Conversations in the Hallway

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I was recently reminded of the time when I was a teenager and every home had one phone that was usually attached to a wall in the hallway of the home. It’s central location was designed to make it accessible to everyone in the family who needed to use it. It also made every conversation a bit more public than one might desire, especially a high schooler intent on talking privately with a friend.

When I was still a small child my mom and dad purchased a bench with a couple of built in shelves that held the family phone and a couple of ginormous directories that supplied the numbers of individuals and businesses. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to make the strange piece of furniture look attractive with its mahogany finish on the wood and brocade upholstery on the seat. Our family kept it dusted and our mom swept under its legs regularly to insure that it appeared to be a purposeful and attractive addition to our home’s decorating scheme. In spite of its important function it never looked quite right.

I vividly recall a time when our phone was on a party line which other neighbors shared. It was not unusual at all to pick up the receiver only to hear the voice of the lady next door babbling away with a friend. In such cases making a call became a game of first come first serve unless there was an emergency. We had to wait patiently for the line to become free and so my mom instructed me in the etiquette of sharing phone time with others. It required a quick hang up at the first sound of other voices using the services and a pledge to never reveal what might have been heard in the brief second of listening. It was indeed a rather strange situation that only lasted during my earliest childhood years.

My family moved the telephone bench from one home to another, proudly ensconcing it midway in the hallway of each new address. I found it to be extraordinarily uncomfortable for a call that lasted more than a couple of minutes which probably played right into my mom’s parental plans. By the time I was a teen it had become intolerable to be tied to such a public place when talking seriously with my friends. I eventually convinced my mother to invest in a long cord that allowed me to stretch the phone into one of the rooms located along the hallway where I might close the door to gain a small sense of privacy. Even then my brothers mischievously found excuses to walk in and out of whatever entry way I had chosen, gleefully stepping over me and laughing at my attempts to enjoy a bit of dignity during my conversations.

I was at least happy that our family phone was not located in the kitchen as I had seen in some other homes. I tried to imagine attempting to have a serious conversation in the most central part of a house. Somehow I managed to be grateful for the long cord and that provided me with a semblance of freedom from being observed while I engaged in what I considered to be quite serious discussions with my peers. The only setback was my mother’s insistence that I make my phone calls as brief as possible to keep the one phone free for the use of other members of the family.

Over time the bench that had once been a source of pride for my parents became worn. Its legs were wobbly and the brocade fabric on the seat began to fray. Almost everyone had observed my ingenious way of using the long cord to escape the prying eyes and ears of anyone else who happened to be in the hallway, and before long everyone was escaping behind one of the doors to talk. The bench sat forlornly empty and without purpose. I’m not certain when it disappeared but one day it just wasn’t there anymore. When not it use the phone sat on one of the bookcases that lined one wall of the hall.

I eventually moved out of the house and into a place of my own. It was a small apartment with a phone located in the expanse of the combined living room and kitchen. By the time my husband and I purchased our first home the age of multiple phones had arrived, so we had one conveniently hanging on the kitchen wall and one in our bedroom. Our daughters would never experience the frustration of being on full display to the family while attempting to engage in a serious conversation with a friend. Nonetheless I found myself becoming my mother as I restricted the amount of time they were allowed to spend in the frivolous pursuit of talking with people that they had spent an entire day with at school. With the invention of the portable phone that required no cord the transition to an audience free phone call seemed complete but there was so much more to come.

My how the world has changed! We actually have landline phones all over the house that are so rarely used that I often wonder why we bother having them. For now their main purpose lies in being connected to the home alarm system and serving as a backup in case of a cell phone malfunction. Whenever anyone comes to visit they arrive with their own phones which they are able to use wherever and whenever the mood strikes them. Those phones are not only a source of communication but also entertainment. They are encyclopedic in the amount of knowledge that they are able to convey with just a few strikes of the keys. The young folks using them would be appalled at the idea of having to share one device with an entire family. They can’t even imagine being tied down by a cord  that is connected to a wall. The very idea is so foreign to them that even careful description don’t convey what it was like back in the day. They laugh at the very oddity of it.

I admittedly never leave home without my phone. It is my map on the road, my guardian angel in an emergency. With rare exceptions it has made my life easier. I can call or text and almost instantly be in contact with the people I need to reach. It has kept me linked to friends in faraway places and to the happenings of the world. I now know when a child is missing or a cataclysmic event has taken place within minutes. I sit more patiently waiting my turn in some office because I have games to amuse me. I don’t have to carry a bulky camera on my trips because my phone takes and stores images of all of the places I have been. Who knew that a tiny object that fits inside my purse would have more power than the entire room of computers at NASA that were used to safely guide a human to the moon? I never imagined such a thing back when I picked up the receiver only to learn that I would have to wait until our neighbor finished her conversation on the party line that we shared. We have come such a long long way and as long as we don’t become addicted to the power of our phones, it is good.

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The Happy Place

The road

When summer days get so hot that hardly anyone is stirring outside I often think of the trips that we took to visit my grandparents in Arkansas when I was still a young child. Grandma and Grandpa fulfilled a long held dream by purchasing a little farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap. My grandmother had spent time growing up not far from there and she still had siblings in the area. Her mother, father, grandmother were buried nearby on land that was once their homestead and is now part of a national forest.  She had fond memories of life in the country and while she never learned to read and write, her head was filled with knowledge of how of nature. She was a master gardener whose thumb was so green that it sparkled brighter than an emerald.

My grandfather spent his boyhood somewhere in a nameless place in view of the hills of Virginia. He too loved the quiet and serenity of being far away from the noise of the city, and so it should have been of little surprise to us that he and his best buddy, my grandmother, one day pulled up stakes from Houston and began an adventure that would bring them some of the happiest days of their lives.

My grandpa was a rambling man without roots or obligations until he met my grandmother when he was in his forties. He had been searching for something that he couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle of booze or in the countless boarding houses where he lived while following opportunities to work. By his own admission he often felt abandoned. His mother had died when he was born and he was taken to live with his grandmother who passed when he was barely in his teens. The guardian that he chose to tend to his affairs died unexpectedly from typhus not long after Grandpa reached an age at which he became an independent adult. His life was untethered and dreary. Then one day he met a lovely woman, a widow who cooked in a boarding house in Oklahoma where my grandfather had landed while in search of a job. The rest would be one of the world’s great love stories as Grandpa fell head over heels for the tiny lady who would prove to be his savior.

They had two children together and continued to move from place to place until my grandfather grew old and retired from working. At first they settled in a house in the Houston Heights but the city was already growing faster than they wished. They longed for quiet and a rendezvous with nature. It surprised us all when they announced their plan to move away to begin a new kind of life when they were in their late seventies. With great anticipation they packed up all of their belongings and made the journey to their new home.

Theirs was a busy but idyllic life. They awoke before dawn each day to tend to the cow and the chickens. By the time the sun rose they had already completed hours of labor and they would continue their toil until late into the night. They grew a variety of crops using the knowledge that was stored in my grandmother’s head. They carefully tended each plant and when it was time to harvest and preserve their bounty they existed on only a few hours of sleep each night. Their cellar was filled with racks of canned corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, pickles, peppers and other varieties of fruit and vegetables. Their huge freezer held fish that they had caught, deer meat for which  they had hunted, and even delicacies like squirrel that my grandmother turned into a delightful fricassee. They lived off of the land and became one with it. They were happier than they had ever been. 

We spent our summers visiting them and grew to love their way of life as much as they did. We always felt so much anticipation as we left from our home early in the morning and drove all day long to reach the road that carried us over the Caddo River and wound into the hills toward their house. The path was a narrow gravel affair that only allowed for one car at a time in some spots, so our parents had to honk the horn when they reached a blind spot to warn anyone coming from the other side that we were on our way. When we finally reached our destination we were always greeted by Grandma’s collie, Lady, who barked a greeting while wagging her tail. Soon enough my grandparents would emerge from their screened porch with smiles and open arms ready to hug us until we could hardly breathe.

Our days would be filled with milking the cow, gathering peaches from the big trees that shaded the driveway, exploring the hills behind the farm, visiting with neighbors, and learning new skills from both of the grandparents. Grandma showed us how to make biscuits and pasteurize milk. She demonstrated how to capture lightning bugs and put them in a jar so that they became a home made flashlight. She designed nets from old t-shirts with which we might capture a butterfly when the morning came. Always she cautioned us to free our captives when we were done.

Grandpa taught us how to milk a cow and catch a fish. He let us watch while he repaired things, explaining what he was doing as he worked. He proudly took us with him on his daily journeys into town where he introduced us to his friends and bought us sodas from huge chests filled with ice.

At night we sat on the screened porch and chatted about this and that. Grandpa always spoke of things he had read in The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and Grandma showed us how to embroider and crochet. We laughed and talked about a hundred different things. We had no electronic games or cell phones to distract us, so all of our attention was focused on the grandparents as was theirs on us. Once in a great while we might adjourn to the living room to watch a favorite television program but that was mostly rare.

We went to bed in a house without air conditioning. Instead it was cooled by the breezes that came through the open windows that were designed to keep the air moving with cross currents. It was still in the dark with only the sounds of animals breaking the silence. There might be a moo or a bark or the howl of some kind of wild cat. It was magical.

My grandparents lived on the farm for only about ten years. My grandmother began to lose her energy and realized that something was wrong. A local country doctor diagnosed her with cancer so she and Grandpa decided to move back to Houston for more advanced treatment. By the time they sold their place and found a new home in Texas her situation was dire. There was little more that the doctors could do than keep her comfortable until she died.

We would all remember those halcyon days in the country with the greatest of pleasure. Grandpa would get a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he spoke of them. We would think of them as the highpoint of our childhood, and even many decades later I can still see the road that led us to our happy place. It is as vivid as if I were there once again.

Don’t “Love” Things

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We are in one of those cycles where everything we own is breaking down. In just the last few weeks we’ve had a repairman out to replace the heating element in our oven and even as I write this we are replacing our nineteen year old air conditioning system. What’s truly funny is that most of the houses on my block were built in the same year and now I watch the various trucks bringing specialists to repair or replace items similar to those with which we have also had problems. All things wear out. It is inevitable.

I went to Catholic schools and I recall the nuns telling us that we should not love inanimate objects. It was supposedly bad grammar to imply that we felt an emotional attachment to stuff. Instead we were instructed to simply say that we liked things or enjoyed owning them. I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that admonition. It causes me to think a bit more intently about becoming attached to possessions. In the final analysis they do not define who we are and we most certainly can’t bring any of them with us when we die unless we choose to build burial chambers like the ancient Egyptians. Even then none of our belongings do anything other than just sit until some archeologist digs them up. Perhaps the nuns were right to correct our thinking by requiring us to use words indicative of giving objects less value than people.

During a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country I walked through a number of antique shops with my daughter and grandchildren. We enjoy perusing the aisles of things that once belonged to strangers. I often find myself wondering what their stories were and why they eventually ended up being sold rather than treasured. Perhaps there was just too much left behind when some soul died. Now they sit in dusty warehouses bearing price tags and waiting for someone to find enough interest in them to take them to a new home. There is something a bit dreary about that, and yet I also see folks smiling with delight if they find an item that tickles them. I suppose that recycling yesterday’s treasures can be a good thing.

My own home is filled with objects that once belonged to a departed family member. I have become a kind of curator for the history of the family. I inherited that task from my mother-in-law who was able to tell a story about most of the items that she owned. Now I am the keeper of the tales. My grandchildren have suggested that I take photos and attach comments or create a video that will alert them to the personal value of the various items that fill my rooms. I suppose that means that they too would like to keep some of the more special things, not so much for value but as reminders of the journey of our family over time. With my two daughters and seven grandchildren I would like to think that the most important of the pieces will find a new resting place once I am gone. Perhaps my nieces and nephews might enjoy a trinket or two as well.

The things are not the people, but they nonetheless tell a story of them. Through the various objects I get a glimpse of the times in which they lived and the colors and styles that they liked. I can run my fingers over a table top or hold a dish and feel a connection to the past in knowing that my ancestors once used them. I find a kind of spirituality in the scratches and wear and tear. It is as though a tiny part of the people who used them lingers.

I now have the oak table on which my mother-in-law served me tea on so many Sundays. She imparted her loving wisdom over steaming cups of Earl Grey. She taught me so many valuable life lessons as we sat together. She outlined the history of her life and that of her family, a group that was adventurous and hardy. Her aunt had owned the table before her, and prior to that it had belonged to a lady who sold her house and all of its furniture so that she might go live with her daughter. That table has had a great run and even now I use it for big family gatherings and my own little tea parties. It is so much more than just a hunk of wood.

My mother and father were married at a little church in College Station, Texas near the campus of Texas A&M University. They had no guests or receptions. It was just the two of them pledging their love to one another. They moved into an upstairs bedroom that they rented from one of the professors and began their lives together with little more than a wing and a prayer. My father began to purchase silver place settings for my mother one piece at a time according to what he was able to afford. He chose a pattern called “First Love” for her and little by little presented her with enough to use for a nice gathering. The very last thing that he bought for my mother before he died was a set of ice tea spoons that he was going to present to her on their eleventh wedding anniversary. I remember that my mom and I both cried when she opened the lovely box wrapped in silver paper. To me that silver speaks volumes of my father’s love for my mother and the thoughtfulness that was so much a part of his character. The set is one of my most precious treasures and it gives me great joy to share it at special dinners with family and friends.

I have a small collection of enamel ware that came from my Slovakian grandmother. She used the bowls each Christmas Eve to hold oranges and nuts for our annual party at her house. When she died my mother and her siblings allowed me to choose a few items from her home. I took a couple of books that had belonged to my grandfather and those enamel bowls and coffee cups that will forever remind me of her.

So while I agree that we should not love things, I also know that some of them are incredible keepsakes that have far more meaning than might be apparent. I genuinely hope that the most wonderful among them will never be relegated to a dreary antique store waiting to be enjoyed once again. I’d like to believe that their stories will live on in the homes of my children, grandchildren and maybe even my great grandchildren. They were once rather profoundly used in moments of great love by the people who came before me, and that is what makes them pricelessly meaningful. 

It’s Nice to Remember

El PatioLike many big cities much has changed in Houston since I left my childhood home fifty years ago. My family moved a time or two until my father died and then we stayed in one place until my brothers and I were grown and finally gone.

The first place I remember was on Kingsbury Street just a few houses from South Park Blvd. which is now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard. Ours was a quiet and modern neighborhood that echoed the growth of Houston and other American cities after World War II. Our neighbors were young like my parents save for a couple of older folks here and there. There were a slew of kids with whom I played, and we were free to roam around all by ourselves even though some of us were not yet old enough to attend school.

The area began with little more than our subdivision and a U Totem convenience store where a man named Shorty regaled all of us with his humor and friendliness. Eventually one of the first ever shopping centers, Palm Center, was built just within walking distance of our house. It was like a wonder of the world to us and we spent many an hour wandering through the stores or just walking around gazing into the shop windows.

My father was doing well with his engineering career and he grew weary of driving a rather long distance to his job near the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. His coworkers told him about a brand new area just a bit farther into the suburbs that was booming with progress and attracting great schools and a quieter form of life. Best of all it was only about ten minutes away from the plant where he worked.

Before long we were moving into Overbrook and an all brick home that my father and a builder had custom designed. Our place on Northdale sat close to a wooded area along Sims Bayou clustered among homes so new that they still smelled of fresh paint and just sawed wood. I was sad to leave behind my friends on Kingsbury Street but in no time I was riding my bicycle through the streets and playing with other children who would literally become friends for life. Ours was a kind of kid heaven that seemingly had no restrictions as we explored the Bayou and trudged through the woods.

The neighborhood was filled with young families just like mine and every house was teeming with life and possibilities. A bridge linked Overbrook with Garden Villas, an older area with huge lots and pecan trees around homes many of which had been built in the 1930s. Together the children from each subdivision filled the schools and sent up the joyful sounds of playtime that echoed happily into the open windows of homes not yet fitted with air conditioning.

My father was as changing as the city of Houston itself and before long we were following him to California and even bigger dreams. For reasons that I will never know things didn’t work out for him and within months we were back in Houston again looking at even newer and bigger properties. His untimely death changed all of our family plans, and my mother decided to move us back to Overbrook for the sake of continuity. There we would be able to reunite with friends and make new ones on Belmark Street.

Ours was a very happy place to be back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. We had little need to venture far from the confines of our neighborhood. All of the conveniences we needed were close. Eating out was still a kind of luxury, and even when we splurged now and again we had local favorites that we visited. Our mother took us to the Piccadilly Cafeteria at the city’s newest shopping mall, Gulfgate, where we were admonished to only order one meat and two vegetables or one meat, one vegetable and dessert. We usually chose the later.

I suppose our favorite place was El Patio Mexican Restaurant on Telephone Road. As kids we thought that their dishes were gourmet delights, especially the cheesy enchiladas. Since our mom was devoted to cooking healthy food for us, getting to deviate from vegetables was a treat.

I suppose that if I had to pick one food that I would be willing to eat over and over again it would be a hamburger, and back then I thought that the very best came from Chuc Wagun. There was no indoor dining there. Instead a clerk and a cook worked inside a tiny building designed to look like a covered wagon. The beefy guy who made the delightful sandwiches was gruff and married to his work. He grilled beef patties by the hundreds and chopped his onions and tomatoes like a Ninja warrior. The resulting burgers were pure heaven.

We bought all of our cakes at the Kolache Shoppe on Telephone Road. My mom loved the lemon ones and even years after we had all moved I would sometimes return to that spot to get her one for her birthday. The kolaches were rather good as well.

My brothers and I spent many a Saturday morning at the Fun Club inside the Santa Rosa movie theater. Our mom would drop us off with a quarter each which was enough to purchase a ticket and a candy sucker that lasted for the duration of the double features. The event included games with great prizes and films suitable for kids. It was a wonderland for us and a great break for our parents.

Most of the places that were so delightful back then are either gone or very different from what they once were. The neighborhood itself has a worn look and nobody would dare allow their children to roam freely anymore. It would be considered too dangerous. The Disney like atmosphere that defined my youth is now just another memory from my past. When I take my grandchildren to see the places where I played and grew, they have little understanding of the lifestyle that I describe. Theirs has been a more structured way of doing things, a routine of play dates and adult monitored activities. I suppose that my stories of southeast Houston don’t ring true to them as they see fifty years of change that have transformed the places where I lived.

My friends and I all agree that ours was a glorious time to be young. We were innocent and unafraid as we roamed together finding adventure. By the time we were young adults we learned about hardships and injustices that were unfamiliar to us. We revolted as a group against the signs of racism and unfairness that we finally saw. Our city grew i and grew and grew in the name of progress consuming much of what we had experienced in our youth. Now and again we like to look back to a time when we didn’t have a care in the world. Its nice to remember.

There’s A Place Where I Can Go

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Mornings have become my favorite time of day. It wasn’t always so. When I was working mornings began before the sun announced the dawn. I’d rush around half asleep readying myself for a busy day at work. I’d eat my breakfast on the fly hurrying as quickly as possible to get into my car and hopefully missing the worst of the rush hour traffic. Even with my best efforts a wreck, a stalled car, or a rain storm might land me smack dab in the middle of an immovable jam of traffic. I’d sit in a half asleep stupor wishing that I lived closer to my work so that I would not have to endure the horrors of a long commute in a city with virtually no mass transit. I never felt as though I had any affection whatsoever for the earliest hours of a new day, but that was before I no longer had to leave my home to join the daily rat race.

Now I arise without benefit of an alarm. No longer do I feel as though someone has awakened me with a cattle prod while in the middle of a lovely dream. Instead my body and a hint of sun tells me when it is time to begin the routines of my day. I have no sense of hurry for I am now the mistress of my schedule. I wander into the kitchen to prepare my morning tea and a light breakfast and then repair to my sitting room. It is an area filled with things that have meaning for me, things that make me feel comfort and happiness.

It is a somewhat old fashioned place because it is filled with things that once belonged to people that I have loved. I might tell a thousand and one stories just from glancing at the objects that decorate every inch if the space. It is dominated by an art print that once hung in my mother’s home. She and my dad chose it when I was still a young child and I recall accompanying them on the shopping excursion in which they selected furnishings for the living room in the first home that they had purchased. It is a lovely rendition of magnolias which at the time complimented the colors of the sofa that they had selected. Long after my father had died and the original couch was gone my mom still treasured the piece and it came to represent both her and my father in my mind. It calms me in an almost spiritual way even though it is only an object. Somehow I feel the presence of my parents and remember the happy times that I shared with them whenever I gaze at the lovely work of art.

Ironically I had purchased a floral chair long before my mother gave me her prized picture. The colors in the chair look as though they were produced solely to go with the painting. A dear friend eventually created pillows to place on the couch that pull the entire room together. It is comfortable and quiet in the room and it has become my refuge.

After my mother-in-law died my father-in-law gave us her secretary desk that I had always admired. It stores other treasures that I have either inherited or collected over the years. There is a cookie jar that my brothers and I bought for our mother one Christmas with money that we had saved from all of our little odd jobs around the neighborhood. It also features two little blue teacups that had once belonged to a set of toy china that my mother had as a child. There are lovely ceramic birds from New Orleans that Mike’s Aunt Elsie collected when she lived in that glorious city for a time. My treasured piece of the Berlin wall is nestled in a lovely wooden box from my eldest daughter along side a lovely china container from England. There is also a clock that my brother gave me when I earned my college degree that is still working long after I have left the career that it launched.

Perhaps my favorite piece is an antique vase that once belonged to my great grandmother Christina. My grandmother Minnie Bell gave it to me when I was still a girl, admonishing me to always keep it safe. It meant little to me when I was young, but over the years it has found a special place in my heart as I think of how precious it must have been to Christina as she lived out her hard scrabble life. I have moved it from one home to another with great care. It is a tangible link to my history and to the women who came before me.

There are other wonderful things as well that may mean nothing to others, but everything to me. I have end tables and lamps that belonged to Mike’s grandmother, including an old style Tiffany lamp that also compliments the colors in the room dictated by the picture on the wall. Pewter coasters crafted by the Norwegian uncle of our dear friend Egon hold my morning tea and make me smile as I thing of the friendship that we had with this man who left the earth far too soon. A whimsical frog catches my eye and those of my guests making me think of a sweet colleague named Jane, an extraordinary woman who so enriched my life when I was still a working girl. A shadowbox contains door handles and some of the wooden flooring from the home that Mike’s grandparents built when my mother-in-law was only a child. It is gone now but I can still see it and imagine the dinners and the parties and the ordinary days that they enjoyed there.

My sitting room is a peaceful place, a refuge that I now have so much time to enjoy. It is where I go when I need to think or just relax. It looks a bit old fashioned but I have yet to find anyone who does not feel the same sense of serenity as I do when enjoying its comfort. Best of all is the fact that I am now able to linger there as long as I wish. I feel a sense of joy in recalling the lives of the people represented in the contents of the room and sense that their spirit still resides in me. It is so much more than things. It is a respository that speaks of who I am, where I have been, and where I might one day go. It’s a place where I can go to truly be me.