My Favorite House
In My Growing-up Years
The old house, built in 1921, sat crookedly atop short mesquite posts and a small hill right outside of Three Rivers, Texas. The walls were board and batten, a common style for houses built years ago. Up until the 1980s, the old house had no plumbing other than a single, cold water faucet protruding over the sink in the kitchen. Baths were an adventure for visiting children, taken in a #3 metal tub in the middle of the kitchen where the water could be heated on the stove.
The bathroom was either a continuously disinfected enameled pot sitting in the corner of one of the bedrooms, or it was a trip down the path behind the salt cedars to an outhouse north of the house— too scary for young children to venture.
The house and its contents were well worn, but they always had a scrubbed-clean look about them. The patterned rug in the living room doubled as a map of roads on which small toy cars were driven. The design on the linoleum in the kitchen had long disappeared in the paths to the sink, stove, and back door. The cabinets were open shelves with a curtain covering the lower ones. The round hole for the stovepipe heater, long gone, was covered with a metal covering that looked like a fluted paper plate painted the same color as the wall. For years it was an odd mystery to the younger generation why paper plates were hung on the walls of older houses. The sound of the screen door springing open was usually accompanied by a loud bang and a parental voice hollering, “Don’t let the door slam!”
The refrigerator and freezer always, without exception, harbored good things to eat. Treasures like chocolate sheet cake and ice cream for sugar cones could be found in the chest freezer. Jell-O and potato salads and fried chicken, cut from the whole, greeted weekend visitors to the fridge. Those were the days before the pulley- or wish-bone piece became extinct, and made from scratch cooking was the norm, not the exception.
At night the furniture was pushed aside in the living room for a mattress to be laid down as a makeshift bed for the children. The house had never known air conditioning, but there was usually a nice breeze coming through the windows and screen doors. On really hot nights, though, the kids maneuvered around the mattress to get their share of wind from a box fan placed nearby, the noise of it lulling everyone to sleep. Pillows were turned over intermittently to feel a moment’s luxury on the cool side.
The screened front porch housed a multitude of plants flourishing in every sort of container imaginable: coffee cans, mason jars, plastic pails, ceramic animals. Varieties of plants also grew around the house, as well as in a garden on the side. Hundreds of doodlebug craters could be found in the ancient powdery dirt under the house. Stray cats and dogs that had been dumped and abandoned by irresponsible people found food and refuge at this house. The same could have been said of needy adults and children.
Three generations lived happily there, but it sits silent and empty of life now. The hands that so lovingly cared for and maintained it cannot take care of herself anymore. Very few would give that house a second look while driving by, thinking it was nothing more than an old shack, but for many years it was full of love and humility and self-sacrifice towards others.
In my younger years when we visited this house, I would get so embarrassed when my dad headed straight to the refrigerator after he greeted everyone. But his behavior became perfectly normal when it finally dawned on me that he had come home.
Author’s note: I wrote this essay in early 1999 about my grandmother and great aunt’s family home built by their father and where my dad grew up. My grandmother, Ella Vae Casey McGee, had passed away in 1991, and my great aunt, Lucille Murray was in a nursing home at that time. For the first year or two of writing a weekly newspaper column, I wrote enough articles to stay several months ahead of when they would be published. Even though I had submitted this article several months before it was printed, my great aunt died the week it was published, which turned it into a tribute to her.
Dad gave up his land inheritance decades ago so his brother and cousin would have more. Sadly, the old family home was torn down some years ago after the land it sat on was inherited by a nephew who had no sentimental attachment toward the home or its contents. We don’t know what family history or keepsakes were lost, although nothing was of great monetary value. I was heartsick about it for years. But I don’t dwell on that anymore. I dreamed that I made peace with my cousin, and that settled my soul. And I still have my memories of this loving home and the two sisters who lived there.
Donna Van Cleve
I didn't realize that I didn't have a good photo of the old house itself, but mostly pictures of people with the old house in the background, or you can only see a corner of it, or the porch, etc. My beautiful mother is in the center, along with my uncle Joel on the left, my niece Jenna (who has 3 children that age today), and my sister Joy taking a photo on the right (early 1980s).
My favorite picture of the 3 sisters who grew up in the house: Aunt Cele, Granny Casey,
& Aunt Fannie on the front porch steps (1954)
This is a photo of my father around 1932. Note the young tree in the back right.
Dad carrying my sister Joy in 1954; note the same tree in the background
Dad & Mom probably eating fried chicken at Granny & Cele's house.(1980s) You can see the corner of the chest freezer that always held good things to eat.
The old piano was mostly used to hold photos of family. Granny Casey is with four of her great grands (early 1981) At their feet is the old patterned rug we used as a city & roads for our toys.
My sister Joy (with the beautiful ponytail) and me (with the tiny nub of a ponytail) playing on the front porch steps (1955 or 56). The porch was eventually screened in & filled with plants.