I grew up in a home of polarized artists
My father, an executive at the Reader’s Digest from 1956-1967, also had a fully outfitted woodworking shop in the attic of our old colonial house. There he crafted furniture year ’round, including in the sweltering heat of summer and in the frigid cold of winter. During the comfy months in between, I would sometimes open the attic door latch and climb the winding stairs to visit Dad as he worked. I would sit quietly on the top step, watching as he grasped the giant wheel of the drill press, and I cringed and covered my ears as the pine boards cried out against the spinning penetration of the drill bit.
I was so glad when Dad hit the power switch so the machine could slowly moan its way back to silence. I rarely visited the attic in the summer because there would often be hornets buzzing everywhere, clinging to the window screen, dive-bombing my hair. Daddy was brave though; the bees didn’t seem to bother him at all.
Three stories below his workshop, my mother was busy flexing her creative muscles in the cellar of our home. Built around 1790, the building was originally a stagecoach stop, and the walk-in ‘cellar’ had been the tavern room. There was a latch on her door too, and another curving stairway, this time leading down to Mom’s special place.
The tavern room where she painted had a slate floor, and a huge walk-in fireplace (‘walk-in’ for anyone seven or younger.) To the right of the fireplace opening was a small cast iron door, and behind the door was a special brick-sided compartment: a deep ‘bee-hive’ oven. This was where they had baked bread in colonial times, and now it was a fine place for ghosts to hide at night. Mom’s easel was set up near the fireplace, and I would watch her as she mixed together the bright blobs of shiny oil paint, caressing the canvas with a fan brush loaded with color. Like Dad, she never sent me away, but somehow I knew it was better to sit and watch than to talk a lot. Even today that mysterious smell of turpentine conjures up happy, eager feelings.
Wild Kingdom continued…
There were no hornets in Mom’s “wild kingdom”: instead there were snakes. The tavern/our home was built nestled into the side of a hill and because of that, the tiny cement-floored room behind the fireplace dwindled to just a shallow crawl space at eye level at the north end. One day when Mom was changing over the laundry from the washer to the dryer in that little back room, a snake crawled out and she chopped off its head with a shovel. Afterward she thought it was only a tiny garter snake, and was ashamed of having been so scared. The next day, Mr. Kung (who was originally from Switzerland) stopped by, studied the remains of the snake, and said in his wonderful accent, “Dat vas a copperhead all right, dare all over deze parts. Even da little foot-long vuns iss poisonous…” He looked up at Mom and smiled. “And dere’s never yust vun…” As you might guess, I didn’t help with the laundry much after that.
I grew up thinking that all moms and dads had separate “special places” in the cellar and attic, where they went to recouperate. On the first and second floors of our home they were Parents, doing that Breadwinner / Housewife dance so common in the 1950s. I remember them often being over-tired and testy with each other. I came to see later that as parents they were ‘winging it’ more than most.
They had each grown up as the last or only child of elderly parents in Victorian homes, taught to be proper children (“seen and not heard”), entertaining themselves more often than not. As a result, neither one had any real sense of ‘family’: nuclear family, extended family, or family pride.
So instead of instilling us with fierce family loyalty, they passed on to their own kids what they had: hungry minds and a natural ability to entertain oneself. My older brother and I have photographic memories of every inch of our six acres of childhood woods and pastures, despite having left there fifty years ago. Back then we could entertain ourselves with a magnifying glass and a pile of rocks. Reading in bed was a given, of course. The order “Go to Your Room!” would have made all of us, even our parents, quite happy.
Nothing wrong with that. “Introverts Unite!”… separately of course.