The steps leading up to the porch were fresh with paint every few years. The porches themselves were like Jekyll and Hyde architecture. In winter they were bare and we scurried across them without a thought. When spring arrived life on the porch burst forth like magnificent garden blossoms. Furniture, dragged to the cellar in October, was restored to its place of honor in May. The wooden shades were unfurled, the winter dirt quickly hosed away. Cushions were wiped clean, flower pots were positioned and that outdoor room assumed its rightful pre-eminence in our daily routine.
Like so many houses in our town our windows were painted, wood framed sashes that, in summer, wobbled up and down in their tracks. In all seasons the trains rumbled through town and those windows, two whole blocks away, rattled in response. The glazing putty helped retain the nearly paper-thin single pane glass that, in the coldest days of winter, would crust over with thick, dramatic, light filled ice. I remember scratching though that cold coating some early mornings to see if sufficient snow had fallen which might lead me and my siblings to hope for an elusive snow day. If our initial assessment was hopeful, all attention turned to the AM radio as we listened intently for the mention of our school. It was a delicate dance we performed on those mornings as we simultaneously brushed our teeth and laid-out school clothes while fervently hoping to hear the magic words “Hoosick Falls Central, and St Marys, closed today. Alleluia!
Our furnace, fired with coal delivered by the truck from Buckley’s, lurked in a low, dust covered basement. The coal bins were just rough-cut boards banged together to restrain the black rock and dust. With the dump truck at the curb workers would release coal into a temporary steel chute where the clatter followed the black stuff down through the low opening and on to the cellar floor.
I’m sure men – and probably more than a few women – all over town, mastered the dark arts of working the furnace, If properly stoked the heat would rise by itself to the first and second floor registers through the miracle of science; heat rises. Our dad seemed to have sharpened his fire-maker skills to a fine edge over the years. He adapted his schedule so the fire seldom died. Of course sometimes it was unavoidable. In fact he was in one of his most heroic roles when, returning from a winter weekend trip to visit relatives, we discovered the fire was dead. Mother and children huddled in a frozen silence as Dad rushed to delicately restart a notoriously cranky furnace.
Of course these scenes replayed themselves in cellars throughout our little town. However I think I’m right to say that most households had, long before us, converted to more automated oil fired systems. We wrestled with coal for more years than most. One ritual, always Sunday night, found father and son hoisting one or two tubs of coal ash up the creaky basement stairs and out to the curb for garbage pick-up. It’s one of the ironies of life that tasks we once dreaded later become bittersweet memories of a boy, probably a fussy boy, and his father, probably a tired father, toiling together.
Upstairs most walls in our house were paper thin but all were covered with impressive floral patterns. Looking at photos of those walls today it’s hard to imagine that mom actually consulted dad in advance about these choices. From time to time it was somehow determined that new wallpaper was needed. I remember once a fellow dressed in white coveralls like a regulation painter, papering our steep stairwell. He constructed a rickety scaffold and, in what seemed like a death defying act, proceeded to cover those high recesses with flowery blossoms, twisty ribbons and probably a few fleur de lis.
I suppose all our neighbors were often in some stage of home improvement back then. In one spasm of decorating at our house, wall-to-wall carpeting was installed. The stuff climbed the stairs. It rolled into the living room. It blotted out the dining room hardwood. It was omnipresent and it was ugly. The story of how this came to be was convoluted, controversial and ultimately, tinged with scandal. How a Detroit carpet salesman convinced otherwise reasonable adults to lay esthetic waste to their home with creepy, cheesy indoor/outdoor carpet remains a bafflement to this day.
76 Elm Street is in the heart to Hoosick Falls’ second ward. Each section of our town had an identity and a good natured pride of place. Given that the town is tiny by most measures, the organization into wards probably was justified by some utilitarian purposes but it also pays tribute to the tribal instincts of all humans. We were proud second-warders. Our lot, just like those on which many of our neighbor’s houses squatted, was tiny. Most of the homes were modest wood frame structures. Like many kids might, I perceived ours as stout, strong and impressive. It only took forty intervening years to finally kill that gross misconception.
Small lots mean your neighbors are really close. As a child I was shaken awake one night because the adjoining house, no more than 7 feet west of my bedroom, was burning. The two structures were so intimate that volunteer firemen had to continually hose our roof for safety. It was a cold night for firefighting. I remember the volunteers as they took turns trooping through our kitchen as mom and dad doled out hot coffee and encouragement. It’s that kind of town.
The house on the south side, just off the back step, was no more than a cottage. For all my childhood it was the neat-as-a-penny home of Nellie. This woman developed an extreme, one dimensional profile to my immature eyes. She had an old lady look including liver spots and a shaky voice to match but she went to church devotedly and at all other times could be seen wrapped in an apron. While ignoring all us children (we were sure see didn’t like kids), she would converse easily with my mom. Our back yard was postage stamp sized but a rotating clothesline occupied most of the space above the patchy grass. The wash routine for mom and the step sweeping routine for Nellie allowed for easy conversation and the sharing of neighborhood news and a bit of gossip too.
My mom, Judy to some and Mrs Burke to her former kindergarten students, gave birth to her fourth child (yours truly) at the local Health Center. The words “health center” suggests something antiseptic and institutional. In reality it was the tiniest of non-descript cottages. After an uncomplicated delivery by the family doc, I was brought directly home. Like many in our village my house was the only one I knew until adulthood. For many of us our identity was wrapped in belonging to the tribe of church, the ward or the town. In fact even in this era of social media the distinction between “those who stayed” and “those who moved away” is an essential definition of who we each are. Later in my own life I stood on the porch of another house in another city; one that we were on the verge of purchase. I said aloud “it seems fine, but I can’t imagine living the rest of my life here” The realtor almost choked. “Actually most American only stays in one home for seven years”. My small-town me was shocked… and a little disappointed.