THE brooding sky and the sound of lonely winds through the maples accented the emptiness of the old house. I brushed away a cobweb and opened the upstairs door, not bothering to find out if the bare light bulb still functioned. I knew the stairs in the dark, and wanted to experience the house again as it had been when I was growing up. That was during the war years, before the Rural Electrification Administration had found us in the Iowa fields between township roads, and had come to brighten our walls and lighten our work with electricity.
The third step creaked on my way upstairs, and suddenly the house wasn't empty anymore. It was a below-zero early morning, and Papa - long gone now - had just opened the upstairs door to begin the daily drama of waking those of us 10 children who were still living at home.
The ``girls' room,'' shared by two and sometimes three of us, was directly west of the stairway. It was smaller than the ``boys' room'' down the hall.
That was fair enough, since there were twice as many boys in the family as girls. What was not fair was that their room had a grate in the floor, directly above the kitchen stove. Ours had none.
The fragrant heat of burning corncobs and maple logs, penetrating the close air of their room in the early morning hours, must have made the thought of getting up at least a shade more endurable than it was for us girls, who had to face the shock of icy linoleum under bare feet. True, as even my five-year-old mind had admitted, they had to pay a high price for this comfort - they had to do the milking in the frosty barn, while we were allowed to stay a half-hour longer under home-stitched quilts.
To stay longer. This is not to say to sleep longer. When the stair door opened and the third step creaked, morning began for all of us.
``Kinder, steh' auf!'' we heard from that particular step the first time around. The voice was not quiet, but not loud, either. So Papa's first call worked as effectively as clock radios would work on the next generation of children - that is, not at all. Perhaps our auditory nerves stirred for a moment in response, but our consciences did not.
We all knew that this first ``Kinder'' call was not meant for any one of us in particular, knew that the night's chill still ruled the kitchen, that the ice still had to be cracked in the water pail, and that the water in the steam kettle had just begun to warm. So we slept - or pretended to sleep - blissfully and guiltlessly on. Until two creaks, following in unhurried but relentless succession, announced that Papa had climbed to the fourth step this time.
``Kinder, es ist bald Zeit. Steh' auf.'' The voice was louder, firmer now. Yet we ``Kinder'' knew that the best response Papa could reasonably hope to elicit from this second effort was a delicious snuggling down more deeply under the blankets. Only on beginning days of Lent, when resolutions were still young and strong, did this second call sometimes persuade arms of varying ages and lengths to dart forth briefly into the morning air, find socks and long johns waiting on bedside chairs, and pull these on for warming.
We heard four descending steps and the door shutting again.
Minutes later the door flew open with irresistible energy and determination. This was the real alarm, one that we dared not shut off. ``Kinder'' had been a vague call to nameless, hapless German children. But now specific persons were about to be summoned and, depending on one's place in the family roster, the command would soon or eventually be directed at one's very own self.
``Kinder, steh' auf!'' we heard again. And then... ``R-Ro-man.''
Silence. I sometimes wonder now if Papa had placed his hopes on the effectiveness of an initial ``R'' trilled on his native German tongue when he had named his oldest child.
``R-R-R-Ro-man! Bist du auf?''
Silence. (One marvels at the stolid faith of the man.)
Then feebly, from far down under the shelter of five winter quilts, came the muffled response: ``Ja.''
We girls dozed on, but dreams were slow in coming. We knew that the roster of names would grow inevitably shorter and that too soon the fourth step would creak for us.
Now, shivering in the doorway of the girls' room, I noticed that the putty had cracked and fallen from the windowpanes again. The wind rattled the glass and whistled through the narrow space it found there. I zipped my jacket and pulled up the collar, snuggling into its woolly shelter as best I could.