Thursday, February 7, 2013

Big Grandma's House

Big Grandma, my mother’s mother, wasn’t really very big, not much more than 5 feet tall; but she was bigger than Little Grandma, my father’s mother, who was a tiny woman.

After we moved to the Chicago area, when we’d visit St. Paul, we’d stay with Big Grandma.  To a little girl who visited only once a year, her house was full of places I longed to explore but I wasn’t allowed to investigate - places that must surely contain all manner fascinating things.

The house was one of the earliest built in that part of St. Paul. Additions had been made by the time my grandparents bought it in 1920.  It still sits on Goodhue Street on the limestone bluff at the lower end of  the old High Bridge.  The basement had been carved or blasted out of the limestone.  There was a coal fired furnace down there; and probably storage for meat and vegetables.  I’m sure that the limestone kept the temperature more or less constant summer or winter.

Early photo – before my time

 The High Bridge connected the high bluffs of the wide gorge carved from the stone by the Mississippi river.  At the river’s level were still some homes, some industry, and a railroad yard.

The house itself was quite unremarkable.  It was green painted stucco. There were large shade trees in the front yard.  Around the side was a pretty plot of lily of the valley.  I loved those tiny fragrant white flowers. The back yard included a chicken coop that was empty by the time I saw it.  When her family was at home, Grandma raised chickens and ducks.  She used duck eggs in her baking because they were richer than chicken eggs.  Also in the backyard was Grandpa’s shed!

How I longed to investigate all the wonderful things stashed away in that shed! Grandpa died before I was born so I never knew him.  He’d been a teamster with his own team of horses; and the shed had housed the horses, his wagon, and all his tack and tools.  I was actually inside the shed a few times but never let loose to explore.  There were horse collars and other tack hanging on one wall. There was a grinding wheel for sharpening tools. I loved its smell of old wood and old leather.

The interior of the house was plain, functional, and felt very comfortable to me.  Nothing fancy, but I sure wish I had photos of its old fashioned furnishings.  There was a player piano with at least a dozen music rolls. I couldn’t play the rolls, but I was allowed to occasionally play the piano.  I learned decades later that one of my cousins resented me because Grandma let me sometimes play it. 

Hanging on the wall above the piano were portraits of two beautiful young women – 1920’s glamour portraits of two of my aunts.  I found that hard to believe because by the time I knew them, they were already in their 40’s which meant “old” in my young eyes.

There was a small room that had a toilet but it had no other plumbing. It also had a box of newspapers for bathroom reading.  Bathing was done in the kitchen in a big, round galvanized tub that was brought out for baths and for laundry.

The kitchen had a sink with a drainboard and single faucet for cold water.  Hot water for dishwashing, bathing and laundry was heated on the cook stove.  It was a huge black coal fired iron stove.  Grandma had cooked and baked for her family and taught her seven daughters to cook on that stove.  To the right of the stove there was a large pantry that excited my curiosity because the upper shelves held lots of interesting looking things. I never got to explore it. A room to the left of the stove held a large ice box among other things.

The long wide dining room held a sturdy table that would seat the whole family: parents and their 11 kids.  By the time I arrived, the only kids around were grandchildren and even some of them were already adults. On one wall was a big old clock with a brass pendulum and a pretty loud tick. It’s chime struck every quarter hour and tolled the hour. Off to one side was a nook with a small table and a chair.  On the table was a candlestick phone.

The rail yard at the base of the bluff was probably always pretty busy but I only noticed the trains at night.  I’d fall asleep to the ticking of the dining room clock and then, in the darkness, the whole house would begin to vibrate as a train pulled by a chugging steam engine would resonate through the limestone.  I can still feel it.

I remember being upstairs at Grandma’s house only once.  As usual, I wasn’t allowed to explore. There were chests full of things that Grandma had kept and that aunts and uncles had left behind.  Imagine what treasures were tucked away just waiting for a little girl to find them.

Our annual visits stopped in 1953 after my first brother was born; and when Grandma died in 1954, the house was emptied and sold.  To this day I still wonder what amazing things I might have found in the forbidden (to a little girl) spaces of Big Grandma’s house.


No comments:

Post a Comment