You love living in your big, old house, with its spacious rooms and nooks and crannies. There is always something to do, especially in the summer. Your mother is an avid gardener, cultivating both flowers and vegetables. One year, the entire back acre becomes a major food-producing enterprise, planted with sweet corn, green beans, lettuce, melons, tomatoes and many other wonderful things. Once everything starts coming up, you and your brothers weed the garden, and when it’s time, it’s your job to pick the endless rows of green beans. The summer produces a bumper crop of tomatoes, but the raccoons get to the sweet corn, removing the cobs from the husk without any sign of disturbance. They certainly are smart critters. The apple orchard is thriving, so you and your brothers pick up the apples, which are more than a little wormy, but you figure it’s alright, they don’t eat that much.
The overproduction of tomatoes results in huge quantities of every tomato product imaginable: sauce, paste, preserves, juice and jelly, and the apple orchard provides massive amounts of apple sauce and apple butter. Your mom is a city girl, but she learns in a hurry how to put everything up, and there is plenty of room in the cool, dark, dungeon of a basement to store all the full Mason jars on shelves. The grape arbor is an entirely different experience. The abundance of grapes results in large quantities of grape jelly, but also in the production of wine. This is no small feat, but it’s small feet make the wine. To mash the grapes, you and your little brother scrub your feet and legs, climb into the huge crocks and stomp and squish the juice out, making a dreadful purple mess, until the grapes are ready to be strained. This is actually great fun, but leaves your little legs stained for several days. The process takes a while, but once it’s bottled, the wine is stored in numerous cupboards and closets.
Meanwhile, the dogs are eating the cantaloupe and watermelon, the rabbits are getting the lettuce, and your older brother, who’s supposed to be weeding, digs up all the baby carrots, the tops of which resemble weeds. All the produce is either eaten fresh or put up—canned or frozen. A full-size freezer in the garage holds all the bags of blanched veggies, as well as a side of beef your dad has purchased with a friend. Your mom is way ahead of her time nutritionally speaking. She serves veggies and fruit with just about every meal, grills, broils or bakes just about everything, and believes in using only the freshest ingredients. As a child, there was never enough to eat. When she married your father, she promised herself that her family would never be hungry.
Even in the winter, you never run out of tomatoes or applesauce. The wine turns out to be drinkable, though probably wouldn’t win any awards. Every morning, your father makes a fire in the fireplace to warm up the massive living room, but mostly because he likes to drink his coffee in front of the fire. Dad is the breakfast chef. Weekends, he makes omelets, pancakes or french toast, but during the week, he fixes you toast, juice and coffee. He makes oatmeal, but you never do learn to like wallpaper paste, so you skip it, opting instead for the occasional bowl of Cream of Rice. The boys eat cold cereal, but with the exception of Rice Krispies, you don’t touch the stuff. The milkman delivers milk for their cereal several times a week, ice cold and fresh in glass bottles that he puts in a box outside the back door. He also delivers butter and eggs, and since yours is a big family, his truck, bearing the likeness of Elsie the cow on its sides, is a familiar sight in your driveway.
In the spring, the lilacs in the center of the circular drive bloom and fill the air with their delicate fragrance. Redbud, dogwood and flowering crab trees brighten the hill in the front of the house and the apple blossoms fall like a blanket of gentle snow in the orchard. All of your mom’s hard work in the gardens, planting peonies, tulips, daffodils, paperwhite narcissus, crocus, hyacinth, iris and lilies is rewarded with a riot of color, and there are often fresh flowers on the dining room table. An ancient magnolia, with its waxy petals and heavy perfume, blooms not far outside your bedroom window.
The next summer, the gardens are scaled back to more realistic dimensions. You still have a lot of frozen veggies from last year’s huge harvest, so the big field is returned to nature and a smaller garden patch planted with a scaled down list of produce. Once again, you pick green beans, the dogs eat the cantaloupe and watermelon, and you have a bumper crop of tomatoes and zucchini. You let the grapes go this year, but pick the apples. Your mom makes applesauce and apple butter and gives little jars with ribbons around the tops as housewarming gifts and Christmas presents.
This idyllic existence is marred by an “environmental crisis.” With the summer heat comes a dreadful odor from the stream that meanders through the property. Soap bubbles and bits of paper and other ugly things are flowing from the neighbors’ homes into the water in the stream. Your father calls the board of health the day he sees the rats running along the edge. Not satisfied with the answer he receives, he decides to prove that there really are rats and that it really is sewage. One of your older brothers goes out on the slate-floored porch upstairs at the end of the main hall with the shotgun and manages to snag a few trophies, which he then pickles in a prune juice jar that lives in the garage for several years. The neighbors decline when asked nicely to put in septic tanks and the board of health does nothing to encourage them. A year passes without action. Your father, not satisfied with the civic process, takes matters into his own hands. A cursory survey reveals two largish pipes emptying into the stream, one from each of the two neighboring homes to the north.
An entrepreneur with many interests, your father is currently researching and experimenting with a substance called bentonite clay. The powdered clay, when mixed with water, becomes totally impermeable as it sets up, providing a watertight seal. Knowing full well the power of the powder, he packs the pipes full of it and goes about his business. A few days later, first one neighbor and then the next comes to the door, furious, ranting about the unsanitary raw sewage backing up into their basements. The irony of this is lost upon them. Dad suggests they install septic tanks, as he has already done, but they are more than a little reluctant to dig up their perfectly manicured front lawns. The stream also contains contaminants from homes in the subdivision behind our property. He takes care of those pipes, too. The septic tank installers do pretty well that summer. The rats in the prune juice jar in the garage are forgotten until much later when your parents are cleaning up the place to sell and discover them on a shelf. Bentonite clay later becomes a popular product in the form of Volclay® panels, used to waterproof the Washington, D.C., subway system, among many other large construction projects.
One day, a loud explosion and popping noises on the first floor bring everyone rushing around looking for the source. Someone opens the front hall closet off the foyer, where a few long-forgotten bottles of wine, now heavily fermented, have burst. The sight of broken glass everywhere and the vinegary smelling, purple liquid splashed over ceiling, walls and floor cause a huge commotion. The entire contents of the closet, all the coats, boots and shoes, must be removed for cleaning. Everything ends up outside the foyer entrance on the sidewalk under the carport. In the process, the two large, deep drawers at the back of the space are removed for the first time. Behind them, much to everyone’s surprise, is an airless, dusty, pitch dark space under the front stairs stage landing, its ceiling just tall enough for someone crawling about on hands and knees. The hidey-hole is empty, save for a theater program and a couple of empty booze bottles.
You wonder what other wonderful secrets this circa 1910 house with “good bones” holds, with all its history, mysteries and quirks. You are in your element here, privileged to live in such a magical place!