Impressions from the Land of Vanished Beautiful Things (8)
The other side of the house is what my family called the entryway, stairs and upstairs which comprised the original portion of the farmhouse I grew up in. Later, as a pre-adolescent and through my teen years the phrase took on a comically sinister connotation. The Other Side of the House could easily have been the setting for a Shirley Jackson story or the title of a Grade B Vincent Price horror flick. As the title came on and filled the screen in blood red dripping like candle wax, thunder would be heard crashing in the background.
I have no idea where the impetus comes from for kids to scare themselves with the perfectly ordinary but I suppose it yet another ingenious instinctive survival method against boredom. We've all heard tales about the broken-down house in the middle of nowhere said to be haunted, in addition to the titillating ones involving elderly reclusive neighbors whose yards will only be entered on Halloween night as a dare. In the 1970s and onward the combination of budding sexuality meeting Boogeyman/woman of all stripes became a commonplace cinematic theme.
I can hear a chorus of practical ancestral voices saying "Sure, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt." Phrases like that might burst the fright fest balloon mainly because they have more than a slight ring of truth. Case in point: I recall one of my youngest cousins visiting from Michigan one holiday when her siblings and mine decided to play an impromptu game of "Murder in the Dark". This role-playing game is comprised of people surreptitiously selecting folded scraps of paper on which will be written "murderer", "victim", "detective", "witness", etc. On that particular holiday in question my youngest cousin couldn't conceive of her role as victim in the game and burst into tears as the rest of us kept insisting how she was supposed to be dead.
Furthermore, I think of Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" where the gossipy mischief of some spoiled bratty girls wound up costing the job of one adult main character, and the life of another. And what of that reclusive neighbor down the road anyway? Why couldn't he or she just be left alone? Did the neighbor really deserve to have an egging of the house just because he or she decided commonplace human interaction was too painful or annoying to be worth the bother? Ah, be aware of the loose tongues and gothic fancies of others, the accusations of witchcraft which came because Bessie the cow stopped giving milk on one farm while Clover was a veritable one-heifer milking factory on another.
But I digress.
The only things I can think of which tipped the eerie vs. Architectural Digest scales for the other side of the house of the farmhouse I grew up in was the fact that it was unheated, and that each room was comprised of a single bulb with a string switch, thus, in darker hours, one's hand had to scramble for the string to dispel all the ghosts and monsters lurking about. Actually, come to think of it, since there was a half-circle layout on the ground floor which would begin by entering my sister's bedroom, travelling through the bedrooms in between, and end by passing through the original front hall and coming out a door in the living room behind my dad's big comfy chair, (or vice versa) there was an element of peek-a-boo fun in this. Such maneuvers made for a little bit of presto-change-o magic when unsuspecting company would come to the house and see us leave by one door of the living room and come out via the other. What can I say? This was a time before computers, internet, cable TV and video games, so it didn't take much to amuse visitors.
The entryway itself retained a sort of ramshackle charm with its original front double doors containing oblong leaded panes. Small prisms and their rainbow reflections were cast from the corners of the windows when the sun was just right at a certain time of the day. Motes swirled in the pale shafts as if the shafts too were spiritual transporter beams. The entryway was painted a flaking off-white and lined with an oriental carpet remnant whose few tearing threadbare sections did not detract from the pattern in the overall weaving. The double doors with their elegant brass handles were kept locked by a thick black iron key, and against one door was a heavy gray metal safe on wheels.
We certainly did not grow up in an environment of materialistic riches, but this safe nevertheless promoted fantasies of treasure. Until we were older my siblings and I did not know the combination to its lock but that did not deter us from pretending to be safecrackers; putting an ear to the safe's cool door while spinning the clicking dial of the combination lock and pressing down its long silver handle at an intuitively-timed moment. Even though the door did not open we had seen the safe's inner sanctum of various drawers containing wedding rings, gold plated watches and its other contents of bankbooks and folded leather last wills and testaments, enough times to improvise playing Banker. In fact, thanks to TV shows like "Wild Wild West" my brother was fairly adept with the use of imaginary dynamite, and lighting the TNT fuse used by any professional whiskey-drinking, gun-slinger.
Skis and skates, both figure and speed, were propped up or piled in the corner against the other door while in the narrow space along the stairs odd pieces of furniture seemed to accumulate. Due to weight or size I guess they had no other place in the house to go, and although pushed back from foot traffic they still stick out in my mind. One was a sturdy chair coat rack combination made of some honey-strained Oak that included a mirror above the chair portion. On its surrounding hooks coats, jackets and hats for all seasons seemed to accumulate making for a great place during a game of hide and seek. You just had to kneel on the seat or pull up your feet and pull the coats over in order not to be seen. Looking up from the seated angle the hooks were reminiscent of antlers and what stylish animals the rack must have indeed secretly housed loaded as it was with a collection of not only knit winter hats and baseball caps, but good -only-for-church milliner creations.
Behind this chair coat rack stood a black upright piano that my siblings and I had to squeeze ourselves into very small shapes in order to play with. The ebony and ivory keys were no doubt out of tune and the only song we ever mastered was "Chopsticks", but still the physical dexterity it took to reach these keys while another of us worked the floor pedals, was worth whatever tunes we improvised. At no point however did our humble fun forays give my parents the notion that at least one of us was a prodigy in need of proper lessons to make our rural upbringing into a form of rags to riches story. My mom must have suspected that we inherited only the idiot part of the wayward gene essential to any legendary savant greatness, and though she may have loved those old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals about kids putting shows on in barns and then being made famous by passing talent scouts, she had too much Germanic meat and potatoes gloom and doom in her blood to confuse such tinsel town froth with true grit reality.
The stairs which ran up and down beside this cramped cubby-hole were also painted off-white and had ridged brown vinyl stair guards to prevent falling. These stairs were not anywhere near to being as grandiose as the wide winding stairs of the manor which was featured in that 1960s television western, "The Big Valley", stairs which over the course of the series featured one or two of the main female characters dramatically tumbling down, yet my siblings and I improvised on such graceful head-over-heels drama nevertheless. The tumbling motion was quite a bit slower but still wound up with us striking the melodramatic spread eagle pose (one defenseless upturned palm placed just behind the supine head), when we finally reached the bottom tread. We would lie there quietly for a few moments relishing the Perils-of-Pauline denouement before climbing back up to start the whole process over. Sometimes we were also gangsters, cowboys or soldiers falling after being shot.
The banister of the stairs was a good solid black walnut which ended in a pillar with an elegant circle at its top portion when one reached the last step down. It was enjoyable to trace a finger along the grooves of its spiral to reach the smooth convex button-piece at the center. Sliding down the polished banister, watching the adjacent piano and wardrobe gain and lose proximity as one went, was much more fun unless our parents caught us in the act. The speed of sliding could also be controlled by putting legs or feet against specific rails on the way down. Over time this did tend to leave scuff marks yet, when playing soldier, falling over onto the piano midway was a great place to moan while feigning being mortally injured.
The light at the top of the stairs was, as noted, a bare bulb and a string, yet it was also electrically connected to a small pearl push button panel on the side of the wall. This simple system was great for turning off the lower light from the top or turning on the top light from the bottom. With one of my siblings at the top and the other at the bottom this was another way of sending pretend secret codes, as if from a lighthouse, until again parental figures would let us know that the money for electricity did not grow on trees and we had better knock it the hell off.
The small cool closet at the top of the stairs, (which did not have an interior light), could be spooky or useful depending on one's age and mindset. When younger it was spooky to open the maple door to that deep darkened interior unsure of what murderer or monster was opposite, but, once braved, given the number of long coats and garment bags, this space too made for great hiding. A person could also always leave the door open just a crack, letting vision adjust to the variety of contents while carefully sliding an arm between each and pushing from side to side to make sure nothing and no one was lurking. Of course there was always the risk of having one's arm, then whole body, pulled between the clothes and into some other nefarious dimension, but we took our chances.
At the center of the closet's ceiling was a rectangular wooden panel by which access could be gained to the crawlspace above. Once my brother bravely took a flashlight and stuck his head up through this slot, reporting back how there was absolutely nothing but dust, cobwebs and drafty slats of light to see, however since this crawlspace was just below the roof we would occasionally hear the dovey mumbling coos of pigeons, as well as the scampering of mice, chipmunks or squirrels. In fact, occasionally something scurrying overhead dislodged the panel up there and not even my mother wanted to venture with a ladder, reach up and pull the panel back in place. She would wait at the bottom of the ladder with baited breath as one of us kids, having caught the contagion of her anxiety, did the deed. Once the panel clicked back into place the sigh of relief was audible even though it took awhile for the hairs on the back of our necks to stop standing on end.
To be honest, the scariest thing I can remember coming out of that closet was my Grandmother's fox stole. It may have been an opulent fashion statement at one time but with the small fox heads still attached and my dad, in uncharacteristic psycho-jest fashion, swinging that thing over us like Blue Beard's axe, the garment loomed into a devouring furry scythe straight from the jaws of hell. I can still hear our shrieks of "Oh God! Yuck! Gross!" as we dashed down the stairs and away from that ghoulish thing as fast as possible.
Later, when a bit more mature, the interiors of that closet took on more of an antiquated charm. Its floor was a black and white linoleum meant to look like diamond-shaped pieces of tile lined with suitcases we considered to be regal. Most of these multi-sized carriers were made of some hardy substance and covered with a top texture of thinly-woven pine green which resembled all-weather fabric. In addition to smooth comfortably grooved handles the tops had gold lockable clasps with tiny gold specialized keys. There was a magical clicking springing sound when these were unlatched. In addition to long silk ribbons to tie contents in place, the insides of each case was lined with many pockets of sheer elastic-rimmed nylon that was also a soothing pine green. In fact, shaped like a hat box, the smallest of these suitcases also contained a mirror in its lid. Not too shabby, eh? Above the suitcases, across from garments dating back to the 1940s, there were shelves filled with old yearbooks and scrapbooks containing distinguished ancestral photos of people shrouded in mystery as to how we were all related. A couple hours or more could be lost on the floor of this closet with these photos spread out around one's legs while jars of homemade jellies glistened above amid the lavender scent of pink porcelain egg-shaped sachets dangling between.
This scent was subtle and much preferred to the mothball aroma that lined the cedar chest at the other end of the hall. This cedar chest mainly contained blankets, long underwear, and winter woolens exchanged for spring and summer-wear as seasons dictated, though it's the clothes of winter wonder which fills my memory with greatest clarity. Take, for example, mom's navy and gray ski pants which had zippers up the sides, or mom's light beige and white cashmere school sweaters, each of these pieces cut in a way which ennobled the human form to statuary. There was also dad's long white woolen coat sweater with its red letter, (B for Bethlehem,) stitched on the heart-side to make a dapper match to his London Fog coat and its removable warm lining. The chest of course made for another great hide 'n seek place or faux gothic coffin, its lid creaking open like something out of "Tales from the Crypt", (that is unless my brother was sitting on top of it and I was knocking and yelling for him to let me out.)
Was it because our farmhouse was filled with so much considered old that leant our imaginations their tendencies to H.P. Lovecraft? In addition to the occasional séance, inspired by the other side of the house but held downstairs in the living room, after my parents went to bed and we had an overnight guest from school, I recall my siblings betting one another that neither could sleep a whole night up there without being frightened by a ghost. (This was a scheme mom quickly put the kibosh on once she got wind of it.) Really, aside from the closet, the other side of the house was simply comprised of two not very large rooms, one smaller than the other, and both so chockfull of things the rest of the house could no longer accommodate, that wandering through them took great coordinated balance.
It was their coldness in the winter which gave them the auras of phenomenon said to accompany haunting, and the fact that, again in the winter, infestations of small black houseflies chose those locations as a good place to die. Such organic occurrences are perfect fodder for legendary cases of supposed demonic possession and the ilk, but no traumatic homicides/suicides occurred in the house to our knowledge, and anything related to a poltergeist could best be explained by things stacked on top of one other for so long that the laws of gravity eventually took their toll. It is true, there was something eerie about helping my mom vacuum up fly carcasses in the spring, especially when unintentionally stepping on crunchy freeze-dried bodies or coming across one yet buzzing against a window, but maybe the eeriness had more to do with my skinny pale adolescent self dragging that canister from room-to-room like a Norman Bates in training.
Looking back, when not indulging in creeping myself out to pass the time, the phantasmagorical qualities of those rooms, had a larger sense of enchantment. A little past high school, using my Mom's 110 camera to explores shadows, reflections, light, the other side of the house provided a perfect setting. The smallest room in the back contained two windows made of the greenish kind of glass that causes views and reflections to slightly ripple, and along the entrance to this room old doors were propped upright, many of these containing the same sort of glass with its shimmer effect. Between these sources of light the room was filled with brown bags of old board games, stuffed toys, dolls and Halloween costumes, in addition to an antique wooden baby crib still buffed enough to catch sun despite years of disuse. In other words, on the whole, perhaps using the prop of dyed lace from a Harem girl's pants, or her velvet black mask, juxtaposed with trinkets from a Monopoly game, and photographing all of this through the knobby bars of the crib, entirely different views opened up. The larger sunnier room at the front of the house which the back one lead to, continued this sort of Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole adventure.
This front room still contained its original king size bed and heavy intricately carved headboard against one wall while the rest of the space was like a wayward carnival furniture show. Octagonal mirrors leaned against gold leaf rococo-framed ones which in turn propped up the equally gold rococo frames of ripped oil paintings that twisted and turned in a sea of large-latched chests and even larger wall-sized cherry wood dressers, dressers whose drawers were lined with bolts and bolts of different sorts of fabric. On top of the dressers, beside rolled-up maps, were art deco lamps and silver miniature blimp shaped sci-fi looking lamps, and large vases with ostrich feathers or smaller vases made by deco paging magazine scraps into stained glass patterns, and an assortment of so many other dust-burnished odds and ends that a person would almost have to wear protective goggles to take it all in. Naturally the 110 camera later went on photographing all of this, aided by the light of three more rippling windows tinted with that hint of aqua which matched yet the fourth window just outside this larger bedroom, this larger bedroom with its off-white door that created an entrance back to the large cedar hope chest with its moth balls and my parents' nostalgic winter garb.
Here we go again, circling through, the 110 camera long since gone along with most of those photos.
See the wall painted robin's egg blue behind the king sized bed, blue from one of the paint cans which found its way up here and used when my sister was considering making this room her own. On the back wall, diagonal, there is the large X of yellow paint from yet another can which made its way up here when my sister considered painting each wall a different color, again before making this room her own. Note the curtains on the windows, composed of some plastic-crepe paper like hybrid, ruffled at the top, pin striped and riding between those lines, little flowers, violets perhaps, faded to baby blue.
Circle, circle...More bags and boxes and furnishings line the front of this room; boxes of hard covers, bags of paperbacks, one warped coffee table, another with claw feet and the ring stains of many water glasses. Around these are stacks of long-playing records, including albums of 78s and the stereos on which to play them. Amid all of this, see where so many of our old art projects wound up and even the large rolls of mural-like paintings I did after dropping out of art school, then moving to Provincetown for an even larger artistic and emotional belly flop. My embarrassing letters of homesickness are buried somewhere up here, maybe on the dark wicker rocking chairs of our childhood or the burgundy velour sofa and chair set of my sister's first apartment.
Circle, circle...my brother tells me that my parents sometimes walk over my rolled up mural-like paintings in typical worst art critic fashion, while he has taken to wallpapering the upstairs hall using remnants from the hotel he used to work at. There are bags and bags of these lightly printed brown-lined rolls too, mainly in the darker back bedroom, leaning against the stack of old doors. My brother is making the other side of the house look fresh and new and would like to convince my father to put in heat up there, call a carpenter, create apartments either to rent or for us all to move back into.
Circle, circle, dreams of these upstairs rooms, the other side of this house, still come to me, mixed in with the familiar unfamiliar of every other place I've lived since, and mixed with places I've never lived in at all. Door after door opens and room upon room, sometimes peopled with family, relations, friends known while growing up, and even co-workers past and present, while other times the people, (tenants, neighbors, repair people, delivery clerks, film crews...), act as if I know them and they, in turn, me, but I think we are just all playing along.
House dreams are common to the collective unconscious. It's as if the rooms are keys, secret codes and we are all trying to unlock the answer of how to reach one another or our essential selves.
Circle, circle... perhaps what we are all dreaming for is a place where we can most feel at home in the world, at home in our souls.
Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he's been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. Further examples of his writing can be found at Stephen Mead.