By MARILYN SHAPIRO
Larry and I have lived in three homes in our almost 45 years of marriage. All three have been lovely, after we made them our homes with our personal touches. None of the places we lived, however, ever could compare to the memories I have of the house in which I grew up with all of its nooks and crannies.
It Becomes Our Home
In 1952, my parents moved from Potsdam near the St. Lawrence River, to Keeseville, on Lake Champlain. At the time, real estate was limited, so my father found the one house large enough to accommodate Mom, the three children, and a cat. It was an old but proud 1899 Victorian set on a pretty lot and only a block from Pearl’s, the department store that my father managed.
The front entrance to the house required climbing seven steps to a small porch and a front unheated vestibule. A large oak piece with a mirror graced the right side; an old makeshift storage closet on the right side of the door held all the outerwear needed for the four seasons of Upstate New York.
Beyond the foyer, a large living and dining room stretched out across the entire front of the home, with an oak arch dividing the two rooms. Guests often joined us around the oak table for Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving, and Passover.
The blue sectional in the living room came from Pearl’s warehouse, it was never what my mother wanted, but it was what we could afford on my father’s small manager’s salary. I have memories of sitting on my mother’s lap on that scratchy couch, listening with my thumb in my mouth as she read me various Golden Books—the Brave Little Tailor, Dumbo. A piano, first an ugly orange upright and, in 1963, a small baby grand, filled the rest of the space.
Straight ahead from the front entrance was another door that opened up into the kitchen. When the house was first purchased in 1952, it was the saddest room: one single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, outdated appliances, cracked linoleum floors, a pantry covered with cobwebs and—to the joy of our cat—filled with mice. It was the first room to undergo a complete transformation, the finished room had wood cabinets, a stove with a double oven, a large refrigerator and enough space for hold a Formica-topped metal table with six matching chairs.
Later, just below the clock on the far wall I remember a hole in the yellow linoleum. That memory reminds me of that day when I was eight years old and threw a fork at my older brother, Jay (a fairly violent reaction to his teasing), which thankfully missed his head before lodging in the yellow wall covering (I don’t remember getting punished.). The door to the right of the hole led to what had been originally the house’s only bathroom with its claw-toothed bathtub. Another memory: In another fight with Jay, he twisted my arm when I refused to stop bouncing an orange against that infamous yellow wall. I passed out. (Jay got grounded for two weeks.)
A back door led to a small-unheated vestibule— that was where fresh milk was delivered.
To the left of the kitchen was a small, dark room that became the office. Mom did the store’s bookkeeping on the massive metal desk. The wall behind her was covered from top to bottom with bookshelves that held secondhand encyclopedias, cookbooks, history books from American Heritage, tons of children’s books and 75 rpm records ranging from classical masters to Frank Sinatra and included Danny Kaye reading Hans Christian Anderson. A chair with a table lamp had served as my gateway to the joys of reading on my own.
A second door in the back of the kitchen led to an unfinished and unheated room which originally was a storage area and, through the back window, access to a 30-foot clothesline that was tethered to the house on one end and to an old oak tree on the other. Soon after we moved in, my parents converted it to a family room by adding insulation, paneling, and a tile ceiling. Two recliners faced the television; the one on the left was my father’s retreat after dinner every night he was home. Mom took the chair on the right, usually engrossed in a book while Dad watched Perry Mason—originals and reruns.
An enclosed staircase at the far left end of the dining room led upstairs to four bedrooms. The first on the left was my bedroom. A trapdoor to the attic—which was never accessed—was a source of nightmares for me, as was the long, narrow closet that ran along the side of the room. When Bobbie was born in 1955, she slept in the crib and eventually the twin bed next to me. Other than her breaking a ceramic squirrel that held my glasses and watch, I don’t remember any fights occurring over our being “roommates.”
Jay’s room was next to mine. A large closet had been cut to make the second bathroom that required walking through his room to use. It gave me a chance to check out his stash of Superman comics. When he found out that I had touched them, he tossed them all out, a decision he lived to regret years later when such comics sold for some decent return.
Laura’s room was next to Jay’s. It had two twin beds with pink bedspreads. As she was eight years my senior, I was in awe of the crinolines and poodle skirts that covered her floor and the make-up and costume jewelry that covered her dresser. When she left on a fall Sunday morning in 1960 to enter Geneseo State College, I asked my parents five minutes later if I could move into her room. My mother asked me to wait until at least the bed was cold. To make her feel better, I waited an entire 24 hours.
My parents’ bedroom was a treasure trove of nooks and crannies. The huge closet had a secret shelf that I found out years later held the store receipts and cash brought home every Saturday night until Dad could make the deposit at Keeseville National Bank on Monday morning. The maple bedroom set included a long dresser that held my mother’s green jewelry box and a glass tray that held Evening in Paris, a package of Sen-Sen mints, buttons, and safety pins. At the end of their double bed was a large oak chest filled with pillows and blankets, and when emptied became a wonderful boat or train. A second “closet” was carved out of the space above the downstairs foyer. Also unheated, it served as a storage room and a spillover closet. My mother’s long, maroon bathrobe hung in that closet—when I wasn’t taking it out to play dress-up.
Shenanigans Under The House
The main basement was accessed from still another door in the kitchen. Fourteen wooden steps with no railings led to a warren of four rooms that held, respectively, the washer and dryer; the old coal furnace; the “pantry,” which held extra canned food in case of a nuclear war, and a small room that held paint, Dad’s tools, and, behind a thick wooden door, paints and chemicals. A second basement, a root cellar, was under the family room and only accessible by a half door with a peg for a lock at the back of the house. I remember on several occasions my brother Jay and I, prodded on by an older neighbor opened up the door that led to that dark root cellar, where we lit magic snake pellets in the dirt. We quietly watched them uncoil, turn black, and then turn to ash. Years later, when I shared this secret with my mother, she was shocked. “You could have burnt the house down!” she exclaimed.
Much changed over the 30 years my parents owned the house. Its three porches, one on the side, one on the front, and one behind the kitchen, eventually succumbed to age; it was easier for my parents to remove rather than replace. The metal kitchen cabinets were replaced with wood; the bathroom and its claw-toothed tub was remodeled soon after I went to college, and the downstairs got carpeting. In the late 1970s, Mom and Dad had the house sided in green vinyl, a definite improvement over the white chipped paint.
Can You Go Home Again?
In October 1981, my parents sold the house and moved into their cottage year round. Larry and I came the weekend of the move with Adam, who was three and a half, and Julie, who was six-months old. Everything they wanted to keep was moved to the cottage, where they took up full-time residency until they were able to retire and live in Florida half the year. The rest they had put in a U-Haul for us to sort through once we emptied the contents into our one-car garage. That was the last time I set foot in the house, even though we have driven past it innumerable times.
Like the last scenes in the movie, “Titanic,” I often dream of the house and the memories it holds for me and my family. And one day, I will have the time and courage to knock on the front door and introduce myself to the current residents—the same family that bought it from my family almost 30 years ago. I will ask if I can wander through my childhood home, and I will check all the nooks and crannies one last time—looking for traces of that brown haired, bespectacled child and her life in that old, nostalgia filled house.
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. Recently, A second compilation of her articles printed in The Jewish World has been published. Tikkun Olam now joins There Goes My Heart. Marilyn Shapiro’s blog is theregoesmyheart.me.