Where I grew up

The square house where I grew up originally had three sets of stairs anchoring its middle—basement stairs to main floor, stairs to bedrooms, and stairs to the attic. We could climb even higher, but I’ll leave that for now. There were four rooms downstairs, four upstairs. To me, the most appealing things about our house were the flowers my mom cultivated around it—her precious Blumen.

The house had been reconfigured by the time I arrived. The back door had become front door with a small porch. It led to the largest room downstairs, our dining, sewing, television, music, family room, where everything but cooking and sleeping happened—band practice the loudest. The room's corner in the middle of the house held the Loch—meaning “hole” in German—a walled-in area under stairs to the bedrooms.

Before reconstruction, this space had held stairs from what had been the back door to the basement. The narrow Loch’s ceiling slanted down almost to the floor on one end. It stored cleaning supplies accessed by a small plywood door, the right size for a child to enter and fetch supplies for Mother. The Loch’s child-size door was inviting, but we didn’t play in it because someone coming along might slam shut the door, and it was no fun being in total dark. That also made it a less than desirable hiding place.

The all-purpose room held a metal table with Formica top, large enough for a family of two parents and eight kids. As second-youngest, I was one of “da kits.” Around the sides stood a buffet, piano, sewing machine, television, and a variety of musical instruments. My father was tight, but besides the piano we had an accordion, woodwind and brass instruments, a set of drums, a guitar, a harmonica, and toy instruments.

I was offended by the room’s colors. Green and yellow alternated on the four walls, opposite walls the same color. Linoleum on the floor loudly competed in red, white, and blue. Why didn’t one of the big people stop this from happening?

Maybe I was not the only one bothered by the bad taste. When one of my aunts came to my house many years later, she told me, “You have good taste.”

Stairs to the basement led from a back porch added on during reconstruction. I forget how old I was when I figured out that the window between back porch and kitchen indicated the porch was not part of the original structure. Two steps in a corner of the porch led to a tiny room with a toilet over the basement stairs.

These stairs looked old and rough. More puzzling, they descended over a dirt floor holding supplies for Dad. Not until I was an adult did I figure out that these used to be cellar stairs of the kind often featured on old farmhouses.

Their basements could be accessed from the outside without going through the house. An opening with stairs from cellar to outside facilitated hauling in coal and vegetables. On the outside, they could be identified by large horizontal, almost parallel to the ground, doors adjacent to sides or backs of houses. The doors could be opened by lifting them from inside or outside. During remodeling, those doors were taken off and the cellar steps became basement steps enclosed by the new back porch.

A fourth of the basement was walled off with boulders and cement to hold a cistern. It held rain water caught by gutters around the roof. During droughts we hated washing our hair in harsh hard water. Access to the cistern was through a trap door cut into the red, white, and blue floor of the many-purpose room on the main floor.

Electrical wiring added during reconstruction did not reach the basement. During my earliest years Mother did the wash in the basement. When I grew older, my oldest sister did it in the back porch where the electric ringer washer was set up. This made the clothes chute from upstairs to basement much less handy. Verna had to haul dirty clothes up from the basement.

Upstairs were four bedrooms. My four brothers all slept in the largest room on two beds. We sisters got two rooms, oldest and youngest in one and middle sisters in the other. The smallest room upstairs held storage. Between our girls’ rooms was the only full bathroom in the house, added during reconstruction.

Each room had windows on two sides except the room I shared. Instead of a window, it had a door to the roof of the back porch. On moonlit nights I liked sitting on the roof and looking at our farmyard in the mysterious, intriguing light of the moon. Down below I could view chicken house, smokehouse, barn, granary, garden, and machinery from a higher perspective. Interesting.

Directly across from my perch, was the grove—what we called the bush. In it were stacks of yellow bricks taken off the original house and replaced by asbestos siding. At the edge of the grove was the Beckhaus or outhouse, no longer used by that time. A two-seater, it had a little hole for little people. I remember my fear of falling in the first few times I used the big hole.

I assumed our term for the outhouse—Beckhaus—was German. Everybody in Stearns County said it and people elsewhere didn’t. After consulting German-English dictionaries, native speakers of German, and a clever neighbor, I felt a little silly. Beckhaus is just Stearns County’s adoption of the English word “backhouse.”

Across the hall from the bathroom upstairs was the usually-closed door to the attic stairs. One summer when I was bored and hungry for reading material, I discovered the attic’s riches—bushel baskets full of old magazines, and another high view.

Our square attic had one window, giving enough light in summer to read and a high standpoint to survey the landscape on the side opposite the back porch. But I discovered an even higher position. Next to the staircase, a ladder with inviting steps drew me up toward the roof. Looking down from the top, I could see two stories beneath me to the bottom of the attic stairs. Exhilarating!

I unlatched the trap door in the center of the roof, pushed it aside, and climbed two more steps to see a fascinating panorama. Below and far away were familiar things from a new and very high perspective, a metaphor for how I want to view issues that divide people. 
Read more of my personal story in Beyond Parochial Faith: A Catholic Confesses.


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