Have you ever returned to a house where you once lived, where there once was life…yes, life…happy life….sad life……life with all it’s highs and lows..once there…but no more there….empty now……and stood outside that door you knew so well and thought, “If I just open this door very slowly and walk in so quietly that no one knows I’ve come in….I wonder if I’ll find them all here. I wonder if I’ll be able to sit in a corner and watch them all, listen to them all, as I did when I was young.”
But you don’t open that familiar door. You turn and walk away, back to your car and the home you live in now…..because you don’t want to know for sure, because you want to believe that they are still there, as they once were, still arguing and laughing, still drinking and eating, still, still there. You wish they were there, and you wish you were there with them. And you miss them. Deep in your heart you miss them.
This thought came to me today as I drove up to the little hunting camp we once owned…up in the Pennsylvania mountains between Newmansville and Tylersburg. I didn’t drive up there to reminisce or to feel sad. I drove up because I hadn’t been there for years, and I felt alone, and I wanted to be in that familiar place once more…just to see it and remember. I know those woods better than any other, and I wanted to be in the woods.
But, as I was driving up Rt.208, listening to Joyce DiDonato sing “Over the Rainbow”, just past Fryburg, I drove over the crest of a small hill and was suddenly, haltingly, ten again. Ten again and almost unable to breathe. And tears came! Tears of missing, good tears.
I’d forgotten where it was….. “Ironing Board Pass”. Yes, “Ironing Board Pass”. As I drove I was back in that old Dodge again.
We were taking a fridge, some small stuff and an old wooden ironing board up to camp…had to be around 1961…and my father drove over that small hill and down just fast enough to throw that ironing board out of the trailer. I remembered it as if it just happened! We all felt a jerk. Jack and I looked out the back window to see if we’d lost the fridge, and there was that ironing board flying through the air.
It survived! My father pulled over, Jack and I ran back and got the ironing board, we all tied it onto the trailer again and we finished the trip to camp. Forever after that, whenever we drove over the crest of that hill, we would all yell out; “Ironing Board Pass!”
That moment changed the trip. It was no longer just a trip to the mountains to see the places where I grew up…they were suddenly all with me again…all of the ones I’ve lost.
But, not…not in a sad way. I smiled, just as I’m smiling now. And it wasn’t just memories of the camp that came back. It was of all of them at so many times……Christmases, New Year’s, celebrations, funerals…all of them came back, which brought back the thought I often have as I pass the old house on N. Oakland Avenue….would they still be there…could I catch them unawares? Could I go through that door so quietly that they wouldn’t notice me, wouldn’t fade away…that they would stay?
I lost them all when I was young. My parents were older when I was born, and my father’s parents were older when he was born, so by the time I was in my 20’s most of my family were gone. They were all so full of life that I thought they would always be there. I never pictured life without them. They were loud and argumentative, and drank, and loved…and never really noticed me as I sat there with a book. I watched them all, loved them all.
There were the Christmases when my father’s sisters, twenty years older than he was, would come to our house down on Ohio Street..Aunt June dressed in her mink, Aunt Treda jealous…both stiff and stern..like giants to me as I sat on the floor register. “Does she know how to eat properly, John Philip?” Aunt June would ask as she looked at me across the table. I was four! I had to know all the ins and outs of which fork and spoon to use! Everything was discussed, they never treated us as children…we were expected to be able to join in, to back up what we said with fact. There was always a stiffness to their gatherings…the women wore their girdles under their dresses, the men wore suits and ties.
But then there were oh so many holidays with my mother’s mother. Mag. Marguerite Basher…brusque, short tempered….arguing and drinking with her sisters. Aunt Helen trying to tell her what to do, and Mag not taking any of her guff…the both of them just looking at Aunt Ceil as she talked…shaking their heads at her and laughing with each other. My mother moving amongst them…quiet, smiling…emptying an ashtray, grabbing a bit of cake, checking on me. There was always certain calm to my mother…an inner stillness, a peacefulness. Rooms filled with heat from the coal furnace, with cigarette smoke and good smells from the food. Beer bottles and highball glasses on the tables, more in the sink…clattering as the women washed them. People moving around, sitting at the dining room table long after the dinner was finished. Uncle Ham, Uncle Bill, Uncle Francis….Grandpa Louie…my father…all arguing, all laughing…exuding life…then playing cards and drinking till they could hardly stand. Never had to worry about table manners with the Irish bunch… But, never grow up to be a Republican!!!
Undercurrents in both families…old resentments and grudges…old secrets…and no one paid too much attention to me…I was little, I was quiet. I listened.
I would sit with Grandpa Louie and listen…he was quiet, like me.
As I drove through Ironing Board Pass and on to camp today all of them came back to me, and I missed them. I missed not knowing them as a grown up, missed having the chance to know them as an adult, to talk…to sit with them at the table as an equal. To be surrounded by the warmth of them.
I drove past the road where the camp was…been forty years since we sold it…it’s gone now…..I drove on down through Cook’s Forest and home on I-80…and I still wondered…if I go to Aunt Helen’s house up on Anson Way, and open the door ever so quietly…will I catch them there? Are they still there…do they fade only when someone comes in? Are the rooms warm with the smell of the coal fire? Are the women smoking and talking in the kitchen? Is their laughter loud and free? Are the men out on the front porch with their beer and their hunting talk? Or, are they back down at our house on Ohio Street gathered around the dining room table…picking at the carcass of the turkey long after dinner had finished……arguing, laughing, talking while they have another highball…. while we kids sit under the table and listen?
Maybe not…doesn’t matter….because I still see them there, I still hear them there…and I still count myself lucky that I was once with them there..