A House Becomes A Home, And Then It is Not, And Now It Is No More..Part Three

(selah..)

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“If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
But this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
No forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children. “
(from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Book of Hours, Love Poems to God’)

~~
My memories of the house on Lipply Road are filtered- all of them- through the veils of other persons’ presence in the house, and of childhood. Even on my last visit to the house earlier this month, I stepped lightly, as a trespasser, as a child doing something I shouldn’t be doing. It was a house now, no longer our home. It was vaguely home-shaped, to be sure, but for now, for me what was, was no more. I walked through the kitchen that was, up the stairs that were, but they were not our kitchen, nor our stairs any longer. They belonged to someone else and my great hope as I furtively moved from room to room was that someone soon would begin another fifty year journey of home in love, in life with this house.

(Goodness, how I wanted to dust, sand and polish the floorboards, the door trim, the window sills..jobs I despised once upon a time, though they were a seldom requirement. But that was for someone else to do now. I hoped some other children would be among those having to do so.)

I can only assume, because I must, that this was a visit where I was saying “goodbye” without consciously knowing that I was saying that word. The house was empty now of all which and whom I had loved there. Even without knowing the terrible news which would come in a few weeks, I knew this was an ending of something, something still inexpressible. When I pulled the door shut behind me this time, I didn’t linger.

The People Who Made it a Home

There were the four of us, of course: Dad, Mom, Denny, and myself. Since Dad’s work was on the other side of the driveway, our home extended right into the barn, into the plowed fields, everywhere in the woods, and all around the south shores of Pine lake. The tire-testing circles were our bike-riding tracks, the old horse race track in the woods was our and the neighbors’ perfect and safe place for beginner’s driving lessons.

The men who worked at the test Center were our friends. The earliest ones- Mac, Mr. Raines, Mr. Wise, Arthur, and Leonard- were our mom’s and dad’s cooperative volunteer childcare workers as Denny and I, even as small children, made the whole 90 acres our playground. How many football and baseball games in front of the barn with the baby-boomed abundance of neighbor kids our same age? How many bicycle tires fixed, patched and pumped by Mac, the shop manager, who would stop welding some Firestone-sanctioned job to help us?

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Even the visiting Firestone managers from Akron found the way to our kitchen, with frequency. Don loved Mom’s Ritz Cracker faux apple pie. Bill would eat enormous servings of grilled burgers and home-fries. Dick, and Phil, and the two guys whose names I forget but who guided Firestones racing tire testing would, with others, come hunting with Dad on weekends in the fall, always accompanied by Joker, our beagle/pointer. Afterwards, they would eat- pheasant, rabbit- and sometimes stay for poker and beer and cigars in the barn. Even Raymond Firestone (Harvey’s youngest son, a boyhood friend of dad’s when the Firestone family would summer at their homeplace in Columbiana) would sometimes come to the house to eat Mom’s meals, with Dad and the others. (I remember him asking Mom if she could find him some pants- blue cotton summer pants- like the ones Dad wore. She did.)

Those Firestone-connected men were one wave of the people who made that place a home. Other waves:

Family

Most of Dad’s many brothers and sisters lived within a few miles of Columbiana. Mom’s brother and several sisters lived in the Akron area, too. Those aunts and uncles (33 total!) had a lot of children, and their children did, too. So there was an abundance of aunts, uncles, cousins and second-cousins who would frequently be visiting. I have specific memories of every one of our 45 first cousins being in the house, many frequently and continuing even through the time Mom was there by herself.

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Because the house was big, it was often the place for the Weber’s annual Fourth of July picnic and Christmas night get-togethers. I know I am only one of many cousins who still feel that “pull” on the Fourth or at Christmas. These were reunions which had been happening for decades already and they extended well into the late sixties. Watermelon, homemade ice cream cranked with broken block ice from Corey’s Oil in the summer or Pine Lake ice in the winter, turkey and ham at Christmas, Hamburgs and hotdogs on the Fourth, always Auntie Olive’s so-green pickles, Auntie Alice and Uncle Bill’s kohlrabis, and so much else. At Christmas, Auntie Alice would disappear and a forlorn looking but exciting-for-the kids Swiss Santa would show up to hand out gifts in a dollar-per gift exchange. At Christmas, each Weber woman would bring her “Weber cookies.” These were special and had roots in Switzerland and were made with baker’s ammonia (!) but they signal still for me the Christmas season every bit as powerfully as the singing of “O, Holy Night” by some slightly off-key alto soloist. Denny and I could tell which aunt or cousin had made which cookie by their texture, thickness, and brownness.

Mom’s were perfect.

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The Friendly Class of Grace Church

Virtual Family: Mom and Dad’s Sunday School class at Grace Church. This was the WWII young people’s class, organized  in the 1950s. They were all making their own homes, babies, and lives in Columbiana and there were many of them. When I was at Grace Church for their Bicentennial a couple weeks ago, I compared these men and women to another whole set of aunts and uncles and their many children as friends/almost cousins. Most of the adults are gone now, and many of those my age have long ago scattered, but..for awhile..there was a Grace-begotten Camelot.
These people, too, were at our house a lot, and we at theirs: class gatherings, picnics, hayrides through the woods, Vacation Bible school camps in the woods, after basketball/football game gatherings for ice cream, and Sunday school. Communitas it is referred to in Spanish- it was a community born in the spirit of community. It was not a community formed of membership, obligation, or rank. It was a family of choice, an example of “Friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do.’ But what they’re really saying is ‘I love you.'”

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And so many others..

The Pine Lake Secret Sisters, the Card Club, the Bowling teams- all would meet in the downstairs rooms for talk, and talk, and laughter and cards and chip-chop bbq beef sandwiches, and whatever else was made and brought (never bought and brought, never). Upstairs (sometimes) Denny and I would listen from our bedroom to what was happening below us through the air vent between the floors. I think we stopped for good when we once heard Tommie Keck say, “I can hear them giggling again.”

We (the young ones) would sometimes put on shows for our parents using the built-in stage of the sliding doors which enabled the one great room to be divided into a dining room and sitting room. Reash, Candel, and Weber kids used those doors in ways they were never intended to be used, but boy were they fun (and how easily I can hear and feel those doors, right now).

The ancient downstairs “second” kitchen (with a hand pump in the sink) became a playroom for little kids and then a family TV room as little kids grew up. It’s where cousins Kenny and Gail Miller, and our moms and dads watched the Beatles debut on Ed Sullivan, yeah yeah yeah, just several months after  I had sat in that same room watching the weekend of November 22 to 25 with the rest of America.

For years before Denny and I left home and for many years after, Mom made about a million cookies, ten thousand cakes, and twenty thousand pies for customers who kept coming back and as donations or gifts to whoever had caught her eye and heart that week. (I exaggerate the numbers, but not by much!) For every Street Fair she would make 30+ pies to be sold at Grace Church’s food area. And she did that for almost forty years. Later, Dad would help her cater meals around town for various groups, and frequently for the men working in the barn, and that’s to say nothing of the food Mom prepared for Grace’s once a month “Come whoever wants to and pay whatever you want” lunches which she “engineered” for years. Here’s a picture of one page (of 20 pages) of pictures she took in the 1970s of wedding cakes she made! And ALL of this cooking was done in that single kitchen of the house! All that food is part of the reason the whole town is connected to this house!

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~~

~~
Just as I tip-toed through the house earlier this month, I tip-toe now a little ways back from immediate rush of memories of the house, the home. Five days before the fire, we had to say goodbye to our Golden Retriever, beloved Salem, who for fifteen years had loved us as we loved him, with a love that is too complicated, too big for words. Sometimes words detract from reality because they must, by their very nature of being “only words” be less than what we are trying to describe through them. But we have to try, and that’s what I’ve been doing, and now I have to be quiet for a bit. At least about these two, the dog and the house, which are no more.

Physically, Salem and the house are gone. Emotionally and spiritually, though, they are wildly alive in my heart. I knew that was true of Salem, of course. All who knew him have mourned. But it has been healing to see and hear of the love expressed for this 134 year house, too, by so very many people. I lived there, it was home, but it was not “mine” any more than Salem was “mine.” The really best things, the true things in life are those that we share outside the boundaries of “ownership.” The best things belong to us all. Our perspectives may differ, the intensity of our feelings may vary. But the best things, the very best things in life are..

Ours.
~~
“Father of all, we pray to you for all that we love, but see no longer. Grant all of that which is loved, your peace; let light perpetual shine upon all of it; and in your loving wisdom and almighty power work through our memories of that which we loved the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. .

We commit now, what we have loved to the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..”

Amen
(adapted from The Proposed Book of Common Prayer, Church of England)

A House Becomes A Home, And Then It is Not, And Now It Is No More..Part 2

(raise up a child..)

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“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
(‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger, 1973, p.7)

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The Front Porch (there were five porches, and I could make a list like this about each of them, but..this one, now)

This porch was the one we crossed over every morning, then across the lawn, and down to the driveway from kindergarten through 10th grade to meet Columbiana Independent School District Bus #4. Mr. Oesch was the first driver I remember. Dave Kimbel, Jackie Wise, and I would sit together, three across in the same seat, and we would talk on the way to school about Davy Crockett and Peter Pan. Later on the route, we would pick up Harry Dean and Mr. Oesch would make us laugh every single day with the same repeated sing-song: “Harry Dean the washing machine, combed his hair with the leg of a chair and called his mother a grizzly bear.”

This porch was one where a young tired-looking blond woman came one cold Saturday afternoon in about 1960 and asked for a drink of water. My mom told her to come in and sit down and I drifted into another room because the woman did sit down and began crying and I remember nothing else about that incident except that mom seemed to know what to do.

This porch was the one where I sat on the step after school in February 1964 and read and re-read a note from my mom written on a piece of tablet paper. My sons  it said on one side. Below that, she had written Dave and Denny. On the other side there were no crossed out words and I remember the note word for word: “Dearest boys, Grandpa [her dad] went  to be with Jesus this morning. I’m going home with Aunt Betty now. Dad will tell you more. Love, Mom.”

This porch was the one from where Robbie and I entered the house carrying Joshua, three months old, at Christmas in 1974 and it was this porch where Robbie and I and Joshua, Darcy, and Sarah stood and sang “Jingle Bells” to announce our late night arrival for Christmas in 1981.

This porch was the one where Denny and I sat with cousins in November 1999, remembering when we had all years earlier played ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Cops and Robbers’ upstairs while our parents visited downstairs. It was the day of Dad’s funeral.

And..this porch was the one where, while I was on a visit home in the Spring of 2004,  I knew for certain what I didn’t want to know for certain when Mom went outside to look for Dad to call to supper. Later that Spring was when Denny and I buried our mementoes when saying goodbye to the house. We buried them in a now-forgotten distance south then east, from this porch.

~~

I keep thinking, imagining places in the house I would like to run my hands over one last time. It has become an almost obsessive thought. One would be the stairway bannister (18 steps up, hover over the heat register at the top, continue). Another would be the window in the bay by the bed where I slept. It opened to the east and looked out over the green then golden then bare then green again gingko (second largest gingko in Ohio!). And the top of the fireplace in the dining room- the fireplace in which thousands of hot dogs were roasted, hundreds of marshmallows were burned to a crisp, and where innumerable pennies were thrown into the hot coals to turn fiery red. And the porch, that porch. Just one more time.

A House Becomes A Home, And Then It is Not, And Then It Is No More

(when I run out of words, I write)

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“That night I dream of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.”

(from “The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver)

Black Walnut stands were still plentiful, thick and tall in the still-to-be-cleared forests of 19th Century eastern Ohio. As farms were established and as the country settled into a time of renewed movement westward, the Walnut trees were felled, milled, and shaped into the realized dreams of those seeking place, community, and permanence.

The Walnut planks- deep chocolate brown become golden- were wrapped around the interior junctures of ceilings and walls, walls and floors. Grooved and rounded, the crafted wood became the frames of windows and doorways. Lathed, they became the bannisters and rails of stairways. Steps, cupboards, thresholds: all were the finishing grammar, the Walnut-brown punctuation of a well-built, well-founded, well-appointed home.
~~
When our family arrived in the Lower/Firestone home, it had been five years empty. Seventy-three years from its being cut and carpentered from the surrounding woods, the grand old house had been abandoned by the elders for the convenience of living in town on Elm Street, and by the young for the seeking of fortune in California. Filled with the ephemera and left-behind effects of a once-vibrant, socially active and commercially successful family, and in preparation for our family’s moving in, piles of papers were boxed and discarded, the house was mopped and dusted, the walls were painted (sky blue downstairs, yellow kitchen, beige upstairs), five of the six fireplaces were closed off, and the hulking  half century-old coal furnace was cleaned.

The night we moved into the house, in the fall of ’53, I wore red socks to bed. The room was very big- the ceilings were high, there were a lot of windows, so much dark wood, a fireplace on the other side of the room, and I was on the second floor. And there were sounds. Later, I would come to know the wall-creaking and roof-scampering sounds as the friendly noises of an old friend. But on that first night they were the stuff of a child’s terror, and I opened my mouth and cried out for..Mommy, Mommy!

I remember that first night; I was four. I would remember much much else in this place in the ensuing fifty years. The house is always a character, a participant in those memories. The house became a standard established in childhood by which I’ve measured every place I’ve lived since then, and there have been many places, and perhaps that is why. I left that home in 1971 but visited often, with one, two, then three kids. And then, in 1999, Dad was gone. We packed up and moved Mom out in 2004. The next day, the home we had there was a home no more. Denny and I buried mementos of ourselves and of Mom and Dad in the front yard the night before we closed and locked the back door for a final time. It was for both of us an act not of worship, but of inexpressible thanksgiving. Which may, as I think about it now, be the substance of worship.
The mementoes are still there, buried deeply in a metal Chock-Full-of-Nuts coffee can which had served for decades as the back porch house key hiding place. They are worthless; they are invaluable. If anyone ever finds them, may they have some inkling how this place was loved.
~~
Because of what I do in my profession, I must often lead people into, be with them, and stay with them through times of grieving. What follows is how I am dealing with my own grief over the death of this dear friend. I write about times and memories which transcend specific experiences and which have been (for me) transformative. If people read over my shoulder as I write these things, that’s OK, but it’s not why I write them. I write things like those that follow to stay sane, to keep from being emotionally crushed by my own grief as it has been added to empathetically by the grieving of others.

These then are some memories (true things but shaped by my own synaptic responses) of the Lower/Firestone house on Lipply Road, Columbiana, Ohio, during the last half of the 20th Century. I will be dreaming (out loud, not in a particular order) “of my fathers out of Bohemia filling the blue fields of fresh and generous Ohio with leaves and vines and orchards.”
~~
(more to come)

Small Town Ohio: High School Football, 1965

I’ve been doing some deep cleaning the last several days, and among the many things I uncovered was an envelope from my mother’s stuff which contained my high school football memorabilia. She saved stuff that I haven’t touched in over 45 years! There were pictures, newspaper articles, and individual score sheets on each week’s individual and team performances. There was a special award for my receiving the team’s Mayhem Axmurder Award for 1966- given to the “meanest and most effective” defensive player. I played tackle and I made a bunch of them that year.. I guess.

So I was the 1966 Mayhem Axmurderer of my high school football team. I got to keep the jersey which affirmed that. Yes, I know:

Good. Lord.

Among the (many, many) other papers were several prep sheets. These were write-ups about the coming game. They covered particular players from the other team, the kind of offense they ran, and included special plays which the coaches had put together to be used against that team. The cover page of the prep handout was a hand drawn cartoon and an initial pep talk written by the coaches. (Note: this was the days of blue mimeograph and I don’t think the coaches typed, so the prep sheet was handwritten, before it was run off on the mimeograph machine. Those of you who are my age will understand that I held these particular papers to my nose just nowto see if they still had that special mimeograph smell. They did not.)

Anyway, this particular prep sheet was about a team from Youngstown which we were playing that week- Youngstown North. Let me quote some of the coaches “motivational” comments:

“North has been knocked out 64 straight times, and plans to get off the canvas against us. Anyone who has been knocked out that many times is bound to have a weakness, which they do. On many occasions they have beat themselves through faulty execution and mistakes.”

Of course the same thing can be said of the Dallas Cowboys or any sports team, but this was 1965, so there is more.

(If you are easily offended, stop here. Really. I should tell you before we go on that Youngstown North was an almost-all African-American team, although at that time, we knew them as an all Negro team. And all of our team members were white. The “glass jaw knock out” you see in the motivational picture above reflects a very real stereotype of the time: even the toughest black guy had a glass jaw, some thought, and taught, and believed.)

Continuing:

“Gentlemen, there is no alternative in the game this week. We must WIN it. There is too much shame connected with losing it…Everyone knows why North is getting beat. They are predominately low intelligent colored people. They can’t learn many things, and what they do learn they have trouble executing it very well.

“There is no doubt about it, some of them have good muscular strength and speed..but we know that it takes another very important element- BRAINS. This is where we can get our advantage…

“We must beat them or be put to tremendous shame.”

The coach was right- even now, I still feel tremendous shame, though it’s not the kind of shame he thought it would be. I tell myself that it was 1965, and it is 45 years later. But I know how the institutional racism I grew up with has knocked at the door of my consciousness over the years. What bothers me are the times when it manifested itself through me and I wasn’t aware of it. I’m certain that has happened any number of times.

I’m not really angry at the coaches or other adults who passed along this system of exclusion to the following generation, as much as I pity them. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated often, the civil rights movement was (and still must be) about freeing all people of their wrapped-chain attitudes and the crippling weight of judgmentalism. I pity those handicapped by such lies and I feel sorry for myself and so many others who have never been able to completely shed the imaginary but inflicted veil stretched over our fields of vision.

And what of the young men of Youngstown North? Across years and space, across a different country and an always brand new culture, I can say “I’m sorry.” But those are just words- useless, pale, impotent, nice-sounding words if I do nothing to back them up.

So I’ve tried. I don’t think there’s an iota of any of this shit (and that’s what it is) in my own children. They were raised in the South where the flavors of racism were and are different than they were in ’65 Ohio, but that I detect nothing mean about their attitudes, exclusionary about their relationships, or narrow about their love for others, tells me that their mom and I did some things right in this regard.

But I’ve experienced the outward and visible kinds of racism in the last several years, after decades of not experiencing it. The use of the ‘n’ word, the telling of really awful race-based jokes, and the overt attempts to re-establish institutionally racist principles among some persons and groups in state and federal government, are things I thought I would never ever see again. Wow, I was wrong. I have been dumbfounded so many times recently that I have been and know I will have to continue to be a pastoral advocate against and in the face of this ..awfulness. This little essay is a tiny part of that effort; and the the best part of this whole story may be this:

The winner of the game between our small town high school and Youngstown North was..

Youngstown North!!

North broke their 64 game losing streak against us! We discovered there were were no “glass jaws” to be broken. They executed very well and made fewer mistakes than we did. And it looked to most of us, that North had strength, speed, AND brains.

I’ve looked back on the game for many years as one of the best things that could have happened to me as an individual, and I bet there are dozens of my teammates who would feel the same way. There were stereotypes shattered that cool October night and the shattering of stereotypes is always a good thing. I’m guessing- if such things can be quantified- that the sounds of joy on the bus home to Youngstown North that night far outweighed whatever “shame” we may have felt in our hometown locker room.

So I laugh over a genuine soreness in my soul for a time and a place that never should have been. But I also laugh because we were such asses. We really were.