There’s No Place Like Home



By Sharon Sheppard


Funny how childhood homes tend to shrink after you’ve been away for a while.

The last time I visited the small house where my brothers and I grew up—years after it had been sold to a classmate of mine—on a visit to my hometown I stopped to see her bearing a plate of muffins.

When I stepped into the cozy room we used to call the breakfast nook, it was only half the size I’d remembered.  A wave of homesickness swept over me, bringing a flood of nostalgic memories–sensory details that will forever spell home:  The aroma of Mother’s homemade cinnamon rolls hot from the oven, coupled with the smell of fresh coffee.  The tangy scent of her freshly canned pin cherry jelly.

The rhythmic bounce of the tennis ball my brothers dribbled basketball-style on the living room linoleum.  Halting notes plunked out on our out-of-tune piano as I practiced for my Tuesday lesson with May Johnson.  The whine of the saw rig just outside the kitchen window, filling the crisp fall air with the fragrant smell of fresh sawdust when Dad and my brothers put up our winter’s supply of wood.

How did the six of us ever get around the table in that tiny closet of a room, I asked myself.  And the adjoining kitchen—where did we find space for a bulky wood range, a sink with a pump, cupboards, a wood box, and our gate-leg table with six chairs.  That was before Dad enclosed the back porch, allowing us to spill out into the tiny room we grandly christened the breakfast nook.

New homes in the neighborhood where I live now boast thousands of square feet of floor space and include separate rooms for crafts, exercise, and media—whole rooms dedicated to TV viewing–with humongous screens, flanked by enormous, overstuffed sofas with built-in beverage holders.

Curiously, during our growing up years I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us that our little house was crowded.  My three brothers shared the second floor—one open, not-too-large room.  They sometimes complained about a skim of ice in the water glass on the nightstand on winter mornings, and claimed they occasionally woke up to snowdrifts at the foot of their beds, though I think they exaggerated on both counts.

On the other hand, as the only girl, I slept on the living room couch where it was warmer, thanks to the barrel stove.  One evening as I undressed for bed, I backed up a bit too close to the wood-burning heater.  For the next several weeks I sported a tattoo on my bottom that read Farwell, Ozmun & Kirk—the name of the factory that manufactured the iron stove door.

Some time around my twelfth birthday my dad enclosed the back porch, and a seven-by-eight-foot portion of it became all mine, the haven of quietness and privacy I’d always craved.

Known for their hospitality, our parents, Martin and Esther Anderson, opened our home to friends and acquaintances 24 hours a day.  Nearly every day we were blessed with drop-in company for morning or afternoon coffee (or both).  There was always room for one more unexpected guest at the kitchen table.  My mother produced an endless supply of freshly-baked pies, cakes, and cookies, along with a listening, empathetic ear that wouldn’t quit.  No wonder people kept coming!

With its full component of leaves, our dining room table could accommodate a pretty good-sized crowd for Sunday dinners.  Our parents invited those who were lonely or in need of a good meal to join us for the beef roast or baked chicken that had been left in the oven on low heat while we attended church across the street.

During hard times, transients hopped off the train, and, as though guided by an underground network map pinpointing the homes of gullible townspeople, they mysteriously made a beeline for our house, where they could count on a home-cooked meal our mother gamely dished out.

Ten-year-old Judy Beggs, a more gregarious kid than most and blessed with the Beggs sense of humor, regularly dropped in at our house and most of the other homes in town.  Once my mother said to her, “I’ll bet you’ve been upstairs and downstairs in every house in town.”

“No,” Judy replied, “I’ve never been in Spillanes’ attic or Eslers’ basement.”

Though physical space was at a premium, we loved it when aunts and uncles and cousins came from Milaca or The City for the weekend.  When our Danish relatives came to visit, the house brimmed with raucous laughter, an abundance of food, and a repertoire of maudlin stories that slipped into Danish just when the plot was getting good.

Unlike modern homes, ours didn’t have a media room.  The Philco radio didn’t take up much space.  But my brothers had a well-used indoor basketball court, a.k.a. the living/dining room.  I don’t know why my mother put up with this, but the boys had permanently mounted a hoop above the door lintel (the ring off a Folger’s coffee can), and, dodging furniture, they rowdily raced from one end of the room to the other, endlessly dribbling the ball and shooting.

Long shots arced over the dining room table and sometimes ricocheted off the wall dangerously close to windows or the china closet.  More than a few zapped me as I sat at the piano, stumbling through Handel’s Largo or a Chopin prelude, trying my best to ignore the din.

One of the boys customarily doubled as sportscaster, keeping up a dramatic running account of the game for an imaginary radio listening audience.  “Anderson shoots from the center line…and …he scores!”

To distinguish one Anderson from another, Ron and Paul and Carl often adopted the names of their favorite Minneapolis Lakers heroes: George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, and Whitey Skoog.

One of the most appealing advantages of small town living was that you could walk to any place you’d want to go in ten minutes or less, and you’d know everybody you met along the way.

We lived two blocks from Bailey’s Grocery Store, four blocks from school, and four blocks from Pine Mountain Lake, where we fished and swam and whiled away the long and lazy days of a northern Minnesota summer.

During those simpler times, the pace was slower, the entertainment less structured.  A summer afternoon might include a barefoot walk on the railroad tracks to pick tiger lilies, a leisurely hunt for agates along the road to the beach, or a trap line check to see how many gophers we’d caught.  We could bring the gopher tails in to Backus State Bank and collect our bounty from Banker Aaron Zaffke–a dime a tail.                           Evenings we’d rustle up enough kids for a neighborhood game of Hide and Seek, Tin Can Alley, or Annie Annie Over until it was too dark to see the ball.  Afterwards we might watch the northern lights or punch holes in the lid of a Mason jar and catch enough lightning bugs to use for a night light.

Come winter, we skated, tobogganed out on Old Baldy, drove across the lake on the ice, and skied with a tow rope behind a car on icy country roads.

So when Lorraine Coon recently called to say that our old house was being torn down, memories of all those years of fun made my heart plummet.  How could they? I wondered.

Over the next few days I commiserated with my brothers by email and phone.  We reminisced about fish fries, practical jokes, Christmas Eves, and the notches hacked into the woodwork to mark our annual growth spurts.

I suppose I’d fantasized throughout the years that I could always go back to that house and nothing would have changed.  The attic would still be filled with old letters and castoff clothes.  The notches we’d carved into the woodwork by the stairway door would still be there, and I could see how tall I’d been the year I turned ten.  I could walk into the living room with its frosted glass panel above the big window and the etched scene in the window of the front door, and sit down at the upright piano and play one more song by ear.  “Love Lifted Me,” number 98 in the old brown hymnal.  I wouldn’t need the music.

The house we remembered wasn’t the one that was short on space, but the one that was long on love.  One that rang with music and laughter and wholesome fun.

As my brother Paul said, “The house might be gone, but nothing can take away our memories of the wonderful love we shared, and the godly values we learned there.”

It might be a cliché, but home, as it turns out, really is where the heart is.