Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Little Houses

There is always one moment in childhood
 when the door opens and lets the future in.
~~Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Long ago and faraway, there was a little house...

Little House I c. 1947 with me, 5, and sister Linda, 3.

When my father left his job as a college professor to pursue a writing career, he moved us to the mining and logging region of northern Minnesota. There, in a woodsy wilderness filled with unruly creatures, he set up his studio in a sliver of space between garage and dairy barn.

We lived in a bungalow set on a hill overlooking a quiet, sylvan lake occupied by giant snapping turtles and near the back of a vegetable garden where wild rabbits snipped off our lettuces,
 D-I-Y Dad created a play yard. Inside the log fence, he hung tire and rope swings from trees
and built a tiny log playhouse.

I was enchanted by the little house.
 In its 5 x7-foot space, I arranged and rearranged furniture~~wooden crates
 that to my imagining eyes seemed like tables, beds and chairs
 when paired with dolls and their blankets, tablecloths, and teacups.

All was beautiful and orderly in my tiny domestic world until new siblings began
 to toddle into my well-tended interior and turn things upside down.
 My antidote for this was to move every stick of furniture out into the yard and use
my little dimestore broom to sweep away the dust and turmoil.

 Ah, a clean and empty space!
 Oh, the joy of moving everything back in and making my little house beautiful again!
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By the time I was 9, we moved to a hobby farm on Lake Andrew where Dad's writing studio
was the attic of a Four-Square, milk cows and pigs lived in a big, red barn,
 and Little House II was an abandoned granary.
The granary was tall so D-I-Y Dad built a loft in it~~a loft with a ladder for going up.
I was thrilled.
I turned the upstairs loft into a bedroom where my sibling charges could snuggle down for a nap now and then. A time or two, we may have slept together overnight side-by-side, six-across,
fireflies flitting in the dark over our shingled rooftop and crickets chirping a childhood lullaby.

Downstairs, a kitchen and another bedroom fit under the sleeping loft but the living room had a full-height, cathedral-like ceiling at the front of the house where the door and window invited light inside.

But the same sibling playtime chaos undid my well-tended rooms of Little House II and,
as for Little House I, I emptied the furniture into the yard, swept away the dust and disorder, and knew again the joy of clean and empty spaces awaiting my beautifying hands.
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Big houses occupied the next decades of my designing life but when I took early retirement, Mr. Wonderful, my current D-I-Y guy, built Little House III. A frivolous desire, to be sure, but I longed for a tiny getaway with a hammock under trees nearby, a handmade guest house at the back of our city lot...something clean and shiny, pure and undisturbed by real life.
 And so it came to be...
Little House III, c. 1997 as it is today.

A garden shed is attached at the rear of the house.

"Pale Sunshine," a Laura Ashley high-gloss paint floods the enchanted interior
 with a warm light and the high ceiling gives me
 Virginia Woolf's "Cathedral space which was childhood."

Little House III  doesn't belong to me anymore.
 However, I can still visit now and then because we sold our property to our son and his wife when we downsized to a condo five years ago. Every now and then, my adorable daughter-in-law lets me move the little-house furniture into her yard and shine up the interior in time for her next lawn party.

For this party, I child-proofed the fireplace by moving furniture in front of
its light-reflecting mirror insert.

Antique sherry cruets line the mantel of the faux fireplace.

Mr. Wonderful made the floor by pouring concrete aggregate
 into spaces left by a treated-wood grid he built.

For in every adult there dwells the child that was,
 and in every child there lies the adult that will be.
~~John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

Friday, May 4, 2012

When the Saints Go Marching In

We are trav'ling in the footsteps
Of those who've gone before,
And we'll all be reunited,
On a new and sunlit shore,

Oh, when the saints go marching in,
Oh, when the saints go marching in,
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in!
~~American spiritual often played by jazz bands

This year, on our annual migration to a prairie summer home, we side-tripped down Canal Street
 to revisit New Orleans' French Quarter for a couple hours~~we wanted to see if it's the same as we remember it.

 Naturally, Cafe du Monde is the first stop.
This gathering spot for local folk and visitors has served cafe au lait
(half strong chicory coffee, half steaming milk)
 and beignets (puffy square crullers showered with confectioners' sugar) since 1860.
It's tradition, you know.
And, yes, it's just as we remember.

Dusting the sugar off our shirts, we amble along the ironwork fences of Jackson Square.
 (Ambling is the only way to enjoy the Vieux Carre.)

The mule-drawn carriages are the same, standing quietly in queue,
 waiting for paying customers who want a slow souvenir ride through the old city.
 Artists' work hangs on the black wrought-iron fences and
 General Andrew Jackson, true to his sculptural form,
still rides a rearing horse at the center of Saint Anthony's Garden. 
And, sure enough, as we turn the corner on Chartres Street,
 a five-piece jazz band in dreadlocks jazzes it up
 in front of the cathedral~~appropriately, a spirited version of
 When the Saints Go Marching In.

The Cathedral-Basilica of SAINT LOUIS King of France
 is the centerpiece of Jackson Square, at least for me.
I'm eager to step through its doors once again.

Who's Saint Louis? Louis IX, crowned King of France in 1226, left on Crusade in 1248. Evidently,
 he was a good and faithful kind of king because he was canonized as a saint in 1297 after his death in 1271.


This time, my view of the interior is different.
Instead of noticing the eye-candy of glitter and gold leaf, I note the interactive parts of the space.
 For example, I see that the hands of saintly and not-so-saintly souls passing through these doors leave their mark, wearing away the white-painted finishes. On this side of the doors, the air is as hot and steamy as a streetcar named Desire, the sounds jazzed up and loud.

Stepping through the doors, I'm stunned by the contrasts~~cool, quiet air-conditioning  
and the distilled sound of monks singing ancient chants from what seems like balconies above.
Respect for the place and for others here is palpable,
personal rituals visible. A genuflect here, a kneeling there.
A splash of holy water and handmade signs of the cross,
A loving heart and hand lights a votive for someone needing prayers.
All is calm.

As we depart to rejoin the outside world, I look down at the well-worn, cracked marble floor
 and the first line of the jazz-band spiritual reverberates:
 We're trav'ling in the footsteps of many who've gone before.

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