Monday, April 18, 2011

Is What I Call Home

in the back of the kitchen on Oana Street, July, 1957

As I slept soundly last week, I dreamed of the first place I remember as a child. It was my childhood bedroom, the one I shared with my sister and my two brothers.

My father’s Aunt Josie, a widow from Fulton, Missouri, who help raise my father after his mother died when he was 14, lived with us for several years in the late 1950s and into the early 1960s. My mother, overwhelmed with four children under the age of five, welcomed the help that Aunt Josie gave her as Josie helped with laundry, cleaning, and some light cooking.

Aunt Josie, May 1955, in front of the house on Oana Street

The house I grew up in was small. Located on the south side of Atlanta in an area known as Sylvan Hills, the neighborhood built up around a main thoroughfare into Atlanta known as Stewart Avenue, and the spec houses that sprung up along that road were bought up quickly by the post World War II families. I assume that my parents were the second owner, as the first owner had added to the back an expansion that extended the kitchen to allow for the 1950s a must, a den, and made what was a small bedroom into a larger one.

That large bedroom, located in the center of the house, was the one I shared with my siblings, when we were all young enough for it not to matter that we were different sexes.

Other houses on that street, that I became familiar with as I played Foxes and Hounds or Red Rover with the other children or I was actually invited to birthday parties that took place inside, had the same floor plan without the extension.

In those days, children played outside --- as close as we were to our neighbors or as well as we knew the other children, we simply did not go inside their houses that often.

Mother and Daddy must have hit a kind of jackpot with the bonus room when they bought that house in 1955, for 10,000 dollars, and made a mortgage payment of 99 dollars a month for the twenty-four years they lived there.

The house was on Oana Street, and its design laid out in a rectangle, which was simple as well as cheap to build as its clapboard siding and wooden windows with glass panes did not weather well and had to be painted frequently.

Across the front and facing the street was a large living area on the left, complete with a place to set up a dining area if wanted, and on the right, with a window over the screened front porch, was one of three bedrooms. On the back left was a small kitchen with the extension to the den. The extension allowed us to put in a table for six as well as a couch and several chairs and at some point a small black and white television. A large part of the back wall sported a "picture" window which must have been a selling point in those days since our house had two of them, a second one in the living room.

Between the kitchen and the large bedroom was a pantry, which we called the utility room because it housed not only shelving for "staples" as my mother called them but also a hot water heater and [much] later a clothes dryer; a door beside the utility room door from the kitchen led to the large bedroom. On the opposite side of the large bedroom was a door to the hallway, and all three bedrooms and the bath door opened to a cross shaped hallway whose central focus was an in-the-floor gas furnace, where on cold mornings, with its billowing hot, strong breath like something out of Hades [my sister remembers that it was enough to blow her dresses up over her head], we all gathered around in pajamas and bath robes and stayed warm as we waited our turn to use the bathroom. All of us at one time or other fell on that furnace and had the burned grid marks to prove it --- sometimes, lol, we could have been pushed.

The hardwood floors in those days were cold and wreaked of "poverty" as we longed for the wall to wall carpeting that houses on Brewer Boulevard featured, a neighboring street we considered to be "wealthy," since they were brick and some even had two bathrooms.

How did we manage -- a family of six plus an aunt to live in such primitive conditions?

When I dream of home, I dream of that house and that room. As far back as my memory goes, it seems that the first ones are of that room that I shared with my siblings. I remember the dark wooden crib I slept in and the framed cross-stitched saying that hung over it with that eerie childhood prayer :“Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/ If I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord, my soul to take.”

on front steps, June 1955, Oana

That big bedroom, or it seemed so big to me, was also rectangular in shape. My crib backed up to the utility room and beside the crib was a very small closet, which I insisted had to be closed before I could fall asleep as I imagine what kinds of things might exit it in the night.

My sister slept on a junior bed on the wall opposite and next to the hall and bathroom, and my brothers shared what we called then as a "full" bed and located at the other end of the room -- girls on one side, boys on the other. At their feet was a window that faced the neighbor’s to the north, on the far side and to their left, a window that was over the back porch and faced the east.

The room had mismatched furniture -- an old chest with drawers that stuck and never pulled out smoothly, a lady’s dressing table without the chair or mirror, and a toy box full of broken toys and home made stuffed animals passed down from one child to the other, the wear showing with their missing eyes and random holes with stuffing falling out. There was also a rickety book case jammed with well-used children’s books, drawing paper, a cigar box full of crayons and broken pencils as well as a four cedar chests, about the size of a shoe box, given to each of us by our aunts. We hoarded items in those cedar chests, our private space. We howled and alerted the parents if we caught one of our siblings with their paws on it or near it.

We must have been quite a crew to settle down in that room -- four small children altogether like that --- I’m pretty sure that we had staggered bed times, not that I remember them, but my mother was so organized and scheduled that it must have been how it was done.

I remember many a time standing in that crib awaiting my turn with my mother, and I remember the comfort of the light that shown under the door to the kitchen where late into the night she stood at an ironing board pressing Sunday clothes, napkins, tablecloths, Daddy's shirts, and pillow cases. How she did all she did --- I’ll never understand; she told me one time that she “just did what I had to.” When she went back to work when I went to kindergarten, she had a little money to hire someone to do all that tedious ironing --- but that’s a story for another blog.

front of kitchen, Oana, January, 1955
Mother is holding me... *sigh*

My parents slept in the front bedroom that overlooked the screened porch, but when we had family in from Virginia, they moved to the den where the “hide-a-bed” sofa became their bedroom or the living room where we also had a sleeper sofa.

BTW: I know that one of the last sofas my parents bought was a hide a bed --- we just laughed at that habit that they had left over all those years. By this time, they lived in a bigger house in Roswell, Georgia, with two guest rooms and two baths. When they moved there in the late 1970s, they grinned at the thought of two baths!!!!

My Aunt Josie occupied the best bedroom in the house -- the one on the back right side that had windows with cross ventilation and a view of the back yard with its twenty or so pines that kept the room cool in the summer. Outside her window to the north bloomed a huge hydrangea, visually fantastic, with blue mop head flowers the size of basketballs. I remember when the hydrangea died in the early 1970s, my mother mourned.

When my Aunt Josie stomped out of our home after an apparent irreconcilable disagreement with my mother, she took a train back to Missouri and left all her belongings, except clothing, in our house in Atlanta. From then on, we called the room she slept in “Aunt Josie’s” and the furniture she left behind “Josie’s furniture.” When my parents died in 1995 and we cleaned out their house, my sister took "Josie’s furniture" into her own home. When my brother and his family come to visit during the holidays, the guest room features her bed, her night stands, and her chest of drawers. We still call it “Aunt Josie’s furniture.”

Aunt Josie with my sister and two brothers in front of our first house in Atlanta's West End

I never knew what took place between Aunt Josie and my mother. I know that whatever it was, my father and his aunt were never the same, and when Aunt Josie died in the late 1960s, my father, because of his job situation was not allowed "paid leave" to go to the funeral of an aunt, a mother yes, but not an aunt, so he stayed home, a hard decision for someone who was never able to heal the wound between them.

Family disagreements can be like that --- and the hardest ones can be when there is a tug-of-war or war of wills between two strong woman whose up-bringings were very different -- my mother from a hardscrabble farm family, while my father’s Aunt Josie came from “town.”

After Josie left, my sister and I moved into the front bedroom where we shared a bed {and I have some stories about her “ridiculous rules and regulations” for co-habitation with me}, my brothers moved into Josie’s room, and Mother and Daddy moved into that middle bedroom that had been the one of my youngest days.

Mother’s dresser with her mirror, her jewelry box, dresser scarf, and pocketbook occupied the wall on which my crib stood, and the Child’s Prayer gone --- never to be seen again by my eyes. On the floor by their double bed, which was in the same place as my brothers’ had been, were stacks of books checked out by my dad from the library and my mother's box of Kleenex with wads of used tissues as she suffered mercilessly from what she called "hay fever."

I don’t know how long I slept in that crib -- or if the sides were removed, and it became just a twin, but I do remember that room --- with the sounds that came from the kitchen or the comforting light that shone from the bottom of the door where I knew my mother was on the other side --- but I know that the sense of security I felt as I slept there, loved and surrounded by my siblings and parents, is what I call home, the one that Thomas Wolfe noted that "we can't go home [to] again."



  1. Wonderful stories, Harriet. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Hello, TT! Have I told you how much I miss you? I do love reading your blog. (Turbo)

  3. You should write something for this magazine:

  4. This brought back so many memories. While visiting my daughter last week, I drove her to different neighborhoods seeking one where she could buy her first home. We ended up at 120 Dogwood Way, Decatur, where I spent the first 10 years of my life. Our house, like yours was a two bedroom, one bath originally. My sister and I shared the front bedroom, my parents in the other and my brother lived in virtual heaven, the attic. In about 1965, my parents added on a den and additional bath on the back of the house. The bathroom was a small toilet, sink and thin metal shower box that would shake the entire small house with thunder like noises when an elbow drove into the side during a shower. My parents bought the house for $8,000 in the mid 50's and sold it for $20,000 in 1968. So while looking for a great starter home for Jennifer, we entered the 30030 zip only to find the little 1940s homes near the Decatur/Dekalb YMCA are now in the $350,000 and up range. I think my daughter has a little higher regard for my upbringing after the trip.

    I also loved the "blue mop head flowers the size of basketballs" description. I remember picking up sticks in the neighbors yards, pre 1968 in exchange for a hydrangea flower to take to my mother.

  5. OMG - I LOVED these memories! My parents still live in the house I grew up in. Although they have totally renovated it and now it's completely different from when I grew up there but those memories will always be there. We had 1 1/2 baths for 3 kids and 2 adults until finally when my twin sister and I hit about 12 we needed our own room. Just couldn't share anymore and that's when my parents added a bedroom and bath for them. I still don't know how I even shared a bathroom with my brother and sister after that but we made it work. 2 bathrooms was definitely a luxury back then, and the wall to wall carpeting has since been removed to show off gorgeous hardwood floors! Thanks for sharing - I loved this look into your past!

  6. These look like some of my family photos....My folks also live in the same house I grew up in, still. I will be heading there on Saturday and drinking in (and making) memories :-) Precious photos, almost make me want to cry even though I don't know your family I feel like I am peeking into my own past! Lori