Life In The Big House


Window cleaner at work

It was shortly after 8:00 AM at the Stephenson household in the big yellow brick house on the Fourth side road between the Fifth and Sixth concession of Caradoc Township. While nobody called it “The Big House” then, that’s what we, the oldest five in our family, call it now whenever we refer to it in stories of our childhoods. We don’t call it that because it was a prison, though by Mom’s own admission she ran it like a prison warden some times and an army drill sergeant at others. We called it the Big House because for the oldest five of us kids there had been another home before that one, the “Little House”— the two bedroom white bungalow next door that we traded with my grandparents when Grandma could no longer manage the larger house and we could no longer fit into the smaller one.

The kids were all off to school, the breakfast dishes were done, and Mom finally had time to grab a cup of coffee for herself before starting in on the rest of her day’s work. She began by taking something  out to thaw from one of the two big chest freezers in the back kitchen. This name persisted even when the room no longer served as the summer kitchen of an earlier generation. Instead, it held a small space heater, a washer, a dryer, two large chest freezers, an entire wall of closets that my father had built in and a large area, near the door leading off the back porch, where the shoes of all ten of us were supposed to stay lined up in rows, though they seldom did without constant rearranging. The closets were equipped with long rods for hanging coats, and  jackets and  with shelves above them for big boxes of out of season items. On the floor, at the far end of the closets was a huge box of unused winter coats. As someone was either growing out of, or growing into bigger sizes all the time, the items changed constantly but the contents of the box never decreased in volume.

On top of the coat pile was where I liked to hide out and read, sight unseen, and undisturbed, unless one of the younger ones came to get something out of the toy box next to it. There was just enough light to read by if you left the closet door slid partially open and kept your eyes squinted up a bit. It was also a great place to scare the life out of somebody by grabbing them as they reached into the toy box for a gun, a tomahawk, an army tank, or some other politically incorrect item. There was a definite element of risk involved in doing this, as your forehead could easily be involved in a head on collision with a big metal jeep if the timing was off, but I liked to live dangerously from time to time. The Bobbsey Twins and Little Women were sometimes a little deficient in their adrenaline- rush- inducing potential.

The “little girls” Kathy and Janice were above demeaning their busty Barbies by leaving them to hang out like floozies with the army guys in there, and were more likely to put them away right after playing with them, rather than having a callous older sister on clean-up duty throw them under the bus. So it was usually Jimmy and Donny, the “little boys”, who got the brunt of my masochistic behaviour, on the infrequent times when running with pokey sticks and throwing dirt bombs and rocks at one another wasn’t enough excitement to simulate a really dangerous battle.

The youngest four kids were often referred to in pairs in the way some people say “the twins” because they were joined by their close birth order. Sometimes Mom even administered discipline that way too, for two kids at a time, if they were fighting with one another or backing one another up in a lie. Sometimes a swat was even administered with the reprimand, “You’re getting too big for your britches!” You’d think that last situation would be cause for compassion when looking back on all those family pictures, where somebody always seemed to be wearing “high-water pants.” So I’m asking you this now, Mom: Should the fact that someone is growing faster than their brother or sister can grow out of the bigger pants, so that they can pass them on to you, be a cause for discipline? I know, I know Mom— “Life’s not always fair.”

Well, by 8:05 Mom’s break time was over and the meat for supper was thawing in the sink while she decided what to make out of it. Cut it up for beef stew or put it into the oven later with carrots onions and potatoes for a nice roast beef dinner. She got busy peeling the vegetables anyway and ran out to start sorting laundry. It was a nice breezy sunny day so she decided it was a good day to strip the beds and wash their sheets too. She ran upstairs and tore beds apart and threw all the bedding down over the banister to the floor below to avoid having to carry so much down. I often wondered if my Mom slid down the banister to save herself some time when we weren’t there; she was always in such a hurry. I never saw her do it, but I’ll have to ask her some time.

The next time she ran up the stairs and towards the younger girls’ bedroom which was shared by Kathy, Janice and Jeannie she noticed some great big splats of bird poop running down several of the panes in the hall window and decided to go down for a brush and some rags and window cleaner to clean it off. It was really gross and it would only take a couple minutes of her time to fix. Up the stairs she ran again, and headed down the hall to the window. With all her might she pushed it up high enough to get out through the opening. The upstairs windows only had removable small screens slipped into them in the hot weather so she was out in a flash and safely on the veranda roof which had quite a low pitch. She shut the window behind her and cleaned until it was all nice and shiny again. Satisfied with her work she decided to give the other two windows a cleaning before going in. The moment of truth happened when she attempted to get the window up again and discovered that it had seated itself  much more firmly into the rough grooves of 100 years of wear, encrusted in flaking paint, road dust, and broken spruce needles. The other two windows were locked tight by paranoid children who had watched far too much Twilight Zone. She pushed and pushed with all of her might, over and over again, to try to open the window she had come out by, but to no avail.

With everyone gone, and no one to hear her, she finally just sat down to wait for someone to come along. A neighbour, Danny Noorenbergh, went by after an hour and she waved furiously at him to get his attention but apparently he thought she was just being extra friendly and gave her a nice big wave back. She considered trying to slide down, somehow, from the corner of the veranda by means of an eaves trough but realized that she couldn’t afford to risk breaking a bone. At 12:15  Dad came in for lunch from the field where he had beenworking working. He heard Mom yelling, even over the sound of the tractor, as he approached.

Other people use their verandas to take a break too, but usually they are on the under side of it with a nice cold glass of lemonade, not on the top side of it just fantasizing about one. Our Mom was always such a rebel! By the way, supper was a little bit late that night, but not so late as to upset anyone in The Big House.

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