Wednesday, July 2, 2014


My relatives are putting together a family reunion.  One of those giant outdoor picnics of heredity that I have only seen in comedies.  By popular request, it is being held at the old farmhouse where my grandmother was born, in Iowa. 

It's weird to me that over 50 people will be attending this and that many of them requested meeting at the house instead of the original proposal somewhere else in the Midwest.  Weird because that's my house.  It's mine, and I will always entertain illusions of living there someday.

Up until recently, the house was owned by my great-aunt, whose frostiness was tempered only by her antiquated sense of hospitality when we went to visit a decade ago.  She was nice because she had to be, but that didn't stop her from bitching about things her brothers in law had done to her 60 years ago.  After she married my great-uncle Chick, it was decided that she would move into his family home while he was overseas during WWII.  What I thought sounded like a charming prank still stuck in her craw: the night she was to arrive for the first time to her new home was a late one, and after long hours of driving, they pulled up in the middle of the night and trudged carefully up the dark stairs to their bedroom.  On the upper ledge of the door had been balanced an open box of shot pellets.  Instead of slipping into a quiet bedroom for some long-anticipated sleep, they got a cacophony of hundreds of little metal balls clacking onto the wood floors and bouncing down the stairs, accompanied by the belligerent male laughter of many new brothers-in-law.  One got the feeling she had hated them ever since.

When we chuckled at the story, my dad particularly as he remembered fondly his uncles, she shot us a poison-tipped glance.  "Well it was certainly not funny at the time."  I remember that she seemed to be bragging about being from Ohio, a place that she thought was considerably more refined than Iowa.  Being from Ohio, she said, it took some time to adjust to the country ways of Percival.  I recall marveling that someone would speak of being "from Ohio" with the level of righteous pretension usually reserved for New York natives.

She was kind of charming, though.  We were initially wary because my grandmother hated her, hated her fucking guts, because she had thrown out a bunch of family heirlooms when she and her husband took over the house in the 1960s.  Allegedly.  She never visited and we had never met her, only thought of her as an evil witch living in my grandma's house somewhere towards the middle of the country.  We only met her after my grandmother died.  She was cute and old, with a 1960s tv set and a wall-mounted kitchen phone as her only windows to the outside world.  And an old radio, of course.  She asked me if I wanted to see "the Monaghan family library," and opened a linen closet to reveal stacks and stacks of Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey paperbacks.  Lots of phrases began with "The Monaghans..." in which she would illustrate what they do and don't do.  The Monaghans love barbecue.  The Monaghans have lived in this town for 100 years.  The Monaghans were the first Catholics in Fremont County.  The Monaghans fly planes and write copy for Chevrolet!

The Monaghans also had a cross burned in the yard of that farmhouse by the Klan in the nineteen-teens,  because of the Catholic thing.  My grandmother's sister told us stories of going to class in the one-room school and being teased and pinched by all the little Protestant children, who called them "cat-lickers".

After the great aunt's death, I was terrified for the house's fate, but all is well in that it conveyed to her genial son, a lay historian and riverboat card dealer.  That means I still have a chance to someday acquire the house.  In fairness, they have been careful stewards of the building's integrity, and apart from various stumbles, they have preserved it admirably.  When they diverge, though, they really mean it.  There is an upstairs back bedroom that, when I saw it, had 4" rainbow shag carpeting.  I don't know if that's period correct.

In spite of the occasional dashes of gingerbread and scallops, it is a practical, sturdy example of rural Victorian architecture.   It's not as flouncy or dark as I like them, but it is charming in its farmy way.

I like the glossy, polished dark wood thing and hallways so dark you want to put your hand out.  The first thing I would do in this house is strip the paint on the walls and find the original wallpaper pattern.  SUCH EXCITE!  Then I would, of course, remove all carpet to reveal the original wood floors, but I might just leave that rainbow shag in the back bedroom, because fuck the police, right?

So from the second photo, it appears to me that the house was not white originally.  I seem to recall an ancient conversation with my grandmother in which she said it was a garish color to begin with, something that sounded ugly to me at the time.  Perhaps yellow?  We'd do some archaeological peeling on that as well, just to see.

Circa 1913.  Not much changed.  My great-grandma in the middle holding a baby.

No comments: