T.S. Eliot wrote, “Home is where one starts from.”
In just a few days the house where I grew up in Hancock, Wisconsin will be sold at auction. While this is an emotional event, it is not as if the home will be sold. There is a difference between a home and a house. I see things this way: home, after all, is something we carry with us for a lifetime; for James and me our family homes reside within, and are manifest in the way we live. The house, meanwhile, is just an empty shell that remains when family no longer lives there.
My Mom would have loved the excitement of a big auction. My Dad would have wanted the grass to be mowed and the lawn trimmed like it always was for decades when my parents worked to make the home look presentable to those passing by or visiting. By the time this auction takes place, I hope someone has had the decency to do that tidying up as a way to respect my parents, and the memory of our home.
Over the years I have written many times on this blog about the memories generated from the days back home with my parents, Royce and Geneva Humphrey. My ‘Letters from Home’ column has covered Sunday afternoons with the papers and pans of brownies, the memory of cutting a small Christmas tree, and the passing down of the old push mower. I am not now just starting to walk down memory lane. For most of my adult life, I have been recalling with fondness these simple types of events.
The reason they so often come to mind and bring a smile to my face is because of the appreciation I have for the impression they made on my life. There is no doubt that I am the product of my parents, and the man I am today is due to their influence and impact on my life.
What precisely are some of those foundations that were created in the family home, now awaiting the auctioneer, that have continually impacted my life?
Regardless of the year or season, one thing was a constant every day when I was growing up. Dinnertime was around 5:30PM, and everyone was expected to be at the table. For many of my years back home, a short prayer was said before we ate. Living in the country with a large garden meant that a ‘meat and potatoes’ type meal could always be found on the table. It was a diet of traditional fare, with a healthy mix of all those things you could find locally. Nothing was too fancy, but it was all nutritious. Just shortly before my Mom became ill in 2007, she was still reminding me that she had never had a taco out to eat.
The kitchen table in the early years had a Formica-type, black and white, small jigsaw design covered top that came from the late 50’s or early 60’s. Often my sister and I would look for images in the small designs that resembled a dog, bird, or some other object. Several months ago I again looked at the table, then stored in the garage, and easily spotted those images that I once hunted for when waiting for dinner to be served.
Mom’s kitchen was immaculate. James and I keep a pretty tidy home, but the memories of how Mom worked to make her kitchen sparkle and shine, with wall hangings and glass knick-knacks to enhance the color of the walls is something I will never forget. After she passed away it never again looked the same, nor was her kitchen ever as clean and well-maintained in the way that I had known it all the years growing up.
When I was older, and came back home on weekends the kitchen was the place to sit and talk. Mom may not have had all the answers to life’s concerns but she always listened and had something to add as we drank a cup of coffee. I think Mom was of the impression, as I am, that words come easier when a mug of hot coffee was being enjoyed.
While James is pretty strict about how much coffee I am allowed to consume each week, rightly contending that coffee is an appetite suppressant, we have still managed to recreate those feelings of hearth and security that were so ever present at Mom’s place. James and I make great use of our kitchen, and love to have friends and family into our home. We like folks to feel at ease as we gather for dinner in our brightly colored kitchen. Much like the days of my childhood, the kitchen remains the central place to gather for talking, and laughing—we just share a little less coffee than Mom used to, for my benefit, James tells me of course.
If Mom’s impact was felt strongly in the kitchen, Dad’s great presence in my life came in the form of a love of reading. My Dad was not a big reader, or a ‘bookish’ type of man. Yet, he always provided reading material and books as a way to spend time and open new horizons.
Dad and I never once went fishing when I was a child, never once watched any sporting event on TV, and I can recall the number of times when we played with a baseball—I wouldn’t even need all my fingers to count that. Never can I recall throwing a football with him. But there were countless times…and I mean countless…that Dad had me sit in his lap while he read to me.
Over and over the story of “Little Raccoon” was presented with Dad’s voice making great vocal intonations as the pages turned. Thinking back on that book, which I have along with all the others from my youth, makes me wonder how my Dad did not go crazy reading them to me for the umpteenth time.
He often read to me in a chair in the dining room. It was in that same room on the dining table where a neat stack of Stevens Point Journal newspapers would be placed. Six days a week one would arrive in the mail. Having a daily paper arrive in our home was one of the best ideas that he provided. As I grew up without television in my formative years, it was the newspaper that allowed me access to the world. That paper opened up so many ideas and hopes for me, and without it, I know my life would be much different, for the worse.
Indeed, Dad always made books special for me. On the kitchen counter, several times during a school year, coins would be laid out so as to buy some books from the Weekly Reader. The books might range in prices from 35 cents to a dollar. I would get up in the morning for school and there would be some coins so I could make a selection or two, and get some books.
What I find remarkable to this day is that child-like feeling of merriment as a kid over the joy of the books arriving in the classroom is very similar to how I feel when bringing home a purchase from Barnes and Noble as an adult. That lifetime feeling of joy over buying books started with some coins from my Dad’s pocket in my school days.
For years, since I have been out on my own, I have sought to find that special spot, a nook really, which I would call my reading spot. Out in the front yard of my parents’ home was a large towering oak that had the softest grass underneath. Except in the fall when the acorns dotted the lawn it was the perfect place to sit and read.
At age 49 I sat under the oak tree at home where I once read books as a boy.
I recall many an Ian Fleming adventure was enjoyed under the shade of that tree. It was while sitting in my twenties on a lawn chair on a Sunday afternoon in the back of the house that I started my first John Grisham novel. The autobiography of Richard Nixon came as I sat behind the pine row at home while enjoying the pleasant breezes that whispered around me. I can recall all the special places I had over the years, and when I read certain books.
When I moved to Madison, my Mom was concerned about the large city but told me, as I stood in the dining room by the stove in late 1986, that she knew of her kids I was going to be the one who would follow his interests. It was many years later during one of our Sunday afternoon conversations in that same room, after hearing stories about my friends, she remarked how glad she was that my friends did not smoke, and all were decent people. That may seem quaint, but she said it with sincerity. What she was offering for advice and hope in my adult years was the same things I had been instilled with many years before. She never had anything to worry about.
The values and simplicity with which my folks raised me at home are the ones I now use as my guide as an adult. There is no way for someone to meet me and not get a sense of who my parents were at the same time.
When I mow the lawn and it is trimmed and looking perfect I often take a moment and sit in a chair outside and look about. It is at times likes that when I feel the presence of my Dad. He would understand the desire to have it look just right. Then, much like I did as a boy back home, I sit in a chair and read outside.
It is inside our Madison home, in the piano (or pie-ana as my Mom would say) room where I feel the presence of my Mom. There the sun shines through the large windows and dances off the hardwood floors casting a golden hue on the surroundings. She would have loved the look and color of the room, the view to the flowers outside, and the fact that everything is neat and orderly. Then, much like I did as a boy back home, I sit on the little stool, my ‘sitting post’ as Mom used to call it, and dial up an old family friend or an aunt and chat, secretly wishing that mom could be listening in like on that party line we had when I was a kid.
I have, in my heart and mind, been saying good bye to my parents’ home for some time now. Last fall I had the chance to go to my folks’ place, walk through it, and gather some personal items. I only took things that had memories attached to them. On the top of my list of things I didn’t want to leave without were the ‘garden shoes’ worn by my Mom for those fast in-and-out trips such as placing clothes on the line, or grabbing a cucumber or a few tomatoes from the garden. Since we never wore shoes in the house, they were always placed alongside my Dad’s work shoes in the back entry. I searched high and low for the shoes, and felt somehow they must have been discarded. Finally in the last minutes as James and I removed piles of boxes and everything else from a portion of the garage did I locate her garden shoes. My Dad’s shoes were found off to the side. Now, both pairs sit alongside some flowers inside our home in Madison.
I have been continually filled with reminiscence since that visit. On the day my Dad passed away in the family home I thought of Mom and all the cups of coffee that we had shared over the years. It was a long horrible day of hour-by-hour waiting. My Mom would have had the kitchen organized, and she would not have forgotten that it is the little things like a hot cup of joe that help get people through the rough times. On the day my Father died, though, not one pot of coffee was made or offered.
As I sat alongside my Dad that afternoon, I realized that there was a real transformation taking place. Our home as I had known it all my life was slipping away; slowly, all that was left of the place where I learned my core values, where my parents showered us kids with love, all that was left of the place that day was a house. With the passing of my Father, the life slipped out of that home.
That is the type of thing I am talking about when I say a house may be sold, but not the home. While Mom always wanted a larger house to live in, there is no way she could have created a more loving environment for us to grow up. I have to hope that whoever should purchase this house at the upcoming auction will breathe a new beginning in to that wonderful old building, and that they will seek to make it a true and genuine home, just like my Mom and Dad did.
It is by embracing the memories of the past and folding them into the present that makes for a continuation of home life—then and now. I will gladly share some of these stories with the new owners, should they care to hear them.
The house where I grew up will be sold, and there are reasons for a tear or two. But the spirit of home that resided in that now empty house remains within me. It guides me on my way, just as it has anchored me in the past.
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
T.S. Eliot, from “East Coker,” from “The Four Quartets”