence through the ``courting years.''
The original gas lamps flanking the fireplace stood as silent reminders of the Victorian age. Long before our family moved in, electric lights had replaced these gas lamps.
Our 78 r.p.m. record player, which once stood near the window of the second floor, had hummed or blared with the music of Billie Holiday, Rachmaninoff, or spirituals. My mother's favorite rocking chair had been turned toward our first television set.
The huge carved sliding door, which could be pulled out of the wall to separate the dining room from the front of the house, still slid out effortlessly, a tribute to the enduring workmanship of this house.
The Tiffany lamp, hanging from the ceiling, looked forlorn not presiding over a table. The size of our family made it a necessity that this dining room was used every evening for dinner and on Sunday mornings when my mother made ample breakfasts.
Those breakfasts were memorable, especially when I think of today's fast-food meals. I remembered hot flaky biscuits, sausage, ham and eggs. Fried green apples flavored with cinnamon. Sometimes pork chops with gravy or brains and eggs scrambled together. My children react with the popular ``Yuk!'' when I mention the latter dish to them. My husband, however, on trips to the South, hopes to find brains and eggs on the menu.
At mealtime we discussed everything. My father stared at us when we giggled too much. My mother kept the peace.
From the dining room I opened the swinging door into what was once known as the butler's pantry, a small hallway with built-in shelving. This led to the kitchen.
I looked at the corner where the cooking range, with two ovens and a warmer oven, had stood. I remembered the aroma of gumbo or chili cooking, sausage stuffing being made, or fruit cakes for the holidays. My mother gave fruit cakes as gifts.
On the enclosed back porch off the kitchen we kept Pinky, our pet rabbit, named for her translucent ears. She used to curl up and sleep next to our dog. Pinky could never be toilet-trained, so the house was off limits to her.
GOING back through the kitchen and up the narrow back stairs, I wondered what life had been like for the original occupants. These back stairs, which we had run down as children or used as a place of solitude, led up to a small bedroom. A hall disconnected it from the front bedrooms. Here the original family's servants could sleep and descend to the kitchen without being seen or heard. That same bedroom had been shared by my brothers and later by a brother and his bride.
I couldn't go to the front bedrooms. Age had taken its toll on this beauty of a house. The water leak had done more damage upstairs. But mentally I could place each piece of furniture, window, and door.
I could see the skylight in the hall and the broken railing where my younger sister and I used to ``spy'' on an older sister and her date below.
I remembered the steam radiators against the walls, which had hissed out warmth and comfort from the coal-eating contraption in the basement. I used to draw pictures in the dew that collected on the windows, as the warmth greeted the cold.
As I descended the stairs, I thought of the love and warmth that had filled this house. My family had lived the joy of the good times and felt the love of each other during the sad times.
I felt gratitude to my family and this house that had endured our growing-up years.