Our Home: 1991 Brentnell Avenue
September 7, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
“Guess what! We’re moving to a house,” I proudly announced to the girl that lived next door. “My Uncle Edward is lending us the downpayment.”
I overheard Dad and Mom thanking Edward profusely on a long distance call before I stepped into the courtyard. They held hands on the kitchen table and spoke wistfully about how wonderful having their own home would be. Mom followed me into the courtyard and when she heard my boast, she grabbed my wrist and jerked me into our apartment. After shutting the door, Mom shook her finger inches from my nose and said, “Don’t ever talk about our family’s finances with others.”
The rebuke bewildered me. Dad smiled, and said, “Your mother’s right. The new house is good news, but we don’t tell the neighbors our business.”
We lived in a World War II barracks converted to apartments by the City of Columbus. My younger sister Kathy and I shared a bedroom and little Steve’s crib barely fit in Mom and Dad’s room. A bigger house with our own yard was a big step up.
I was in Miss Marbury’s third grade class at St. Leo’s. I loved her. I still think of her telling us that “believe” is spelled with a “lie” in the middle and the word for a school principal ends with “pal.” I was sorry to leave her, but my parents’ excitement about the new house was contagious.
On Sunday afternoon, Dad wedged the bassinet in the middle of the back seat of our 1949 Chevrolet leaving just enough room for Kathy and me. Steve fell asleep as soon as we drove away. After we crossed the river and went through downtown, Dad pointed to a billboard that said “AmVet Village” in large red letters above “Low Downpayment” in white and “VA Loans Accepted” in blue. Beneath the sign, a red, white, and blue trailer was festooned with flags. Dad stopped at the side of the road and pulled a map from a brown envelope stuffed with papers.
He turned onto Sagamore Road where new houses, each almost identical to the others, were lined up behind lumpy sod yards with cars in the driveways. Some people sat on their small porches while kids played nearby, and others watered their new grass with hoses. Dad held the map above the steering wheel and said our house was around the corner on Brentnell Avenue. We entered a construction site. Yellow bulldozers, rough graded expanses of dirt, piles of brush and cut up trees, and partially completed houses. The number 1991 was stenciled sideways on an unpainted board stuck in the mud. At the top of a modest rise, a concrete foundation bristled with stubs of pipes, lumber was stacked nearby and a utility pole without any wires reminded me of an Alaskan totem pole I had seen in a school reader.
“Can they build our house by May?” Mom asked doubtfully.
“Sure!” Dad replied. “The May 15th move-in date’s in our contract,” he added with finality.
On the next few Sundays, we saw stud walls rise, rafters and joists appear, and the roof framed. Clapboard siding, window sashes, and roof shingles were put in place. The cement porch and walkway from the newly graveled driveway were poured. A fresh coat of white paint made the house gleam. Shutters were nailed next to the windows on moving day. Dad said the narrow shutters wouldn’t cover the picture window even if they were hinged. Mom said she loved them.
We slept in our new home on May 31st. No sod in front, but we were giddy as we peered into the closets and explored the basement. Mom sewed sheets together and dyed them blue to make curtains to complement the off-white walls.
The front door opened directly into the living room with a short hallway connecting to the master bedroom, bathroom, dining room, and a kitchen large enough for a small table pushed against the window.
Grandmother sent a large print of the Blessed Virgin Mary ascending to heaven for the living room. A small, three-tiered hanging shelf held a few keepsakes and Mom’s prized Hummel statuettes (probably imitations, I now suspect).
Dad hung his favorite picture at the foot of the stairs. “The Gay Philosopher” was a ruddy, bewhiskered guy smiling broadly; he could have been a clown or a derelict, but he was happy, the only meaning of “gay” we knew then. I’m sure Dad found this picture reassuring when dark thoughts descended upon him.
The sod was laid a week after we moved in. Mr. Spires, our next door neighbor, told Dad he should flatten the clearly visible rectangles into a smooth lawn with his roller, a large cylinder filled with water and pushed like a lawn mower. Dad reluctantly complied, but the experience exhausted him and his interest in lawn care. Mowing the grass became my job until I could slough it off to Steve years later. Other men in the neighborhood doted on their yards, adorning them with trees, hedges, flower beds, bird baths, and shiny bright colored globes of bright. The houses were similar, but at least people could make their yards distinctive.
Grandmother brought three rose bushes the first time she came to Sunday dinner and insisted, wisely, that Dad plant them before she went home. Over the years, the only other landscaping came from two live Christmas trees planted in the yard in January. One grew so large next to the house until it had to be removed, and the other was cut down by a young teenage neighbor who presented it to his girlfriend as a Christmas gift the following year.
The second floor was unfinished with loose pink insulation piled between joists. Above, rafters supported the plywood roof with the points of roofing nails poking through. A window provided light and cross-ventilation. Kathy and I slept downstairs in what would become the dining room for months awaiting flooring upstairs.
Eventually Dad brought home some rough boards salvaged from packing crates from the Army Depot where he worked. I helped Dad, removing nails, pounding them straight for use upstairs, and carrying boards upstairs to make a floor that covered the insulation.
For several years, Kathy and I had our own space on either side of the staircase. I thought it was a great adventure, almost like a cowboy’s cabin or an explorer’s hut. I bought a plastic thermometer at Woolworth’s and proudly reported how cold it was each winter morning. I was delighted when a skim of ice appeared on a glass of water one frigid morning. Kathy and I slept under a mountain of quilts and blankets on flannel sheets on cold winter nights. The heaviest was a black buffalo robe of unknown origin and dubious authenticity. In the summer, Kathy and I were allowed to stay up late until the stifling daytime heat dissipated.
When Steve began climbing out of his crib, Dad assembled his “big boy” bed in my room. A few years later, my next brother Tim joined us on a trundle bed. Finally David outgrew the crib, moved upstairs, and I slept on the couch. By then I was in college and left at 5 am for my janitorial job at the department store and came home from the Student Union late in the evening. I stored my blankets and a pillow in the coat closet. The efficiency of this arrangement appealed to me. I moved to an apartment near the campus when I received a fellowship for graduate school in 1966.
Soon after my sister Margy moved into Kathy’s room, Dad hired a guy named Frank, a barely competent contractor, to finish the upstairs. Kathy and I often reminded our younger brothers and sisters of the relative luxury of insulation and electric heaters.
We did not have the luxury of more than one bathroom, not enough for eight people, two adults and ultimately six children, or even my two sisters. Kathy and Margy often pounded on the locked door with emergencies — emergencies related to their hair or make-up. Getting into the bathroom was an incentive for rising early. The diaper pail was an incentive not to linger.
Our neighbors erected fences in their backyards so we only needed to link them with a fence at the rear. This became necessary when Mom relented and allowed us to get a puppy at the pound. Penny, a mongrel part beagle and part something else, roamed the yard for many years, but snuggled with us in front of the TV and slept in the basement.
When the paint began to peel on the west side of the house, Grandmother sent us an old Dutch painter who spoke no English. We were amazed to see him immerse both hands in a five-gallon paint can to stir the paint like a baker kneading dough. The next time the house needed painting, Dad assured Mom that he could handle it with help from Steve and me. We borrowed ladders from our neighbor, Mr. Spires. I was bold enough to climb to the peak above the second floor windows. I surprised myself that I also had the nerve to jerk the ladder an inch or two sideways so I could paint the places where the ladder had rested against the house. (I’m still surprised.)
When I was in the seventh grade, Dad stayed home from work from time to time because he wasn’t feeling well. He wasn’t sick in bed or throwing up like I did when I had the flu. Dad went to the VA where he was an outpatient, but the doctors were unable to help him. Unshaven, wearing his robe, pajamas, and slippers, he sat in his chair in the living room and stared out the picture window at an unchanging scene. One day when he had been home all week, he said he had quit his job, but haltingly told me he would get another one soon.
Within a month, Mom began practicing her typing on a portable Royal typewriter borrowed from Uncle Bill and doing drills in her high school textbook. Gradually she increased speed and reduced mistakes. She circled want ads in the paper and mailed off applications. On one of the many nights Dad didn’t feel well enough to come to dinner, Mom announced at dinner that she was going to begin work as a clerk-typist at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Mom dropped three-year old Margy at a neighbor’s before Dad roused himself to take her to work in our only car. Mom did not drive. Kathy and I deposited Steve at his first grade class in our elementary school. One of us brought Steve home and fetched Margy from the babysitter after school. Dad demanded that we straighten up the living room before Mom arrived. This often happened in a frantic last minute flurry as the car came up the driveway. Kathy started dinner and I set the table.
A few weeks later, I was surprised to see Dad dressed in his best suit when I came down for breakfast. He began a rapid fire monologue about business contacts and former colleagues he planned to visit about job opportunities. He had his brief case by the door. He also told me to cut the grass that afternoon. He started work as a salesman on commission the following week.
Dad threw himself into his work for several months, but lost interest and eventually began to stay home and retreat to the darkened bedroom. This bi-polar pattern repeated itself for several years. When he was euphoric, he spent heavily during drinking binges. Many times he did not meet Mom at the bus stop after work, and she walked two miles after a day that began at 5:30 a.m., fixing lunches, making oatmeal, and putting out breakfast.
The Catholic high schools Kathy and I attended were far from our neighborhood, and I had part-time jobs after school. Steve and Margy came home to be with the youngest children, Tim and Dave, after school. Margy took on responsibility for childcare, housekeeping, washing and ironing clothes, and starting dinner during the week. We sometimes referred to her condescendingly as “the domestic.” She deserved far more appreciation (and assistance!) for all she did for the family.
With four, five, then six children, our small house was usually lively and often chaotic. The sound of Gunsmoke and Robin Hood on TV could not be escaped in the dining room or kitchen. Backyard lawn chairs, woven plastic bands stretched over aluminum tubing, were refuges during warm months, but from October to May, our house was quiet only when everyone was asleep. Even then, Dad’s snore often reverberated throughout the first floor, and the furnace always clicked, whirred, and huffed.
Dad’s last years were largely lived in the dreary bedroom my parents shared. He was anxious when awake and always longing to escape into a drugged sleep. The VA psychiatrists had nothing for him other than prescriptions for sleeping pills.
He made painful appearances when I returned from Baltimore with my wife and young children. He managed a grin but not a smile when his grandchildren were placed on his lap for photographs. Mom and the rest of the family did what they could for him, but little could be done.
In one of my calls to Mom, she mentioned that she scheduled an appointment for Dad at the VA. He had been complaining of severe stomach cramps. A week later I learned that he was in Grant Hospital for a bleeding ulcer and advanced diabetes. He died a few days later.
After the funeral, while Mom visited with her cousins, Steve and I removed the drapes that shrouded Dad and Mom’s bedroom and let the sunlight brighten the room. Framed pictures I had forgotten and the crucifix were taken down, drop cloths were spread and we painted the dreary, gray room a bright white. Mom returned to a fresh, bright bedroom.
On a subsequent visit to Columbus, Mom mentioned that she made the last payment on the mortgage. “I always sent that $71.59 house payment to Kissel Company first. I was bound and determined not to lose our house,” she said with a satisfied smile.
“You should celebrate by burning the mortgage,” I said. She laughed and waved this idea away.
“Seriously let’s do it tomorrow after Sunday dinner,” I said. Kathy and my five brothers and sisters gathered in the backyard. Margy uncovered the dusty charcoal grill. Mom held up a yellowed paper with a decorative border, “Mortgage” in large curlicued script at the top, and Dad’s signature at the bottom. The year “1951” was handwritten above a blank line.
Mom was prepared to say a few things. “Your Dad and I were so happy the day we learned we could buy this house. We’ve had some tough times here, but we also have many wonderful memories. This house has become our home…” She stopped and stared into the distance and smiled.
“Are you going to burn the mortgage?” asked Dave, a little boy who was eager to see the fire he had heard about.
“Oh, yes. Sorry,” Mom said. She held Dad’s lighter to a corner of the paper and, as the flames leapt toward her hand, she dropped it on the grill. Everyone clapped and cheered, especially Dave.