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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unsettled 43: "What Makes a House a Home?"

Christmas 1975: "Coming Home to a Different House"

This was originally a very long post in more than five parts. I thought it would be the last chapter, but I changed my mind around New Years. consider "What Makes a House a Home?" the sub-title of the closing chapters of "Unsettled." Part III became Chapter 44; and IV-A became Chapter 45; and Part B became Chapter 46, and so on.

Part I

Dave and I lived in different dorms my freshman year (we’d forgotten to request otherwise), but the next year we signed up to live in the same dorm room, and it worked out fine. Our contact with home was the same routine we’d established years before. We’d go to the pay-phone on our hall, make a collect call home to my uncle, Dad declined the charges and then dialed the number of our phone booth. It was a trick that Bell workers considered a guilt-free perk.

On a Sunday in October, the phone call included some news Dave and I hadn’t expected. We knew it would someday happen. We had, after all, been working hard for three years to bring it about. We just didn't know it would happen that fall while we were away at school. Dad asked us to put the phone up to both of our ears, which was a little unusual. Then he told us as if it were not a life-changing announcement that they sold the house in Roseville and were moving out to the property. Hearing the news, Dave and I both made the same quizzical look.

“Is the house done?” I asked without thinking. (I always thought that the house would just suddenly be finished as if by elves at night, and mistakenly thought that Dad would not move in before it was done.)

“No,” Mom whispered, while at the same time Dad said,

“Not yet, but it’s warm and dry. What else do we really need?”

“Cool,” Dave said, nonchalantly, and the news seemed to have no impact on him.

“When do you move?” I asked.

“We’re already taking a car-load of stuff out every night, but we’ve got ‘til the end of the month,” Dad said.

“This month? October?” I asked.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” he continued, while Mom interrupted

“Don’t worry, Tom. I’m packing up your room in boxes and everything’ll be marked.”

“We’re putting each kid's boxes up in the attic for now. Then you can unpack them in your room later,” Dad continued.

“I can’t wait ‘til you’re all home for Christmas,” Mom chirped, trying her best to sound upbeat.

“Me, too,” I said blankly.

I don’t recall the rest of that Sunday morning phone call. I was stunned.

When I left two months before, I did not know it was the last time I’d step from that house. I don’t know that knowing would have changed anything. I don’t know if the me at age 19 would have done what the me at 50 would do. The me at 50 would have looked around the place; would’ve touched the things on the window sill in my room; would've sat at that kitchen table with the burned spot and watched Mom make a meal; would’ve run my fingers over the thousand dart-holes in the furnace room door; would’ve shouted one last time down the laundry chute; would’ve climbed one last time on the roof of the garage to look at the stars at night; would’ve gotten up early that last day home to sit on the slab porch where we boys spent so many summer mornings trying to think of things to do. I don’t know if the me at 19 would have done all that because so many significant things did not occur to me at the time…but the me at 50 would have done all that and more—well, maybe not the garage roof part—but my point is: I never closed the book on the place I’d lived since kindergarten. When I was packing up for first semester, I should’ve been boxing up my room.

Years later, I learned why the move happened so unceremoniously in October. A family friend at church, who had been married a few years, approached Dad about buying our house in Roseville. They needed a place before winter. He had a nice down-payment and was willing to pay the rest on a “land contract” direct to Dad. No banks involved. The house had been paid off for years, which made the business part of the transition as simple as some paper and a handshake. The untimely move infused some needed cash-flow into the “building fund” for the house and created a new source of monthly income to keep the sawdust fresh in a year when a wedding, a funeral, and tuition for three made pennies tighter than ever.

Though Dad hadn’t planned on moving quite that soon, he had planned on living in the basement. Do you remember back in chapter 36 when Dad explained the shower and the kitchen down there? That was all part of the plan: build a self-contained basement and live there while finishing the upstairs—sort of like what we had done on Atkins Road (except at that time, the first four kids were only ages 8,7,6, and 4). It seems reasonable to assume that living in a house while building it would help get ‘er done all the quicker. That was the theory.

The reality was that Dad left for his Bell office in Detroit before it was light and got home just after dark. All day, Jimmy was at school, Paul was at work, and Mom was alone in a basement in a house in the woods in the middle of nowhere. (The area is now called Chesterfield Township.). Don't get me wrong, it is a very nice walk-out basement as basements go with garden-level windows in a beautiful setting, but my Mom was three things at heart: a mother, a wife, and a friend to countless people, and all three roles were sophocating. In stead of feeling like she was looking out garden-level windows, she felt buried neck deep.

She was a mother-of-five but now three of the five children were gone.

She was a friend and people-person to whom human interaction was as natural as a cricket’s chirp. Mom was a talker. She found it as easy to visit with the stranger at the grocery store who had the same brand of stewed tomatoes in her cart as she did with Kay next-door while hanging laundry on the line. Mom had adapted to suburban life. She grew to love the very closeness that made Dad want to live out in the woods away from it all.

Out at the new house, Dad put up a clothes line, because he knew Mom liked line-dried things, but the few times she used it that first fall made her miss Kay next door, and at that time there were no other house in sight, much less a neighbor that she could talk to. Worse yet, every phone call she made from the new house was long-distance and showed up on the monthly bill. Mom had a network of close friends who were all making supper at the same time. For years their casual conversations added laughter to the sound of pots and pans and the smell of potatoes boiling over. Now every minute showed up on a bill, which meant no more carefree chats over a pot of goulash or hamburger gravy.

Supper time was still "prime rate" business hours, and a few hours a day was exorbident. Even so, if Dad had it to do over again, he might consider that big phone bill money well spent, but hindsight is always hind. Which brings us to that third role.

Mom was a “home-body-house-wife.” The last “job-job” she had was at Star Oil in Port Huron back in 1951. Then we kids became her job. She did not mind being at home, and in fact, loved making it a place we all liked to be. In another set of chapters (Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe), I wrote of Mom's longing to recreate the feeling of home she’d left behind on her wedding night. The first place she felt she had succeeded at that was the house in Roseville. It looked just like the hundreds of houses around it, but it was finished and Mom made it a "homey" home for fourteen years. By contrast, her days in the unfinished basement of their “dream house” felt quite the opposite. She knew it was only temporary, but Dad considered the house in Roseville "temporary" so that was of little consolation. Her instincts to “feather the nest” were thwarted by the realities she saw at every turn.

The ceilings were the light brown printed kraft-paper of Owens-Corning insulation. The walls were soft fibrous brown panels with the yellow word Celotex printed repeatedly on them from floor to ceiling. There was no furnace. Dad planned to heat with wood, but the Ben Franklin stove was no yet in place. Baseboard electric heaters kept things comfortable with only the faintest whiff of ozone each time the came on. The floors were bare concrete. The only interior door in the entire house was on the basement bathroom. Jim’s bed was in the room with theirs, and Paul’s was out in the main room to the left. There were no closets. Clothes hung on poles Dad suspended from the open floor joists above. Dressers were out in plain view with the other furniture brought from Roseville. Mom’s kitchen cupboards were just what the word originally meant cup boards, shelves with no doors. Every pan, every can was there to see. Likewise, the entryway closet, the first thing seen upon stepping in the back door, was full of coats and shoes and boots, but the bi-fold door was not yet hung.

To Dad these were small matters. He saw no point in fixing up the downstairs when his goal was finishing the main floor so they could move out of the basement. To him, it was just like they were camping for a while. He joked and smiled about the clever rigged-up accommodations. That might have worked when they were in their twenties on Atkins Road, but they were now in their forties, and Mom found it harder and harder to smile when he did it.

The truth is, Mom had faced more change in the past five months than she was able to bear. Add to this the fact that she was beginning that “change of life” called menopause about which the men around her clueless. Had Kathy been home, it might have been different. Kathy had a way of helping Dad see things from a female point of view. Mom had the viewpoint but through the years had somehow lost her ability to express it. Kathy could have helped, but she was married and far away; Dave and I were also gone; Paul was busy working and dating his wife-to-be; Jimmy was only seven; and Dad was at Bell forty hours a week, on the road ten hours a week, and upstairs making sawdust in his other waking hours.
Mom was never more alone in her life, and one night, after a hard day in late November, she just broke down. I wasn’t there, but it was worse than anything we’d seen before—way beyond the power of a good cry. It was a struggle that was years in the mending, but an important first step happened that night. She did what most wives would’ve done in the first place and told Dad she couldn’t live like that another week.

Now I realize that most wives would have laid out much greater demands, now that she had Dad’s attention, but all Mom expressed that night was that she didn’t care if the basement was temporary; she’d lived with “temporary” for years in the past and knew the word meant nothing. Dad simply had to make the basement presentable. Christmas was coming. The kids would all be home, and she wanted tile on the floor; a closet door in the entry way; curtains on the windows; cupboard doors; some sort of room for the boys so the beds weren’t right out in the open; some rugs to warm up the cold floors.

“I don’t care about the upstairs right now, Don,” she cried,”This is where I have to live, and I can’t live like this. Kay says she’s going to drop by, but I don’t want her to see us living like this.”

“Okay, Bev...” Dad whispered, “We can do those things. Shoot, I can get most of that done in a week or two.”

“Then let’s get started. I mean it, Don!” Mom sobbed, “I can’t live like this.”

“I’m sorry, Bev.” Dad said, “Really, I am. Don’t cry. I didn’t think you wanted to get too comfortable down here. We can get all that done before the kids come home.”

“Let’s start with Curtains. So I don’t feel like people can see in.”

“There’s nobody out here to see in,” Dad joked, “But we can get curtains. It’ll help keep things warmer.”

“And it will make it look homier, Don. That’s what I’m talking about. I need it homier. Then let’s get some doors on the cupboards, and I want some real walls so I can hang some of my things, and…”

“Honey, you don’t want me to sheetrock these walls. That’ll take weeks and make a dusty mess of the whole place.”

“Well, we can at least hang some pictures so I can see something besides the word Celotex everywhere I look.”

“That’ll take a lot of pictures,” Dad said looking at the walls.

Mom laughed, and Dad laughed, and he knew there was hope behind this new honey-do list.

Part II

Though Dave and I lived in the same dorm room my sophomore year, we did not travel home together for the Christmas Break of 1975. He rode home with his friend Don E., and got home by bus. It was after midnight when my folks picked me up in Roseville. It was great to see them. Mom later told me that she had gained twenty pounds, but honestly, I didn’t notice. As we drove away from the bus, it felt strange not heading toward our house on Buckhannon. Instead, we got on I-94 and drove out to the property. I had never gone to the property so late at night. (I’d driven home from there this late many times before, but never had I driven there so late at night…and never had it been home.

“This feels weird,” I said, meaning no harm.

“Does it, Tom? Why?” Mom asked with concern.

“Not weird in a bad way. Just different.”

“I know what you mean,” Dad said, “I’ve taken the Ten Mile exit after work a couple of times and had to get right back on.”

“Did you, Don?” Mom asked. “You never told me that.”

“I never thought much about it,” Dad said.

“I don't have the tree up, Tom," Mom non sequitured , "but we've been doing a lot to make it cozy,”

“We’ve made a temporary room for you boys,” Dad added.

“Upstairs or downstairs?” I asked.

“Downstairs with us,” Mom chirped.

“You’d freeze upstairs,” Dad said, “I haven’t got the baseboard units in yet.”

“I don’t care where we sleep,” I said, “It’s just good to be home.”

“Does it feel like home, Tom?” Mom asked sincerely.

“Well, we’re not there yet, but yes, I feel like I’m home.”

“Do ya, Tom?” she asked again.

I said the words I knew Mom wanted to hear, but actually, it did feel weird just as I’d said a minute before. True, being in the car with Mom and Dad made me feel like I was home in that I was with them, but all the other intangible feelings and factors that define “being home” were a few miles in the other direction.

When we pulled into the two-track driveway on Sass Road, I began to open my door out of habit. Since 1968, we had to get out of the car to open the gate. It was nothing fancy, just a long, heavy log that we hefted off to the side as if it were a giant hand on a clock moving from nine to noon. But the car did not stop as it turned in, so I pulled the door shut.

“You noticed,” Dad laughed.

“No gate?” I said.

“No need for it now that we’re out here.” Dad said.

“Where did you put it?” I asked, always curious about such things.


“You cut it up?”

“What else would we do with it?” he asked.

It seemed to me that the gate had earned a better fate after all those years, but I didn’t want to sound ridiculously sentimental, so I didn’t reply.

“Haven’t got a chimney for the fireplace to burn it yet,” Dad said, looking at me in the rearview mirror, ”But we’ve got enough firewood cut already to last a few years.”

The headlights of the car wove to-and-fro across the trees that line the drive and then they fixed on the dark house, a shadow of black in the trees. I had half expected to see the windows softly lit, but from there in the driveway only the upstairs was visible and it was far from the days when lamps would light its windows. But as we rounded the corner to the back of the house, I saw the light by the back door, and to the left of it, the kitchen window glowed from a light over the sink.

I couldn’t help but smile as we stepped out of the car to the trunk. The air was cold, the kind of cold that wraps each spoken word in frost.

“What?” Mom asked.

“Nothing,” I said, then added, “It’s just kind of exciting that’s all.”

“Is it, Tom?” she asked, half surprised but happy to hear it.

“I was hoping we’d have snow,” I said grabbing one of my suitcases.

“Were ya, Tom?” Mom asked in the same affirming tone. These short questions were new to me at the time, but beginning then and throughout my adult life, my mother would sometimes ask short questions of confirmation like “Were ya, Tom?” They were not true questions in that they were meant only to underscore what had just been said because it was exactly what she wanted to hear. In this case, her face lit up because my hoping for snow meant things were still as they always were, that we still looked forward to—and were connected by—inexplicably simple things. She rattled on about her hopes for snow as the three of us carried my luggage to the back door of the house.

”Is Dave home yet?” I asked.

“He got home a few hours ago,” Mom said, “He’s already asleep in the bedroom. Just think: the three of yuz in one room again. You’re the top bunk over Dave.”

“Paul has to work in the morning,” Dad added, “So be quiet when you go in there.”

“Tick-tock-double-lock,” Mom said as Dad unlocked the door and the deadbolt. It was an expression I had never heard her say in Roseville where we never locked the house, but in the decades to come, she said it out loud nearly every time she locked or unlocked the house.

On the other side of the back door, looking up from the floor with his tail wagging was our Springer Spaniel, “Prop.” [His name was short for “Property” as explain in this old post]. He looked happy to see me, as if I had just been gone for a long walk. Dogs do not seem to reckon time, and their affections seem never to fade in our absence. He was not an inside dog, but when it got cold, Dad would let him sleep just inside the door.

“Hey, Prop!” I whispered, rubbing under his chin, and then I looked around. “Wow! This looks nice.”

“Here, Tom, give me your coat.” Mom said opening the bi-fold door of the closet.

“When did you tile the floor?” I asked.

“Oh, not long ago,” Dad said. “We’re not done yet. We did the bathroom, laundry room, this entry, and the kitchen but we’ve got the whole rest to do.”

“Looks nice,” I said stepping into the kitchen. “Wow! The ceiling is finished.”

“Just here in the kitchen,” Mom said. “We’re not doing the rest for a while. Do you like the curtains? They match the table cloth.”

She was not referring to the window curtains but rather to white and orange gingham curtains hung on the cabinets instead of doors. On the table was a vinyl tablecloth in a similar pattern.

“These are just ‘til we get doors,” Mom smiled.

“Well, I’m going to hit the hay,” Dad said abruptly, “I’ve got to go to work tomorrow. Then I’ve got Saturday and all next week off.” He gave me a hug and a firm squeeze and double pat on the back.

“Good to have you home, Tom. Don’t stay up late, Bev. It’s been a long week.”

“Good night, Dad.” I said, “I’m really tired, too.”

“I’ll not keep you up. I just wanted to show you what we've done so far.”

I walked into the next room and saw her piano against the “L” of the brick wall. At the top of the brick wall, where the corner meets the floor joists, there was a bird’s nest, which had been there since the spring after Dad built the wall.

“You kept the bird nest?” I whispered.

“That’s your dad’s idea,” Mom laughed. “He hated to take it down.” [That nest is now gone, but it’s worth noting that it remained there for about twelve years.]

“So where is the Christmas tree going?”

“Are you disappointed that it’s not up? I just haven’t been able to get in the spirit, Tom.”

“No I didn’t ask where it was. I asked where are we going to put it.”.

“Right there in the corner. I didn’t want to decorate it without you guys. You and Dave can bring it down from the attic tomorrow. Here’s you boy’s room. It’s not really a room. We just put up some more Celotex for some privacy.”

“Works for me,” I said yawning. ”’Night, Mom.”

We hugged, and she kissed me on both cheeks with a loud "Muh!," a thing she knew I hated, Then she slipped into the door opening in the back wall of the basement, which was their bedroom. I went to the bathroom, stumbled back into the make-shift room, and climbed up into the second bunk. In the darkness, somewhere to my left, I heard Paul’s voice say, “Welcome home, Butthead.” He always had a way with terms of endearment.



Blogger the walking man said...

You need not be concerned about the finishing of the story Tom. These past five chapters your style of writing has changed; become less reportage and more sentimental and empathetic for everything you have related over this past year.

You have, in your own mind I think are summing up slowly finding words to make your conclusion. Thinking that this is the end of the story.

You have done well thus far but I also want you to know that I personally feel that all you have done here, every word you have written was to bring your family, friends and readers up to date.

I personally appreciate every word you have written thus far and am up to date but I don't suppose I need remind you that the generations continue Grandpa, ergo this entire work truly is but a chapter.

Be Well Tom. Be Very Well.

27/12/09 8:56 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks. I needed that.
I do need to wrap this up for a variety of reasons, probably the first is the fact that I am becoming a Grandpa in about four weeks, and I think I'll be thinking much less about this story at that time. The other reason is I hope to self-publish some copies of all these chapters for my siblings and as you know getting something from blog to presentable page is an undertaking.

This long chapter and Part IV which remains has been one of the most cathartic writing experiences of all the chapters.
Thanks again,

27/12/09 10:41 PM  

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