On North High Street in a small western Pennsylvania town was a modest, two-bedroom carriage house with the basement built into a hill, somewhat underground. Old stone steps led up the front hill from the driveway to our humble home where my first childhood memories began.
The hill out front made mowing a challenge in the summer but invited snow-sliding fun in the winter. It even proclaimed a number of ‘kings’ who were able to maintain their position upon it. It was the perfect spot to view the 4th of July fireworks from the park far across the road and beyond the railroad tracks.
The living room picture window proclaimed each Christmas with a tree decorated in any and every color but blue. Dad loved blue lights but they weren’t mom’s favorite. It wasn’t until decades later that she must’ve smiled from heaven to see he finally got his way. The kitchen was small but the home-cooked aromas invited the hungry and impressed the curious. The wooden hallway floor skated us to our bedtime with comforting nightlights for those fearing the dark.
The living room transformed each night for my parents who shared the sofa-bed so my siblings and I could have the bedrooms. They enjoyed a window a/c unit and an accordion-style door for privacy. We had small double fans in our windows to pull in the cool summer night’s air and hide the light of the rotating beacon from the town’s small airport.
My sister and I shared a room with ballerina wall-paper and often tried to imitate the dancer’s perfect positions in our pink sequined tutus. I vaguely remember the football player wall-paper in my brother’s room but I suspect he rehearsed their positions as well.
The house was our home. It was not big or fancy but cozy and lived in. Though my memories in it are happy and treasured it was the back yard (and beyond) that deserves reminiscing.
It was the swing set where I flew high enough to make the posts pop from the ground while singing silly songs and old hymns. It was Gidget the fastest unleashed dog chasing freedom any chance she had. It was the sliding-board I sat on top of for hours until my brother rescued me from the death slide I refused to make (and the ladder I was too afraid to climb down).
It was where my dad grew his garden. We tended it together – planting, carrying water buckets, digging up potatoes and praying the yellow garden spiders wouldn’t crawl up our weed-pulling hands. We followed him up and down each row barefoot and dirty as he explained how the fruit cellar would eventually house the juice, sauce, pickles, potatoes and onions during our cold Pennsylvania winter.
And it was beyond the garden, a favorite spot, on one corner of the yard, where the pine trees grew in rows. Beneath the trees lay a pine-needled carpet of aromatic softness. This became a nature’s club house for my sister and I. There was no house really, but it was our space and no boys were allowed. There we rocked our baby dolls, played dress-up, had tea parties and for hours on end did whatever our imaginations might think of.
The field beyond the pines was separated by a ditch that flowed like a river during the rainy season. Green apple-trees for high climbing invited the adventurous kids from the down the street. I was not the tree climbing type but I was smart enough to know not to eat too many of the sour-green apples. A little farther toward the woods were the Chestnut trees. The chestnuts grew inside round, brown husks with hair-like spines. When the chestnut ripened the husk cracked and fell to the ground. The porcupine-land beneath the chestnut trees was painful and dangerous to the barefooted. During the holidays Mom oven-roasted the chestnuts and Dad packed brown lunch bags full and sold them alongside the road.
The last bit of land before the woods where the neighbor’s barbed wire fence divided the adjacent property was …the big-horned bull. We tiptoed, at first, by that fence hoping to go unnoticed by him. My worn out red sweater was the main attraction, according to my older brother which made me run for my life whether it saw me or not. The lucky ones, who made it out alive, were greeted by the tree line to the big, shady, mysterious woods. I don’t think we owned those woods but we sure did tromp around in them a lot. If you explored deep enough you’d discover the little waterfalls, deer, poison ivy and black snakes that hung like branches from the trees-tops in the Fall.
Those early childhood years discovering the world outside our cozy home and exploring the farthest perimeters of our parent’s boundaries (and a few beyond) have left an indelible mark in my life.
But the sun is setting and I think I heard Mom ringing that cowbell out back. If I’m not there before dark, I’m going to be in big, I mean, BIG trouble.