Tuesday, December 15, 2015

120 Nichols St

I love this old Christmas card that my father made, with his handwritten message, "Greetings from 120 Nichols Street."  That house was my first home, my only home until I was fourteen. Today I found in my computer something I had written in 2007 about this house and my experiences in it.

Memories of my first home
By Sandy Nichols Ward

For the first 14 years of my life, I lived in a little house at 120 Nichols Street, Danvers, MA. It was a small Cape Cod style house with one window on each side of the front door. As I visualize that house and attempt to describe it in writing, memories come flooding back.  Each room or feature of the house draws distinct memories. I could probably write a chapter about the front door. Let’s start there.

Once upon a time I was a little girl with my first pair of new shoes. I tripped on the front door threshold and hit my forehead very hard. So I’ve been told by my parents as they explained why I had the persistent scar in the center of my forehead.  My bangs usually hung down over the scar so it wasn’t noticeable.  I don’t remember the fall or any pain associated with it, just the story and the little scar.

Another front door story caused pain to my mother every time she re-told it.  But it was also very funny, so we loved the re-telling. The story begins with the creation of a beautiful hooked rug for the living room floor. An old woman in Marblehead hooked the rug by hand with strips of wool dyed to particular colors. My mother had specified that she loved the color that blueberry leaves turn in the fall; she wanted that color as the background for the rug. The design of the rug followed a “tree of life” pattern, but with details changed to reflect my parents’ interests. The figures of my parents dancing together could be seen, as well as their initials, marriage date, and other meaningful images. It was a lovely rug, brilliantly colored in those days. Unfortunately, a house painter added a color that was not intended. He was up high on a ladder painting the exterior of the house with white paint. He had leaned his ladder against the front door. The front door was not locked. At some point the door burst open and the ladder, painter, and can of white paint came crashing into the living-room. I didn’t witness this, but I certainly heard my mother’s disdain for the stupidity of anyone who would prop a ladder against an unlocked door. My poor mother worked hard to clean the paint off that special rug. She did a pretty good job, for the rug was attractive for years. Only as the wool worn down did we begin to see the remnants of the swath of white paint, still adhering to the base of each woolen loop. By then the rug had plenty of patches, too. My mother used sections of denim from old bluejeans (or “dungarees” as she called them) to reinforce the back side of the rug as she tacked down loose loops and stitched together places where the burlap backing had deteriorated. That rug was lovingly maintained over the years. (It is rolled up and stored in my house today – too fragile to use but too much of a treasure to discard. In the 1970’s a rug conservator told me it should be in a museum as a piece of Americana, patches and all, but I didn’t have the required funds to have it professionally repaired and cleaned.)

The size of that rug is telling. It seems very small now, but I know it filled the available space in our living room. It touched the couch on one side, and the fireplace hearth opposite. One end reached the trestle table my grandfather built for us, and the other extended to the desk that sat inside the front door. The patterns on the rug provided tracks or background for our games. Sometimes my sister and I would place our bare feet on the angular lines that zigzagged around the border of the rug, turning as we stepped from line to line to line. The challenge was to keep going in spite of the dizziness induced by the turning. At other times my father set up a Tiddly Wink golf course on the rug, using different patterns as the “holes.” He inverted a dictionary in the middle to separate two small ovals in the rug pattern. We could try to jump the Tiddly Wink OVER the book in one turn, or move around the sides in multiple turns. The final hole of the “golf course” was to land the Tiddly Wink up into a cup on the couch. My father was very skillful with Tiddly Winks and few could beat him. We had lots of fun on that hooked rug, which measures 54 by 86 inches (4’6’’x7’2’’). 

Given the size of that rug, I estimate that the whole living room was only 9x11 feet or possibly 10x12. It seemed plenty big to a child. But looking back, I realize the entire house was quite small. At first there were only four rooms: living-room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, plus a bathroom and very tiny hall connecting from living room to bedrooms and bath.  There was not enough space in the kitchen for a real table, only a fold-down ledge under one window. Grandfather Cutler built us a long narrow trestle-style table to fit in the south end of the living room. We used that as our dining table. He made a wooden bench for one side, and we used wooden arm chairs at either end. He didn’t make a bench for the other side because there was no room; the table had to be against the wall and window. The bench he made could be converted to coffee-table height by removing a few bolts and taking off the footings at the bottom. These footing pieces slid conveniently into a rack under the bench seat, ready to be used again. I have happy memories of using that bench also as a slide. We’d put one end up on the couch, and position a pillow on the floor beyond the other end, and then slide down. Whee!! We also positioned the bench in front of the fireplace and sat there to toast marshmallows, or lay there to dry our hair in front of the fire.

Eventually the house was expanded in two directions. An addition on the back added kitchen space and a back entry hall, where our dog Heidi slept. An addition on the north end split one bedroom to create a longer hall and add a new bedroom beyond. What remained of that older bedroom became my room. It measured 7x9 feet. I’m told that I used to rock so much in my crib that I banged the crib frame against the wall, chipping out a place in the wall. What I remember is the bunk-bed I slept in for years. My parents acquired it from Army Surplus, and it still had the Army drab color. It was only three feet wide, much narrower than a twin size. The frame of the bunk bed entirely filled one side of my room, eliminating 7x3 feet of space. That left 7x6 feet, just enough for the big, tall chest of drawers from my grandfather’s house, and a little desk and chair. There was barely room to swing the door open. When the door was closed, I had a small space to play in the middle of the room.  

I spent many hours alone in that room. My mother believed in “naptime” even if I wasn’t sleepy. I had to play quietly in my room while my younger sister slept in the front bedroom. My mother worked on her typewriter or adding machine in her adjacent bedroom, which doubled as her office; she had been a school teacher, but then became an office assistant and accountant for my father’s small business. The sounds of her office machinery were comforting to me. I never objected, years later in college, to the sounds of a nearby typewriter; those sounds could lull me to sleep.

Another sound I recall came up through the floor of my room. “Pah-ping, pah-pong, pah-ping, pah-pong” could be heard at night when my parents played Ping Pong in the cellar below. They liked to entertain friends there and played many rounds of Ping Pong. The cellar ceiling was rather low, and the ball sometimes got caught in the rafters, causing a rapid-fire volley right under my floor. The sound pattern would change to “Pah-ping, pah-pong, pah-ping, pah-pong, pah-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM” and then laughter as people retrieved the errant ball and resumed play.

On Monday nights I heard classical music from the radio in the living room. My mother loved to listen to the Firestone hour: Voice of Firestone, a weekly program of excellent music sponsored by Firestone Tire Company, at 8:30 pm EST every Monday for decades.

I remember the bumpy feel of the woven mat on my bedroom floor. The mat was mostly a natural tan color with thin lines of color running in two directions, creating a plaid-like pattern of squares. I used to sort things into those squares, perhaps an early indication that I would become a librarian. One day I used bright crayons to mark each square, and learned that my mother did NOT approve of coloring on the rug! Nor did she approve of my first word written in cursive style. I was so proud that I had figured out how to connect the letters, writing “trees” on the door. That crayon-red word remained on the back of my door for years.

I loved the view out my bedroom window. I could look right into the crabapple tree my mother had planted near the house. I liked to eat the bright red crabapples, even though they were quite sour. My mother made crabapple jelly. I remember sunlight coming through the jars of crabapple jelly sitting on a kitchen window ledge – a beautiful sight!

I also remember one day when I was about seven, and my friends from the neighborhood gathered under that crabapple tree and knocked on my window. Could I come out and play?, they asked. No, said my mother, it was still naptime. I didn’t have to nap, but I had to stay inside my room during that period. I felt much too old to be confined for naptime; none of my friends had such restrictions. Well,  If I couldn’t go out, I figured they could come in. I opened the window and helped them climb in. That was fun. But my mother had a fit. Apparently it was a very BAD idea to invite boys into my bedroom, but I didn’t see why. I thought it was a clever idea. I bet this incident led to the eventual ending of “naptime” for me.  

That's where my 2007 piece ended.  More could be written...   Other memories of my time in this house include playing in the attic on rainy days, the funky ladder that we had to climb to reach the attic, and so forth. Some stories have already been shared elsewhere in this blog. I know I've written about water leaking into the cellar, and the garter snakes that sunned themselves on our front door step, and my pet raccoon leaving sticky paw prints on the dark blue kitchen floor. I'm sure I'll write more stories as they come to mind. In my next post, I'll add a photo of that hooked rug.

[Note to readers: you may use the SEARCH BOX in the upper left to find any keyword within my blog postings. That search tool has been very handy when I've wanted to find a detail I know I had researched earlier, but forgotten. Try typing "spring" in the search box, or "rug" or whatever you wish to find.] 

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