I stay amazed at the places and events of my childhood that now invade my consciousness: songs from my Sunday School kindergarten or people I have not thought about for three-quarters of a century. The other day I was reading – again – Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent, and came upon the scene in which Ethan, the novel’s main character, climbs the stairs leading to the seldom-used attic in the house that had been in his family for generations. I was immediately transported to my grandparents’ house on Marthart Avenue where, as a little child, I spent hours each week.
I was able to visit my mother’s mother and my father’s father at the same time, because when my mother’s father and my father’s mother died, the remaining grandparents married. So Nana and Pop-pop covered both sides of the family.
Part of the attraction was that their house sat across the street from the Haverford High School athletic field, and even though the surrounding chain link fence was draped with tarps, I discovered a small hole through which I could witness the football games without having to pay. Ah, the little joys of childhood.
My memories of the attic in that house are sharp and clear. The stairs to it from the second floor were quite steep and emitted a distinctive stuffy smell I can still recall. It was neither a foul odor or a pleasant aroma, but the product of an enclosed stairwell neglected for decades. The attic was illuminated by a single naked bulb suspended from a twisted yellow cord. But it was the mysteries within the attic that I now vividly recall.
My grandparents had two sets of rugs, ones for fall and summer and the other heavier ones for winter and spring. When the time came for the rugs to be rotated, they were hung over back-yard clotheslines and beaten with a wire device manufactured for that purpose. After the dust had been whacked out, they disappeared, and I didn’t know what happen to them until I encountered the unused set in Nana’s attic.
I had learned that the attic formerly served as the man-cave for cousin Fred. Fred was not really a cousin but was a teenager my grandmother came across and took in. I got access to his hideaway when he was drafted at the beginning of World War II, and subsequently spent two years as a German POW. After the war, he returned home with horribly mangled feet, having been made “to walk clear across Europe.” He also came back with a lovely Welsh bride named Marian, who was happily added to the clan.
There were more mysteries I encountered in Nana’s attic. Fred had secured a full-sized Victrola; the kind you had to crank, and it would spin the old 78s until it growled to a long, slow, dying stop. I remember finding two or three records on one of the machine’s shelves. “Stardust” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” were songs I would play over and over.
But the real find in the attic for this 12-year-old boy was a stack of paperback novels. The one that fascinated me was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I reread at least 10 times. I wasn’t sure what all the underlined passages meant, but it was clear that I was never to mention anything about the book below the attic’s stairs. There were also scores of boxes on the un-floored areas under the eves, but I never managed to explore what might have been in them.
While I was a seminary student a decade later, Pop-pop had a fatal heart attack. His was the first male death in the family I experienced. Since then, I have stood at the graves of my father, my brother, my son and my great-grandson. I am still occasionally confronted with the painful image of my son, John, who has now been joined in death by his sister, Carol.
Why have I told you this bit of family history? My guess is the telling has not been for you, but for me – so I beg your indulgence. Perhaps it is just another way to work out my grief over the deaths of my two children. How does the story of Nana’s attic help? It does, but exactly how remains a mystery.