The neighborhood kids are back in school, and productivity is in the air. The little boy next door, Charlie, who knocks on our door and asks for a popsicle, has been red-shirted. He was due to start kindergarten this fall, but his parents held him back, which pleases me. He’s good company for one so young, conversant on a variety of topics, plus has the good sense to know when it’s time to go home, a quality lacking in some adults I know. Like most blessings, Charlie was a surprise. His parents believed their child-bearing years were past; then along came Charlie, to their amazement and our delight. We wanted another child in our lives, and there’s no kid more enjoyable than one you can send home at suppertime.
It’s quiet with the neighborhood children back in school. My wife is with them, manning the library, toting the barge of literacy and healing the twin diseases of sloth and ignorance. My dalliance with formal education ended 24 years ago, but I still feel a delicious rush of freedom each September, the way a convict must feel the day he is escorted to the prison gate and released. I am a fan of knowledge, but have always pulled against the traces of mandatory learning, preferring the self-directed variety.
There is a grimness to education these days, with legislators daily checking its pulse, scanning for tumors, and examining its entrails. I could not bear to be a teacher, having to earn the approval of our nation’s dimmest species — the common politician. Mrs. Conley, my fourth-grade teacher, would not have tolerated this vulgar intrusion into the sacred chapel of her classroom, and I look for our educators to organize any day now, throw off their shackles, and send the politicians packing.
I watch the children stand at the bus stop up the hill from our home. I hear the bus before I see it, slowing to make the corner at our house, its tires humping over the curb, into our yard, then back over the hump and into the street, up the hill past three houses before stopping at the curb. The children step onto the bus with a lightness I never felt as a child on my way to school. I saw a documentary once of coal miners entering a black and joyless hole to begin their day’s labor, and it reminded me of every day I spent at school.
Charlie’s mother works as a nurse twice a week, and Charlie spends those days with his 87-year-old great-grandmother, who sets aside time each day for “school.” She teaches him the alphabet and a dab of math and then sits him on her lap and reads a story. I don’t know what he does after that. He might rot his mind on television for all I know, but I do know the word school has a pleasant association for him, and he can’t wait to go.
My granddaughter is not yet two, but I’ve already told my son and daughter-in-law, both of whom work, that she can ride the bus to our house after school. She will have just been with my wife in the library, and then the baton will be passed to me.
We’ll start with milk and cookies and then chew on her day, her reporting the triumphs and tragedies, me listening¸ giving grandfatherly nods in all the right places. We’ll lace up our boots and go for a hike in Mrs. Blanton’s woods across the road from our house, making our way to the creek, watching for deer, keeping an eye peeled for the bald eagle that has made its home a few miles up creek. I’ve seen it three times now, working the creek in search of supper. In the deep pools, we’ll watch the waterbugs dance across the surface. We’ll skip rocks, throwing sidearm — three, four, five skips — and then head home past the Helbigs’ pasture, stopping to watch the horses chomping the grass down to dirt.
There are all sorts of things one must learn, only some of which are taught in school.
For many of us the home that’s fondest in our hearts is one we remember from childhood. For me it was the first actual house I ever lived in—a rental the family moved into when my father, a textile salesman, was transferred to Baltimore from New York. Up until then, we’d been living in an apartment in the Bronx, also a rental. I’m not sure co-ops and condos even existed then. If they did, Mary Ann and I sure didn’t know about them.
Mary Ann is my sister. We were both 8 years old at the time, but we weren’t twins. We were what everybody called “Irish Twins,” born in the same year; I in January, and she in December. My folks talked up this move to Baltimore, telling us we’d be living in a place with a lawn. This seemed pretty exotic to us, and we were really looking forward to that. On the day we moved in, while the moving men were unloading furniture from the van, Mom looked out an upstairs window and saw the two of us lying on our backs on the little postage stamp of a lawn, looking up at the sky. But the front lawn didn’t look small to us. It looked like the country. Imagine our delight to find out the place had a backyard, too. Also small, the backyard provided a little more privacy and enough room for playing tag and hide-and-seek with neighborhood kids. We’d bounce a rubber ball off the steps, use a bamboo clothesline stick as a pole vault, and hide Easter eggs when that season came. Big enough for games and growing a victory garden—mostly tomatoes, pumpkins, and radishes, as I recall. And sure enough, victory did come, didn’t it? We did win World War II. Around that time, our baby brother was born, and sharing his growing up would be a big part of our life story, too. While there would be other houses we’d call home, our first home on Edgewood Road is the one that always comes to mind.
The house had a big front porch with a swing on it. When it rained, we’d hang out there with neighborhood kids, tell each other movies we’d been to, scene by scene, and sing rounds like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” That porch was where Mr. Shapiro used to leave the dozen or so copies of The Saturday Evening Post that I used to deliver to neighbors. I remember laughing a lot at the cartoons, and sometimes those Norman Rockwell covers were funny, too. I never thought I’d be in The Saturday Evening Post. Later, I’d also delivered The Baltimore Sun. All those things I associate with the outside of that particular house on Edgewood Road.
Inside, of course, was the kitchen. I remember Mom putting newspapers on the kitchen linoleum and spraying us both with calamine lotion, head to toe with a flit gun, when we accidentally rolled around in some poison ivy. In that room, I also remember the more pleasing aroma of dinner being cooked. They say smell is the strongest sense memory. I can still smell mushrooms being sautéed and the aroma of split pea soup simmering on the stovetop. Whatever the dinner was, the family would always eat it every night in the dining room when Dad was home. Afterwards, Mary Ann and I would help with the dishes: I’d wash, and she’d dry, or vice versa. There was a lot of singing going on, too.
In the living room was the piano, which always got a workout. Mom played “That Old Silver Moon Shining Down Through the Trees.” Both Mary Ann and I were taking piano lessons from Miss Matilda Dietch so there was much practicing. Usually we played a duet; “Voices of Spring” is one I remember as well as “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” When the piano wasn’t playing, the radio was. No TV of course in those days. But to this day I can tell you who sponsored which shows: The Shadow was Blue Coal; Jack Benny, Jell-O; and The Lone Ranger, Silver Cup Bread.
The expression “Home Sweet Home,” to me, is the memory of voices and faces in that place on Thanksgiving and Christmas, of friends and relatives—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a little dog named Inky.
It’s not the rooms of that house I think of so much as what went on there. It’s always the people; the singing, laughing, and joking—and occasionally quarreling and crying. Quite often, actually, come to think of it. You go back and look at a house all these years later, and it seems so different now, much smaller than you remember. And you realize that if it’s still there at all, it has to be basically what it was. It’s us who have changed. It’s not the brick and mortar, the shape, or size that matters. It’s the people; it’s the life. Old Edgar Guest had it right when he wrote, “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.”