Edgar Guest, wrote in his poem, “Home”, “It takes heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.” I may seem to be only a deteriorating abandoned old “house”, but once I was a “home.” Long go a “heap o’ livin’” made me a “home.” Now, the roof is worn and sagging, window panes broken, wooden siding rotting away, open doors swinging with the wind, front porch roof sagging, and the brick chimney in back spewing bricks over the yard. Raccoons and squirrels wander through the rooms. Starlings and sparrows nest in the attic. Only an empty shell is left, but a “shell” filled with memories, memories of when I was a “home.”
Few people driving by pay any attention to me. Once and a while, someone may think “What an eye-sore. Why doesn’t who ever owns the house just tear it down?” There is no thought of the memories from within these walls, the lives of the families who have lived here, the sad times, the happy times, children’s birthday parties, restless Christmas Eve nights and excited shrieks of children as they came down the stairs the next morning, hunting for Easter Eggs, feverish tonsillitis nights, whooping cough, measles, neighborhood dances, births, deaths, Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas dinners, or the common every day conversations, routines and sounds of which I was a part of for so many years.
It all started back in the early spring of 1848 when the first family to live here, parents and two teenage sons, arrived in central Illinois, from Yorkshire, England. They had made a prior commitment to acquire the surrounding 160 acres of land from the U.S. government. After setting aside money for the purchase of the land, passage on the ship that brought them over and transportation to Illinois, there was little money to bring any of their possessions. Among the few things they brought, other than clothes, was a small wooden tea chest that had been a wedding present from her Mother.
Once here, they set up a campsite, using a covered wagon in which to sleep, with a large canvas sheet stretched out to one side, to serve as shelter while cooking and eating when it was raining. The father and boys set about immediately to find the best place to locate the house and out buildings. Where I now stand is the site they chose. Once this was done, they made arrangements for lumber, foundation stones, bricks, and other materials needed to build a house and the out buildings. From that beginning, and with a “heap o’ livin’”, I became a “home.”
Just looking at me, there is no way to perceive the “livin’” of the families I have been “home” to, or of the 100 years of ever-day sights and sounds from within and around me. My first memories are of exhausted conversations as the family built the out buildings, cleared the ground and planted their first crops, but there was also a sense of pride of ownership in their voices. They no longer were working for a titled landlord. Then, there were the sobs of despair that early day in January 1863 when the letter arrived telling them that their oldest son had been killed defending “his” country of only 15 years at a little place in western Tennessee called Parker’s Cross Roads.
This was the beginning of the “livin’” that made me “home” to a dozen or so families. A lot of that “livin’” took place in the small downstairs bedroom: joys of children born; sadness over a still-born child; death of a teenage son when his appendix ruptured; the quiet nightly conversations before going to sleep; death of an elderly wife or husband, after long productive lives, but mourned just the same; excitement of a newly married couple who shared new-found intimacies in this room; later the anguished crying of the husband when both his young wife and daughter died at child-birth. Now the room is empty and silent, the dusty floorboards broken and drooping into the basement below. There is nothing left to suggest the joys and sorrows that this diminutive room has witnessed.
The upstairs bedrooms were for the children. During the summer, the children often sweltered in the nighttime heat. In winter they kept warm under heavy blankets and flannel sheets. On exceptionally cold nights they would take a heated brick wrapped in a towel to put at their feet. On Sunday afternoons, after family dinners, the children would play in the upstairs bedrooms, running around the rooms, screeching and bouncing on the beds as they did so. When the family was alone, the children would play in the upstairs bedrooms so as to not be scolded by their parents, if they made too much noise. After bed-time on school nights, the rooms often gave off low giggling sounds late into the night, as the children played and scuffled in bed. Finally, the parents would yell up the stairs: “Be quiet up there and go to sleep, remember you have school tomorrow.” On Christmas Eve few of the children slept. The anticipated excitement of the coming morning was just too much. Now the rooms are quiet, paper is peeling from the walls, and large dark splotches from leaking roofs and crumbling white plaster deface the once shiny floors.
Back downstairs is the “sitting room.” I am too small to have had a separate “living room” and “family room.” The sitting room was where the families spent their evenings reading, mending, knitting, crocheting, doing homework, playing games, and entertaining company. From this room come the unheard echoes of quiet evening conversations, laughing at jokes while playing cards, off-key music and stomping feet of winter neighborhood square dances, and hushed voices of family and neighbors sitting in front of an open casket in the corner, the scent of flowers permeating the house. Now the room is deathly quiet. Ribbons of peeling wallpaper dangling down like ragged streamers and piles of leaves that have blown through the open windows litter the dusty floor.
Finally, there is the low open room that served as the kitchen and dining room, combined, where most of the family “livin’” took place. It was here the women prepared the meals and where the families sat together three times a day. Even if one listens carefully, it is not possible to sort out the myriad of conversations from around the table that stood in the middle of the room. It was here the men and women spoke of daily matters: weather and the crops, was it time to start cutting wood for the winter, whether to buy another team of horses, how the garden was coming along, what were the kids doing in school, should they go logging (catching fish by hand) down at the creek today, teasing a sister as she prepared for her first “date”, was it cold enough to cut down the bee tree in the pasture, concern for a sick girl in the downstairs bedroom, low sober voices after a family member or a pet dog had died, and the multitude of other every-day conversations that held the families together. No one can perceive the importance of this barren room to the lives of those who lived here. It was here the many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners took place, with the chatter of adults and kids jabbing each other with their elbows and making faces when the parents were not looking, all made for noisy, happy times. Now, now there is no sound from within the room, nothing is heard from the empty cabinets with their sagging doors, from the broken sink, from the scuffed center of the floor where the table stood, or from the dusty closet behind the door. Only deafening silence.
Then, there were the familiar sounds from outside the house. The loud, piercing chattering squawks of guinea foul at night when they sensed the presence of a fox, crowing of roosters in the early mornings, snorting of hungry hogs, moaning “mooing” of milk cows, barking of dogs when visitors approached, squeals of boys and girls playing tag in the yard, squeaking of the pump handle as the “drinking water” bucket was filled for the day. Now there is only the quiet sound of leaves rustling in the wind.
Agricultural technology and the times eventually made small farms such as this impractical. As was true for most other small farms in this region, the farm was sold to a larger land-holder. The barns and other out buildings were removed and the lots turned into cropland. For some reason or other he did not get around to removing me. Here I stand, the sole reminder of the families that lived here and the lives that made this “house” a “home” for so many years. I shared good times, I shared bad times, I felt the joy of an immigrant family as they realized the joys of ownership and the sorrow over loss of their oldest son in defense of his new country, I saw children born, I saw children die, I shared a young couple’s wedding night, I shared the sorrow of the young husband over the death of his wife and daughter, I felt the despair of an old couple who lost the farm when the crops failed, I shared the sorrow of men and women whose spouse was first to die, and of the children when the remaining parent died.
Eventually, I will be torn down and a few short rows of crops added to the surrounding field. All that will be seen on this small piece of land will be corn and soybeans. I will be no different than the thousands of other “home” sites that now produce a few more ears of corn or a couple bushels of soybeans. If you listen carefully, you may hear the sobbing of parents over a still-born son, death of a daughter to influenza, loss of a son in a far off war, or loss of the farm when the crops failed. You may hear the hushed voices around a flower-draped casket. You may hear the laughter and music of evening square dances, happy conversations around the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables, or squeals of children on Christmas morning. But, maybe it is only the wind blowing through the leaves of corn. There will be nothing left to indicate that on this spot families once lived, were happy, worried, and died.
That is my story. Thanks for letting me share it with you. I may be a deteriorating old “house,” but once, to someone, I was “home.”
Guest, Edgar. 1916. A Heap O’ Livin’. Reilly and Britton, Chicago.