I grew up in a home of polarized artists.
My father, an executive at the Reader’s Digest, had a fully outfitted woodworking shop in the attic of our old colonial house. There he crafted furniture in the sweltering heat of summer and in the frigid cold of winter. During the comfy months I would open the door latch and climb the winding stairs to visit Dad. There I would sit quietly as he grasped the giant wheel of the drill press- I cringed and covered my ears as the pine boards cried out against the spinning penetration of the drill bit. I was always 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 were always hornets buzzing everywhere, clinging to the window screen, dive-bombing my hair. Daddy was brave though; the bees didn’t bother him at all.
Three stories below, my mother commandeered the cellar of this wonderful 1790s house. Originally it was 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’ 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 that it was better to sit and watch than to talk a lot. The smell of turpentine filled my nose during those days and even today that mysterious smell conjures up happy, eager feelings.
Wild Kingdom continued…
In Mom’s “wild kingdom”, there were no hornets—instead there were snakes. The north end of the cellar, the part dug into the side of the hill, ended in a shallow crawl-space, and one day when Mom was changing over the laundry from the washer to the dryer, 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. K (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. On the first and second floors of our house they were parents, doing that bread-winner / housewife dance so common in the 1950s. There they were often over-tired and sometimes testy with each other. As parents they were ‘winging it’ far more than I realized at the time. They had each grown up as the last or only child of elder parents in Victorian homes, neither one with any strong sense of ‘family’. 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 still have photographic memories of every inch of our six acres of childhood woods and pastures despite having left there fifty years ago. Back then (and even now!) 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 the parents, quite happy. Nothing wrong with that. “Introverts Unite!”… separately of course.