I’ve been thinking about houses recently. Spring has finally come to my part of the country, so it’s time to get out the honey-do list and start those projects. We got a new roof put on our house a few weeks ago. With that budget-busting job out of the way, we can work in the yard and catch up on painting, cleaning windows, and the myriad of other chores that go along with owning a money-pit . . . I mean, an old house.
Most people, I think, have a house that holds a special place in their lives. For me it is my maternal grandparents’ house—MaMa’s and PaPa’s. I lived there for the first four years of my life, as my father finished his Marine Corps service at the end of WWII and he and my mother tried to figure out what their married life was all about. They met in the fall of 1941 but did not marry until 1944, in California. As soon as my mother realized she was pregnant in early 1945, she returned to her parents’ home in Laurens, a small town in upstate South Carolina.
That home was a two-story house (plus an attic) built in the 1880s, with huge rooms, 12-foot ceilings, a front porch that ran around to the side of the house, and a vacant lot behind it and another one on one side of it. No child could have asked for a better place to live or to visit. The house imprinted itself on me, like a mother duck on her ducklings. I was the fifth grandchild out of a brood that eventually numbered fourteen. Ten of the fourteen of us lived in the house for some portion of our childhood—six of us, unfortunately, because of divorce or the death of a parent. Every holiday saw us coming together in Laurens, and the grandchildren got to spend some time there during the summers.
One reason the house was so special to me was that my family moved around a lot as I was growing up. My father was always trying to make things better for himself and his family, so he changed jobs and residences with a frequency that would be impossible today. As a result, I went to two schools in different towns in first grade and lived in three different houses between second and fifth grades. In sixth and seventh grades I went to four different schools in three different towns. I had just learned to spell Cincinnati when we moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This stage of my life—the mid-1950s—is the focus of my book Perfect Game, Imperfect Lives: A Memoir Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Don Larsen’s Perfect Game. You can read a sample at my web site: http://www.albertbell.com. There are links to order it online, or contact me and I’ll sell you an autographed copy. Now back to our program, er, blog.
We bought a house when I was in fourth grade but moved before sixth grade. We bought another house when I was in tenth grade, but before eleventh grade we had moved again, back to South Carolina. My parents moved twice more while I was in college—from South Carolina to Virginia, then to Tennessee. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find my way “home” to a house I’d never seen for Christmas my senior year (no GPS in those days). To cap the process, they moved one last time, back to South Carolina, while I was in graduate school and spent thirty years in that house.
That’s why home, for me, was always that big old house in Laurens. No matter how often my parents’ address changed, I knew I could always find my way back to MaMa’s and PaPa’s. That’s why there’s a large picture of that house in my house and a piece of the gingerbread from it hanging on the wall. (PaPa had it removed in the 1950s because it was so hard to paint. My pack-rat mother kept one piece.)
When my wife and I started our family, I told her I wanted a big old house, and I didn’t want to be moving around every few years. I’ve been blessed to have a good college teaching job that has enabled us to stay put. We bought our first old house in 1978 and lived there for sixteen years. The house we bought next was only a few blocks away, not quite as old but bigger.
All four of my children went through the same school system, from kindergarten to graduation, and are still friends with people they’ve known since they were six years old. By contrast, when I was in grad school I ran into a young woman whom I recognized. I knew we had gone to school together. While we talked I racked my brain, but, as we were parting, I finally had to ask her, “Where did I know you?”
Now I have an eleven-year-old grandson, who calls me PaPa. My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to buy the rental house next door to us in 1998. We had a long run of excellent tenants, but my younger daughter got divorced when my grandson was two, and they came to live with us. They had one of our apartments for a while and now, along with my daughter’s boyfriend, occupy the entire house, except for the basement, which is my older son’s territory since he got downsized out of a newspaper job. I don’t have as big a house as my grandparents had, but between my two houses I do have more room. And we’ve needed it. Fortunately, my kids and the significant other are employed and able to pay rent.
Now to tie this into Pliny the Younger, the sleuth in my series of Roman mysteries. (Bet you thought I couldn’t do it.) Pliny, a wealthy aristocrat, owned several houses, but his favorite was a seaside villa at what is now called Laurentum, about 17 miles southwest of Rome. When he describes the villa to a friend he refers to it as Laurens meum. Yes, Pliny had a house in Laurens!