Welcome to the last in my series of blog posts on buildings that have been important to me in my life that are now gone. Today’s building doesn’t quite fit that description. It’s still here, but a shell of its former self, a reminder every time I see it that the adage is true - you can never really go home again.
It’s the brick house in Memphis where my sister Joy and I grew up. Since Mama’s car wreck and subsequent broken hip and ankle, she moved in with Joy, and her house stands empty. I mean really empty - a token bed and table and not much else. Joy is working herself to the bone trying to get it ready to sell, but, as one can imagine, a house with over 50 years of history has a lot of fixing up to go through. Alas, with me in Maine, the burdensome task falls mostly to Joy, in addition to her full-time job, full-time family including two teenagers, full-time house and yard maintenance of her own, church work, and taking care of Mama.
So the house is in a state of limbo. It is here, yet not here. It is gone from our lives, yet not gone. It is a standing reminder of what our lives used to be, and a vivid reminder of how things are not the same and never will be.
Mama and Daddy on the front porch:
Joy and I were born into that house and lived there until we went off to college. Other friends and relatives had moved at least once during their childhood, but not us. In fact, we are the only family to have ever lived in that house to this very day. The thought that maybe one day another person might live there fills me with hope and nausea simultaneously. Hey, that’s our house! Since we got married, Ed and I have lived in a townhouse, a Memphis bungalow, parsonages in New Bethel, Ripley, Algood, and Murfreesboro, and then our Victorian in Ellsworth, Maine and now our little ranch. We’ve had our share of moving around. It’s kind of ironic that the first house I lived in was new, and the last house (I vow it’s the last!) is new. The ones in between made us feel like temporary tenants, sharing the house with people past and present as it were, taking our place as residents for a few years, replacing those who came before, and after a while turning the keys over to the next families. My childhood home is not like that. We are its only family. Joy and I are the only kids to have lived there.
Boy, did we live, though! How does one do justice to recording memories of a happy childhood in a happy place? They are endless. Each room can be checked off as another piece of my life.
Mom and Dad bought the little house new in the 1950s as Memphis was expanding with post WWII boom. At the housewarming party with their friends, they delightedly announced that they were expecting me (after 12 years of marriage). Joy's birth followed two years later. During those first few years, Daddy’s mother lived with us. Frail, elderly, diabetic, half blind, she lived in one of the two real bedrooms (the other was used as a bedroom for years out of necessity, but it was really supposed to be a little den). Joy and I grew up with our old grandmother, Ma-Maw, staying in the dark room at the end of the hall. I remember that every Sunday after church, we would eat out at the Jefferson Cafe, and Dad would always have to bring a lunch home to Ma-Maw. By the time we were old enough to interact with her in any meaningful way, Ma-Maw was too far demented and sick, living in a dark room of her own. I remember after she died, how surprised I was to see that the back room was a pleasant room when it was bathed in sunlight, revealing the light floral wallpaper. I had never actually seen it before.
So Joy and I shared a bedroom all our growing-up years. This meant sharing a closet, a small one. We only had one bathroom in the house, too. It makes me feel old to say it, but most kids today don’t have any idea what it’s like to share limited space with the whole family. It’s as unthinkable to them as realizing a world existed without the ability to talk on the phone while your riding in a car and the ability to see movies on demand on your TV and the ubiquitous presence of computers. But share we did and it was the only way of life we knew. Fortunately, Joy and I enjoyed each other’s company the great majority of the time.
Out of the 3 bedrooms, we lived in each one for a period of time, starting with the den above, then after Ma-Maw died, alternating bedrooms with our parents. There we would hang our respective posters (hers of the Monkees or Bobby Sherman and mine of Abe Lincoln), go over our extensive lists on what to pack for the annual vacation trip, wake up to dimes under the pillow from the tooth fairy, lie in bed at night in the dark and recite the whole play of Oklahoma! aloud (our high school production), and listen to our transistor radios when we were supposed to be going to sleep. In the summer, we slept with the windows open, and the attic fan would whoosh the cool night air in to help us survive those Memphis summers. Open windows have their problems, though. For a long time we heard the couple next door arguing all night, as their windows were open as well, until one day the husband came home and the wife shot him dead while he was standing on the porch. That was the end of the arguments.
Mama and Daddy’s bedroom was the place I would go when I had a nightmare in the middle of the night. I walked in there and crawled into bed with them. We’re talking double bed, not queen bed, of course. It must have been awfully crowded in there. But it helped me get back to sleep easily. Their bedroom also held Mama’s old black Singer sewing machine. Mama made a lot of our simple clothes when we were little and when we were old enough to learn to sew, we made our own on that old machine. I remember when I took Home Economics in high school, I was astonished at the relatively modern sewing machines we were using.
Early on my parents' bed:
It was in the dining room that always shared a family dinner together. The only exceptions were when Daddy had a meeting at church or somewhere and the three of us would eat something different like pot pies. But most of the time, the four of us would sit down to delicious meals such as spaghetti, beans and cornbread, homemade beef vegetable soup, or, on other less exciting days, liver or salmon croquettes, always with a saucer of sliced white bread stacked for our starchy enjoyment. There we gathered at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter with our grandfather and his friend, Mr. Gordon, and Great Aunt Bessie. Somehow in the little room at the modest table, there was always room for another chair. On Saturdays, after eating all week on a half-gallon carton of ice cream for our family of four, Daddy would cut open the carton until it was one flat piece of cardboard, set it on the table, everyone grabbed a spoon, and we would share the last few bites, scraping as we went. After supper, the table would turn into a hobby table. In the evenings when he could, Daddy would bring out his splicer and other home movie equipment and organize the most recent home movies. Alternatively, he would bring out his beloved stamp collection and work on it. Sometimes we would use it to do homework. The house itself was so small, we were usually doing whatever we were doing in the company of at least one other person.
Early dining room picture (I'm in Mama's lap)
A holiday dinner:
Mother and me in the dining room:
Do you know how you can vividly remember certain moments as if it were yesterday? I remember standing at that table the day after Daddy died, staring at a lemon pie. Friends had bought over casseroles and desserts and other food after they heard the tragic news, and at the time I had been giving up sugar for quite a while, and I remember in my raw grief staring at that lemon pie, thinking, well, I might as well have some, nothing much matters any more, certainly not mundane details of what I was eating or not eating. We had had an emotional earthquake, and the priorities had shifted.
The den was a busy room for years. After Ma-Maw died, Joy and I moved into that back bedroom and the den became a regular office type room, with Daddy’s desk, files full of reel-to-reel audio tapes and choir music, and our big old upright piano. Joy and I both learned to play, because, as Mama said, she had always wanted to learn and never did, so we would fulfill her childhood dream. So Joy and I spent hours at the piano separately and together. We loved to sing duets, some pretty silly ones, some really nice ones, and invariably our black cat would saunter into the little room and jump up onto the keys and walk around while we were in the midst of our duets. We never could figure out if he didn’t like our singing or just wanted to participate. It was usually when we were trying to record ourselves, so on the recording, you’d hear the random keys being stepped on as we tried to continue singing in vain and we broke out into the inevitable uncontrollable laughter and the attempt to shoo the cat out and start over. It was also in the den where Joy and I, church veterans to the end, had our own family Thanksgiving service for our parents, with bulletins, scripture reading, hymn singing, and the works. We also used that room for our Tiffin Spy Agency meetings (so we could use the piano to accompany our TSA theme song). That den had the window facing the porch that was usually unlocked, and I remember many times when we had locked ourselves out of the house, Joy or I would have to climb in that small window, over the desk, around to the living room to go unlock the front door.
Cousin Tim at our old piano in the den:
The living room, of course, is special if for no other reason that it was the favored room for visits from Santa and the Easter Bunny. It was the also the room where Joy and I acted in our most famous comedic play, The Odd Couple. It’s not the one by Neil Simon; it’s the one written by us, and it was a parody of Aunt Bessie and another relative, Aunt Maude. We got in old-lady garb and had our parents sit down for an audience, as we acted our little hearts out. The living room was also the location for Mama’s Bunco gathering, when a group of her high school female friends gathered, clucking like chickens, smoking like chimneys, eating mints and nuts, to play a game none of them really understood but which involved, from our perspective, a lot of noise, laughter, dice rolling, and bell ringing. Whatever it was, Mama seemed to look forward to (and dread) her month to host the gathering. Joy and I always had to help her clean the house, wax the wood floors, open up the card tables and chairs, and set out the mints and nuts. Then, if we were lucky, Daddy would get us out of the house and take us to the library and maybe by the time we got back, they’d all be gone. It was in the living room we watched shows like What’s My Line? and the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite. It was in there that we awaited with anticipation a visit from our aunt, uncle, and 3 boy cousins from Little Rock. It was there that we set up the screen and projector to watch slides and home movies.
Sisters on the couch:
The 4 of us on the couch:
On the couch with our amazing cousins:
Come to think of it, the couch was always the one constant in the living room. In May 1980, Ed and I stopped by to visit because Daddy was feeling poorly. He had had a couple of small heart attacks in the preceding years, but he was a man who would always be there, robust, energetic man with a million things he wanted to do. That day he was lying on the couch in the living room, pale, tired, and as I went over to give him a hug, he whispered, “Pray for me.” (The next time I saw him, the following week, he was being wheeled past me on a gurney in the ER, and that was the last time I would see him alive.)
Our kitchen was the tiniest kitchen you ever did see, but still managed to hold a washing machine when my parents finally could afford to buy one. Back then, we didn’t have a dishwasher or microwave or even a dryer. I can remember, though, having to defrost the freezer. (Gee, I am old!) Unfortunately, I never learned to be a cook. Fortunately, I married one.
Little helpers: Me
We had an attic, unfloored except for a strip down the middle to walk on. Daddy used to pull down the stairs, climb up there and sit at the top, perusing old papers and files and things from his past. I remember once being up there with him when he showed me a picture of a bearded man in some kind of magazine. Being a kid, I wasn’t paying that much attention, but I thought he said that was the only picture he had of his father. Recently, as Joy and I were cleaning out the attic, we desperately tried to find that magazine. I couldn’t remember the details - was it a Sunday school publication? Life magazine? There were tons of magazines up there! We finally found it - a trade magazine for the printing profession, and it was not a picture of his father, it was a picture of his grandfather, an esteemed printer. What a find!
Outside was the second part of our own little world. There on Mother's Day, we would go out and pick rosebuds to wear to church. Mother wasn't really an avid gardener, but those rose bushes were her pride and joy. (When Daddy died, we put 3 roses on his casket to represent the three of us left.) The front porch was small but adequate enough for me as a child to build an intricate complex of cat hotels called Catland Caverns out of cardboard boxes. I’m sure that increased the property values in the neighborhood, LOL! Our parents let us do pretty much whatever creative activity we fancied. We chalked up the sidewalks in front, made a tent on the clothesline out back, bounced balls off the roof, set up a “club house” by the garage, played badminton in the front yard, and in general made nuisances of ourselves but hey, that’s what kids do. I guess we redeemed ourselves by helping in the yard work. During the summer, we would all get out there and pull weeds, edge, mow, trim hedges, sweep, and make our yard look presentable. When painting time came for the house, inside and out, we helped with that too.
Daddy, Joy and me on the front porch
On the back porch with a neighbor:
In the front yard:
In the back yard:
As we grew, still pictures gave way to home movies, but the memories are as clear as ever. Well, all that was long ago, ages ago. As with my church Harris Memorial, those scenes exist only in our heads and hearts now. I feel good to have gotten some of the down on virtual paper here, for we are the last of the Tiffins to live in that house. I know it's just a bunch of bricks and mortar and a yard and some trees, and I know the building is not the home, any more than the church building was the church. But still it is all so intertwined. I have no idea what the future is for what was once my precious home. I know that this month I will fly down there to do what little I can to help my sister get it ready to sell. It just breaks my heart.
Farewell, my Memphis home. Thanks for the memories.