Sunday, June 8, 2014

The House that Built Me: Living Room

It's funny, the things that will trigger a memory. A friend posted a link from a few-years-old clip of a late night television segment. In it, the show's current guest was railing about the advances in technology and how the wonders that brings are turning us into an impatient, ungrateful society, without perspective.

One of the examples he mentioned related to smartphones now compared to those old models with the rotary dial. That was all it took to set me in motion down a trail of memory lane. I commented "... My Gram had one of those heavy black rotary phones! In fact, I think I was in college before they even had a second phone at all. It used to be just that one beast of a phone. And if I wanted to use it, I had to sit right next to the desk in the living room. And I didn't dare move more than a few inches, because I would have pulled it off the desk onto my head and killed myself. It was a weapon. And it made that sound, when you dialed, that only those old phones made."

I am suddenly fifteen and sitting on the old red living room carpet. No matter how I positioned myself, whenever I talked on that phone -- and I talked til my grandparents rolled their eyes so hard, I started to fear *theirs* might actually get stuck that way -- I was eternally in the way. Gram was stepping over me. (What an obnoxious little twit I was, in retrospect, making my sweet Gram STEP OVER me. Gosh.) Gramp would detour through the dining room to get around my teenaged draping of body parts over the pathway. I'm pretty sure the nudges and kicks I got as my brother pushed past were entirely intentional, as only a younger brother's can be.

That heavy black monstrosity of a telephone truly was a weapon. It perched on the desk, next to the lamp with a mallard as a base, the entire time I was privileged to be inside that house. I remember the familiar but indescribable whizz-buzz-clicky noise that dial made as you dialed each number. I think, if I were to concentrate hard enough, I could probably remember the exact sequence of tones it made to call my dad on James Street from that phone. Its ring was truly that old-fashioned unmistakable telephone ring that smartphones attempt to offer in a digital version on your ringtones menu. And there was nothing, *nothing* more satisfying than slamming that handset down if someone on the other end of a call upset you. (I was a teenager, after all, and that came with all the stereotypical drama and angst. It also came with a stern glare from an adult.)

I wasn't the only one on that phone, though, no matter how my family may have felt about it. I probably came by it honestly. Gram would lean against the desk and talk for what felt like days to her sister or one of Gramp's sisters or one of the ladies from church. At which point it was like moth-to-flame for us kids. Hanging on her arm, collapsing dramatically at her feet with need, choosing that moment to have a childhood squabble that left her with one finger attempting to plug her open ear and drown us out, and The Look That Meant Business on her face.

If the kitchen was the hub of that home, then that entry way from kitchen to living room, with the desk and the phone, was Grand Central Station. The desk was pushed against the wall formed by the stairs that led to the second floor (and hiding the steps down to the basement below). Gram rearranged that room more than once. There was an armchair that switched back and forth between the spot by the doorway to the kitchen and the door that led out onto the sun porch. There was an old rocking chair that would swap spots with the armchair, or would relocate to a corner of Gram's bedroom when the Christmas tree would occupy its spot. The chair that was next to the porch door had a dainty little end table next to it.

At the foot of the stairs, was a small table that always had some sort of flower arrangement on it and a mirror hung above. There was a wide, squat window that looked out at the driveway, and was perfect for viewing if you sat just a few steps up from the bottom. The two front windows looked out onto the sun porch, so not much light came in there, but there was also a window that faced north, behind the couch. Somehow, with just those two windows "facing outside" that room was always bright and cheerful.

The couch sat under that north-facing window, and on the west wall, between the chair and the wide doorway to the dining room, sat Gram's prized electric organ with its little bench. There were little octagonal end tables, one on either side of the couch, and they had these lamps with bases that reminded me of granite turrets on a castle. The coffee table was this heavy textured slab of some kind of stone, resting on sturdy carved wooden legs, but what I can tell you most about that stone top is that the corners left many a bruise on my knobby knees and that I'm still not sure how one or the other of us didn't end up with stitches, what with all the roughhousing that went on a little too close for Gram's comfort level.

When I was a wee lass, Gram and Gramp purchased a color tv. It had a button for each channel -- I think there were maybe twelve? -- on it, and where I saw, for the first time, that Dorothy stepped out into the brilliant world of Oz. (So *that* is what the guard meant by "a horse of a different color!") I watched Sesame Street and Mr Roger's Neighborhood. All summer, we watched the clock and then raced for the living room in time for LeVar Burton to open up the wonders of yet another book on Reading Rainbow. On Sundays, in the winter, there would be football games. On Friday nights, Dallas would play as I wedged between two of my favorite people on the couch, unaware of anything but that I felt so grown up at such a tender age.

I lined up my paper dolls along its perimeter. Josh built He-Man compounds in the big open center space. We played school and constructed Little People towns and sorted baseball cards and "rammed around" until Gram reached a breaking point that resulted in us being tossed unceremoniously outdoors on our ears.

I can close my eyes and feel the roughness of the carpet under my hands or the texture of the red curtains that hung at the windows, until they were traded out for white lace. I can hear the metallic clack of the pale green-ish cream blinds as the porch door swung open or closed, or the times Gram would pause in her constant buzzing to open up the top of the organ bench, select one of her song books, and proceed to play a tune or two on the organ, changing the sound from piano to harpsichord until she found just the right tone. I remember the walls painted the palest sage green (with the stairway walls red) and then cream. I remember the rough-knit red-and-white afghan folded over the back of the couch, and the round red corduroy pillow and the purple triangle pillow, both faded, worn around the seams and softened from years of use, and I can hear Gram's soft snore as her head tilted back on the couch, her feet cradled on the coffee table by one of those pillows, as she took a quick post-lunch siesta.

At Christmas time, Gram would put electric candles in the all windows and we'd race to be the one who turned on the most as night fell. The one behind the couch always seemed to be forgotten -- either it's blue glass bulb would stay dark and cool or it wouldn't be twisted back to turn it off when they would shut down the house for the night. Gram would hang a pine garland around the door to the porch, and on it, she would hang her collection of Hallmark rocking horse ornaments, the newest one from the ongoing series which Gramp would give her each year as a gift. At the very top, she would anchor in a huge pinecone she'd brought back from one of their road trips west. On the doorway to the dining room, there would be another garland, this one decorated with little metal bells in all sorts of colors, and in the center was a red bell with a pull string that would play Silver Bells. With the number of times we clamored to be raised up to pull that string, I have no idea how that thing continued to work, year after year. I supposed there's some truth when they say "they just don't make it like they used to."

A thousand memories in that room. A thousand more sensory recollections. That room taught me about family and gathering together. I played pretend and I played my flute (sometimes under duress). I grew up *living* in that room. I never understood the difference between a family room and a living room, because in Gram's home, that room was both.

1 with their own thoughts:

penuttpie Thursday, June 12, 2014 8:21:00 PM  

I love seeing pictures of Baby Dawn :)

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