I have always lived in old houses. Not historical old houses just old. Since I was a kid I have lived in 7 houses. I always found comfort in each house by finding a place that made me feel safe and invisible. As a kid those places were away from the family usually in the attic. The attic was a place for boxes filled with previous life stuff that for some reason was not needed in whatever house I was in at the time, but it was great for searching through stuff that used to mean something to somebody. And in every house there was always something left there by the previous family and when I found a treasure like that I could spend hours looking through the box or examining the item and wondering why it was left behind. Each time we moved I was sure to take something left behind by the previous mortgage holder to the next house we were moving to.
I felt safe nestled between the eaves looking through old boxes often mislabeled and tossed aside. I was safe from my brother finding and taunting me, from my parents yelling at me for some chore I failed to do and the treasures were so rewarding. As a young teenager I found a box of my parents’ love letters from the war. They were from before I was born and I could not match the two lovers in the letters to my parents at all. There were sweet names of affection used for each other that I had never heard. Seemed like two different people but there they were in black and white. They were in those funny envelopes with the barber pole stripes around the edges and airplanes on the stamps. Years later I shared them with my brother. We sat on the floor in the cold attic and read through every single one. He remembered some of those pet names and I remember seeing him shed more than a few tears. Years later after my parents passed away that box wound up in my brother’s attic.
Probably the most treasured treasure I found and kept, other than the love letters, is an old clock that was left in our very first house by the previous occupants. It was an old two faced wall clock, a Perpetual Calendar Clock. It was left in a corner of the attic by a window, lying on the floor with its back against the wall planks and leaning to one side. It fascinated me because not only did it tell the time on the large face but it also told the day of the week. Underneath that was a smaller face that told the month and the date. It is a Welch, Spring & Co. clock dated 1864. What I didn’t know at the time and didn’t learn til many years later, it actually kept proper time and dates even in leap years!
When developers came and bought up our entire block I made sure the clock moved with us to the new house and then eventually to my first house. It never worked and there was no key but I had a friend from college whose dad loved to fix old clocks and offered to fix it. That was over 50 years ago and it still works today with a minor adjustment of the hands needed which I am afraid to try for fear of breaking them. It has hung in every house, including my inn, that I ever lived in. I have to get the hands fixed professionally so I can again enjoy its company.
As an adult that special place evolved to sitting on the floor in front of a raging fire in the fireplace late at night staring at the flames. I guess I no longer need to hide but it still makes me feel safe!
Funny what your mind conjures up when you have a lot of time on your hands and nothing to do. With this crazy virus still attacking us I could sure use to feel safe again!
A Spectral Place
George and Hen’s discussion of special places – particularly in regard to their homes – brought up a different type of recollection.
My formative years were spent in an old two family house my parents owned. It’s difficult to picture a special place in this structure, because the house was always in flux. Early days, we had a variety of boarders and my father was constantly making changes – my brother and I had at least three different sleeping arrangements, including a stretch where the whole family slept in the same room.
Eventually, we took over the second floor and my brother and I had separate rooms… but we never felt comfortable being in this space alone. The second floor bathroom was located at the end of a very narrow corridor. It had room for one large window looking down on the backyard. My brother’s bedroom connected to an unused upstairs kitchen through a passage that likely was a pantry in past times. All the windows in the top two floors were large and seemed to grow up from the floor, providing the sense that one should not approach too closely.
However, unlike George, the one space that we never came to grips with was the attic. It was special – but not in a good way. Access was gained through a door which was always closed. A narrow staircase led to the two-room attic. All, including the staircase, was clad in floor-to-ceiling wainscoting – likely varnished spruce. At the top of the stairs was a spacious area with cathedral ceiling tapering to six foot knee walls. Large, rattling double hung windows had sills which were knee high ((for a kid). When looking out the window, I had the feeling someone was right behind. Piles of boxes populated the main room, complete with porcelain dolls peeking out, showing cracked faces. The effect was not conducive to exploration – it rather screamed “Touch me and die!” A second room contained a bed and mattress, unused for years it seemed. Our attic gave the sense that this space had been long abandoned and never contained a happy spirit. Stephen King would have been very comfortable here.
On a number of occasions, my brother would rush into my room and beg to sleep with me because of the sounds. Oh yes – the sounds. We would lay awake listening to the footsteps walking back and forth across the attic above us. We were frozen in place, too scared to run downstairs to our parents’ room. We dreaded the time when those footsteps would find their way to the staircase descending toward the closed door. It would not be good to be asleep in that eventuality.
Naturally, we reported this activity to our parents, who comforted us. They even moved their bedroom upstairs. The sounds seemed to go away after that – except one night when our parents were out for the evening and our babysitter (Cousin Paula) was sleeping downstairs. That evening kicked off a marathon of wandering above us. I t was an episode where you felt your own pulse in your ears and you tried so hard to be small and undetectable.
Years later my parents admitted that they too, did not venture much into the attic; that the boxes belonged to the prior owner; and that the folklore was that an elderly person had died in that bed in the attic.
A few years later we moved to a smaller, more modern house – with no attic!
Places of Comfort
George describes the attics of his old houses as places of sanctuary and exploration. As a child I lived in a two-family house in the Bronx that was shared with my grandparents, a relatively new ranch house in central Westchester when I was eight, and then my grandmother’s two-bedroom cottage throughout my college years. I would have to say that in each instance, the place that gave me the most comfort, was in the kitchen.
My mother and grandmother were both extraordinary in their ability to prepare delicious meals and create tantalizing baked goods. The kitchen sourced the aroma of comfort foods and was the place to go if you were feeling down, or happy, or celebratory, or bored. There was always something yummy to taste and, it was the place where I could most often find my mother or gram. Either they were cooking or baking or cleaning up. It seemed they spent most of their time in the kitchen; clearly it was their “happy place.”
Meals were always eaten together at a table tucked in a corner within arm’s reach of the stove. We rarely used the dining room or went out to a restaurant and take-out was an occasional pizza on special occasions. At the table we shared the stories of our day, tried to remember what we learned in school, renewed our membership to the “clean up plate club”, and always had room for dessert. It was a ritual I could always count on. And despite how routine and boring it may have seemed at the time, it provided a place of safety, nurturing, and comfort.
My place of solitude was (and still is) the woods. There, I could stretch the boundaries set by my mom, knowing my dog Mickey would never tell on me. I could take chances climbing a dangerous tree, set rabbit traps with a box, a string, and a carrot, jump off of high rocks, and even utter bad words! It was a place to be comfortable with myself. On rainy days, I was drawn to a section under a thick canopy of leaves where I felt particularly free and yet secure as I remained protected and dry while the rest of the world seemed to be relegated to their houses. Even today, I enjoy the feeling of being in a tent in the rain especially when I’m playing with my grandchildren.
And, like George, I am most comfortable in front of a fire, inside or out. Alone or with friends and family, it is always my “go to” place.