The Story Behind the Story, Part Two
Who hasn’t wondered whatever happened to a house where she spent childhood days, or one that figured prominently in her family’s history? Who hasn’t, when given an opportunity, at least driven by that house? Or perhaps been so bold as to walk up, ring the doorbell, and introduce herself to the present owners?
Some years back, my sister and I took a long road trip, traveling from Texas to northern states. I’d been working on genealogy and aimed to find old cemeteries where ancestors were buried, besides places where those people had lived. I had an address for one such residence in Pennsylvania, which I knew still existed since I’d seen it on Google maps street view. (Really love that feature.)
In the town, I drove up and down the streets until finally, we recognized the house. It had been designed and built in 1924 by my mother’s uncle, who had been a civil engineering professor. It was a two-story done in what was called the Tudor Revival style. When my mother and her brother were children, they had spent most summers in that Pennsylvania house with their uncle, aunt, and cousins. I had often heard my mother tell about how much fun she’d had in those days, in that particular home.
Of course, the original family was long gone and I had no idea who lived there in present time. But I parked my car across the street and got out to take a few pictures. That action brought a neighbor, who was, understandably, a bit concerned about a car with out-of-state license plates and a stranger clicking a camera. I explained to the woman who I was and my mother’s ties to the dwelling, besides showing her a vintage photo I owned of it, taken around 1930.
Upon hearing my report, the woman was so pleased, she took my sister and me across the street and introduced us to the current owners. They were very gracious and even gave us a tour of the first floor. It was a wonderful experience to view a place that had been so much a part of my mother’s growing-up. I could imagine her, the brother, and the cousins racing boisterously through the rooms.
That experience was a story spark that I pondered for a long time, envisioning the uncle’s family, while also being curious about the other people who’d lived in the house over the decades. Finally, I typed the beginning page of a tale which evolved into The House on Hawthorne Street. The setting became a fictional town established on the prairie of north Texas and I considered the house as much a story character as the folks who resided there.
My character of George Sparks, father in the created, initial family, was fashioned after one of my distant cousins who was a very lively and outspoken fellow. The two Sparks brothers were loosely based on anecdotes my dad told in his later years, describing the relationship between himself and his younger brother. Following the Sparks family, the next house resident, Harriet Butter, was inspired by an eccentric college teacher whose antics were usually cringeworthy, while additional characters consisted of bits and pieces culled from my impressions of various friends and acquaintances, or even strangers noticed only once.
My maternal grandmother’s house had been built in the 1880’s. She bought it in 1920 and lived there until she made the sad decision to sell in 1948. Over those years, she’d developed much affection for the place and even though it was no longer her property, she felt the loss keenly when it burned to the ground in 1962. After she died, I found a small square of yellowed newsprint she’d clipped and saved for decades. It was a portion of a poem and clearly, the words had held strong meaning for her. I included them in the front matter of the house novel as they speak so well of attachment to a special abode.
Who with an old house lives, becomes at last
A part and parcel of his own estate –
Sensitive to its moods, initiate
In all the joys and sorrows of its past:
Wainscoted walls and creaking stairs could tell
Strange tales, and – if so be one’s listening
Often the rooms seem stirred by whispering,
Thus, does an ancient homestead weave its spell.
Then, as relentless the years haste by,
And they who have loved the place pass through the door
In solemn state, to come again no more –
He who has ears, may hear the old house sigh.
MAZIE V. CARUTHERS