This is the first in our series of non-fiction pieces focused on childhood homes.
# 34: Summer on the Main Line
© 2010, Evin O'Keeffe
Chirping from birds outside the window and the faint smell of toasting bread stirred my head. I climbed down from the hand-carved double bed, hearing the bedsprings sing as they gave up the burden of holding me. This was the bed that held my Dad when he had chicken pox and the house where Grandma and Aunt Margaret grew up as sisters. It was summer on the Main Line outside Philadelphia. My feet landed softly on the worn wood floorboards with the faintest of creaks. I listened to voices floating through the bedroom door, slightly ajar from when my Grandma crept out earlier. I hadn't heard her, but she was much quieter now that she wore a hearing aid. I followed the voices into the hall and felt the wool runner rug under my still bare feet. For a split second, I considered putting on the rainbow-colored slippers Aunt Margaret had crocheted for me, but it was too hot and they were too slidey on the wood floors anyway. The landing was quiet with morning light streaming from the front bedroom, catching dust floating in the air. It smelled like the rest of the house – stale varnish, cotton linens, and the flowery scent of Grandma.
There was something secret about the time I had before anyone knew I was awake. It was just mine. It felt like I was invisible and could see what the world was like without me, even if only for a few minutes. Walking up the spiral staircase into the third floor of the house, it grew darker. The leaves of the trees pressed against the attic windows, shading them in green. The back bedroom had a sleigh-shaped. My hand traced the streaks in the marble top of the dresser, feeling the cold smooth surface of the stone. I wandered into the bedroom next-door, feeling and not minding the stifling heat. I looked at the painted bureau and the candle on top in a little metal holder. The candle looked tired since it had leaned over and was flat against the yellow paint.
Laughter drew me back, pulling me to the second floor landing and its wide, wrapping staircase. I crept down on my tip-toes, alternating between straddling the center carpeted section and dangling on a step's edge so I wouldn't be detected. My hand glided along the banister, taking in the smooth worn top and the shiny varnished sides, still descending the steps like a they were stones in a stream. At the bottom of the stairs, I turned to the front of the parlor. Grandma's piano stood against the wall, smelling of old wood. Angels were carved into it and the feet looked like real claws! I sat on the piano stool and twirled once, hoping no one heard me. I looked through the stair railings and saw no hint that I'd been heard so I twirled once more and stopped facing the front window.
Aunt Margaret's sewing basket taunted me from the window seat so I went over to it. My fingers felt the letters on top "M-G-M". She said she made it, but it looks too shiny. Shiny things aren't made, they come from a store. I opened the lid to the colorful assortment of thread, ribbons, and a shiny pack of needles nestled in red gingham fabric. I loved sewing things, even things that didn't need it, but I wasn't allowed to sew on the furniture. Mom let me sew flowers on my summer shoes with a thick thread and they're pretty now, so I don't know why I can't do the same for the sofa. I would want a sofa like my shoes if I had my own house. I gently closed the sewing basket and crept across the room to the little den, careful to move quickly so no one would see me.
This room smelled of books. Not the new book smell like my school workbooks, but the smell of old books with dark, dusty covers that look like the cracked arms of a leather chair, flaking off at the edges. The fireplace was off, but at Thanksgiving, it was the best room in the house with the warm glow of the log. I slid my finger along the spines of the books and what remained of the gold and black lettering. This room also held the one television in the house. Like my Dad's, it made a noise when you switched it on and it took time to warm up, making static popping noises as the screen changed from black to a picture. When the picture got zig-zag lines, you had to hit it on the top or side for the lines to go away.
I stepped over the threshold back into the parlor and looked up at the high ceiling, listening to my Grandma humming in the kitchen. Peering through to the dining room, the Philadelphia Inquirer sprawled out on the dining table alongside a plate with crumbs and forgotten globs of preserves. The ducks would like those crumbs. Maybe I could run back up and get dressed and go feed them before... Spotted! "Look who it is." My Aunt Margaret's enthusiasm made my being awake seem as gleeful as Christmas morning. Her chin-length hair bounced in wavy curls and a wide smile greeted me. "Is that my Evin?," Grandma walked in from the kitchen. I rubbed my eyes so they'd feel like they were part of the first moments of my day and not know about my secret adventures.
Grandma and Aunt Margaret were kids once in this house, but now they were a grandma and an aunt. Grandma was just the right size and shape, undefined by real world measurements, with a crown of gray curls. She liked to do all my favorite things and she hugged and played and read with me. I thought that was what all grandmas were like. This morning, she wore her short-sleeve nightgown, white with pink flowers sprouting from green stems, and pink satin-trimmed house slippers. I wondered where she kept her hanky when she wore short sleeves. Aunt Margaret wasn't soft like Grandma and her gray curls were longer. She laughed and joked all the time because that's what aunts do. This morning, she wore her slippers too and a flowery short-sleeve robe over a matching nightgown. This was how women dressed, little girls like me wore matching camisole and shorts sets, but one day I'd sleep in nighties and have quilted slippers with little satin bows and maybe even wear my hair in short curls. I wondered at what age my hair would stop being straight and start looking like Grandma's. And when would I get round and squishy? I didn't mind being "skin and bones" now if I knew I'd be a cuddly grandma when I grew up.
"How about some breakfast?" Aunt Margaret asked me. Everyone always tried to feed me. Grandma always made the best food though. I loved her crunchy burned rye toast with butter. My Mom's bread was always doughy and soft. Aunt Margaret asked if I wanted cereal, but I knew it wasn't real cereal, it was puffed rice from the big glass jar on the kitchen counter. No, I didn't want rice for breakfast. Aunt Margaret said it was her favorite and she was fun so her food must be too. She set a bowl in front of me with a spoon. "There you go." She then cleared the table, carrying everything into the kitchen on a shiny metal tray. My hope for toast fell as the butter left the table.
Noiseless, the puffed rice floated in the bowl of clear milk. I took a bite, slurping the cold milk from the spoon with as few pieces of cereal as I could. It wasn't crunchy. With my hand hard at work stirring the spoon around the bowl to make "eating noises", the bottoms of my feet searched for the butler's button under the table. The wool rug scratched at my toes like walking in dry grass. Found! Sliding down my chair to reach it, I pressed the button with my foot and heard the hum from the kitchen. "Stop that, young lady, and eat your breakfast." Aunt Margaret called from the other room with a pretend strict tone. Grandma smiled as she folded a section of newspaper with a crinkle sound. When Grandma was with me she wasn't thinking about anything else. Not like Mom who always has lists in her pockets or Dad with his work. She was watching me swirl the cereal around in the bowl and not even mad that I wasn't eating it. "You don't have to finish it, but drink the milk, dear." She whispered. Aunt Margaret didn't wear a hearing aid. I held the bowl up and pushed the cereal away with the spoon, slurping up the sweet milk until the grainy bits were left then went straight into the kitchen to hide the soggy puffed rice in the waste bin.
After breakfast, I pulled a step-stool to the sink and started washing the breakfast dishes. I loved that it was MY job and Aunt Margaret would come in and playfully tell me I missed a spot or that she could see her reflection in one of the clean saucers. This morning, she had already gone upstairs so it wouldn't be as much fun. The kitchen was filled with the scent of morning sunshine, Dawn dishwashing liquid, and Philadelphia tap water. My parents' sink was dull silver, but Aunt Margaret's was like a bathtub for dishes. I had to be careful because it would break things. I tried to see out the window into the backyard, but only saw the shed roof and tree branches. With suds on my elbows from playing in the soapy water, I dried my hands on my pajamas and snuck to the back door to look out. My eyes took it all in, looking for the bunnies. The grass was a green carpet with the occasional bird hopping along, but no rabbits. I loved Easter here because a family of bunnies would come out from under the shed.
Grandma approached from behind, "Do you want to feed the ducks?" I turned with a smile and saw she was holding a wrinkled plastic bread bag filled with crusts and heels. She saw my smile and continued, "We need to get dressed first." I wore my play clothes and Grandma and Aunt Margaret had on their grown-up dresses. Grandma's was like Aunt Bee wears on 'The Andy Griffith Show' and Aunt Margaret sported a button-up dress like Mary Tyler Moore wears, we walked between gardens to the duck pond at Haverford College. I loved visiting my ducks. Grandma tore the bread apart piece-by-piece throwing each bite to the smaller ducks while Aunt Margaret threw a handful in so all the ducks scrambled to get their bills around the bread before it got soggy. I broke the bread apart then squished the pieces into little balls of dough that were easier to throw farther so I could give my bread to the shy ducks. I could spend the whole day there, but it was time to go home.
Evin O'Keeffe is an American living in Ireland, avid photographer, and author of 40 Shades of Life, Spring Stitches, and Cooking Peas & Q's as well as co-chair of the 2010 Pink Auction breast cancer fundraiser.