Our old house

By Lawrence Henry
web posted April 16, 2001

Two summers ago, my mother's college class held their fiftieth reunion in Brookings, South Dakota, home of South Dakota State University, formerly known as South Dakota State College. Mom thought she might like to go. My sister Michele and I decided to make it a family trip and to include visits to our uncle and aunt in Minneapolis, some poking around our old Minneapolis neighborhoods, and -- most important -- what would probably be our last visit to Arlington, South Dakota, the town where our mother's parents lived their entire lives.

Arlington lies a mere 20 miles from Brookings. Grammy and Grampa are buried in the cemetery there, as are their parents and several of their brothers and sisters, and virtually all of the congregation of the little Church of Christ they attended in Arlington. We brought along my son Bud, rented a car in Minneapolis, and set out on the drive.

The Brookings reunion proved to be a kind of bust for Mom. She graduated near the end of World War II, when college classes were jumbled up in the veterans's hurry to get back to civilian life. So she saw almost no one she knew.

On a gray, drizzly afternoon, we set out for Arlington. It had always seemed such a long drive for us as kids when Grammy and Grampa drove us from Arlington to Brookings for special shopping trips. And maybe it was longer. Grampa's old Ford could scarcely exceed 45 mph. In a modern rental car it whizzed by.

In no time, we were on the street by our old house.

"There it is," Mom said. It was still the same color, a brownish gray one-story shingle house built in the craftsman style. I don't remember how we found out the name of the people who lived there -- Gilbertson; maybe we saw it on a mailbox. But I wasn't going to be satisfied just driving by.

"Let's knock," I said.

I went up to the back door, up the same steps I had used so many hundreds of times, and knocked on a new screen door, leading to add-on room we had called "the little kitchen." I used to sleep there in a high old hospital bed next to a wood stove -- kind of like sleeping in the vestibule, since everyone used that door.

A young woman with toddlers clinging to her knees answered.

"Mrs. Gilbertson?" I asked, and she nodded. "My family and I grew up in this house and we're here for a visit. I wonder if we could come inside."

She let us in. The little kitchen was gone, of course, transformed into a laundry room. A step up into the kitchen, which had been completely changed, too. Mrs. Gilbertson explained that they had remodeled, as I suppose anyone would have. The door from the kitchen to my grandparents's old bedroom was now plastered over, and the kitchen was furnished all round with gleaming new counters and cabinets. The place where we had sat, reading the Bible after supper, was gone.

Through the door into the dining room, things began to look more familiar.

"Now this looks like it," Mom said. The dining room and living room combination was still dominated by a mahogany "colonnade," a set of pillars and shelves built by my grandfather, his father, and his brothers. The hardwood floor had been covered over with wall-to-wall carpeting. The sliding pocket doors in the living room, leading to the front bedroom, still worked perfectly after nearly 80 years.

We took a picture of Bud and Mom alongside the colonnade, thanked Mrs. Gilbertson, and left. I realize now there were things we simply didn't look at.

We didn't look at the attic stairway, which, smelling of musty wood, used to be used as a storage spot for things like flashlights, lanterns, twine, and my great-grandfather's old Colt revolver. We didn't look in the bedrooms. We didn't look at the bathroom where my grandfather used to shave, where he accidentally dropped a Q-tip into a bottle of baby lotion, and where that Q-tip still remained years after he died.

We didn't look at the door frame leading to the pantry, where my sister and I had used to stand to get ourselves measured as we grew. I think we didn't want to remember what happened there when my grandfather had come inside from shoveling snow in the winter of 1959. My grandmother looked over her shoulder from the stove and saw him leaning against the door frame as though to scratch his back -- he used to do that.

But he wasn't scratching. He slid to the floor, his face turned gray, and he died. We didn't look.

Later, out at the Arlington cemetery, we visited the family graves. I had brought along my clarinet. I put it together and played my grandmother's favorite hymn, "The Old Rugged Cross," only cracking once on the last note.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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