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Houses Of My Life by Mary Anne Barry

Milestones in my life seem to be marked by houses where I have lived or where I have spent significant time. Houses mean a lot to me. I like to read books about houses and look at floor plans. When I attend a play, I am often more interested in the setting than in the story of the play. When I was a little girl, there was always a laid out plan of a house when we played with paper dolls. I even wrote a book about decorating a house when I was 10 or 11. I did this in a pencil paper pad and illustrated it with pencil crayons; so preoccupied was I with houses and settings. In later years, I spent many hours restoring and decorating a 100 year old house which was where I lived with my husband and children. I won third place in McCall Magazines's "Remode-A-Room" contest in 1958. Houses are important to me, and comfortable and welcoming houses make me feel comforted and welcomed.

It began for me in Lyndhurst. Lyndhurst is an old village carved out of rolling farmlands and orchards outside of Cleveland, Ohio. It is rich with oak and maples, with graveled streets in the far foothills of the Appalachian Mountains; or that's how it was then. The center of town was where Richmond and Mayfield Roads crossed; where the bus shelter stood on one corner, and where the newly built Lyndhurst Grade School was diagonally across. On the other two corners stood the Ford estate, behind limestone walls, crowded by cherry trees and a hilly field. The original one-room school stood solidly behind the new school, and was displayed as a relic of the past.

There was a general store/post office/drug store about a half a mile farther out near Irene Road, and a venerable but small steepled Protestant church. There was a string of well preserved old former farm houses before you reached the village hall. Miss Dill, the Lyndhurst School second grade teacher and principal lived in one of these. The nearest grocery store and butcher shop was in the next town, a long bicycle ride away. There was a library in the basement of the village hall, two tiny dusty rooms, served by a librarian but open only two days a week. There was a small wading pool behind the village hall, that we called a swimming pool, but not much else.

Its inhabitants were well-heeled and included the congressman from Ohio, Chester Burton. His estate was on Richmond Road, past the Lyndhurst School. Our neighbors, the Vesey's had two or three cars, one of them a convertible! I never knew where the police station was, but we had a policeman, Mr. Brugemeyer who always stood at the corner of Richmond and Mayfield Roads, to escort the children across the intersection on their way to school.

My parents, John and Alice Byrne came to Lyndhurst in 1925, both recent immigrants from the north of Ireland. My father bought the land on Spencer Road and contracted to have his house built. They had been living in a rented flat on the east side of Cleveland, where I was born. Our house was one of the first to be built on Spencer Road, so that it was surrounded by fields and an abandoned apple orchard across the street. On the edge of the orchard was a water pump and well. When we were big enough to push the pump handle up and down, we drank its delicious icy waters.

There were newcomers to the village and they were newcomers in more ways than one. The German Lutherans were the first so-called, "intruders" into this estate and "gentleman-farmer" land. They bought small plots of land and built more modest houses than were already there. The Catholics, some of them immigrants like my parents and newly prosperous, were slower to move in. Mike McGuigan, a buddy of my father's from Ireland, built his house on Richmond Road. We could see his house from our front porch, but Catholics were a new breed to this community. We were always welcomed nicely (at least that was my childhood recollection) and treated fairly, but we felt different. The Strapp children and the McGuigan children even went to the parochial school in the next village but couldn't use the school bus to get them to the public bus stop.

So we did feel different. It is possible, however to love a village and love a house in that village and I loved them both with a serious heart. When I am in Cleveland visiting family, my sisters and I often drive down Spencer Road, just to see the familiar places. The house, by today's standards, was not special. In my eyes, however, it is surrounded by an aura of sunshine, the smell of lilacs and wild strawberries, and the sound of silence. It is a frame bungalow, with a stone foundation and a big stone and brick front porch. There was a wooden swing hung from the ceiling of the porch. The living room was conventional with a brick fireplace and in the dining room there was a window seat and beveled glass enclosed china cabinets on each side. We spent a lot of time in and around the window seat. When the sun came in, it was a glorious and glittering place. Underneath the seat it was a bit more prosaic. It was where we kept our underwear. Across the room was a door to the bedrooms and the bath. Another door led to the attic stairs. I learned to sew on the treadle sewing machine in the front bedroom when I was eight years old. And in the back bedroom, where my sister Elizabeth was born, my parents slept in a big brass bed. Ordinary, but all magical!

The kitchen was typical of the times, inefficient and small, with an enamel topped table in the middle. We went out to the backyard and down to the basement from the kitchen. The basement was crucial part of our everyday life. It was new, clean and warm in winter and cool in summer. There was a giant coal furnace in the middle. The basement was big enough to ride our tricycles around an oval path. The fruit cellar, filled with rows of canned jellies and jams, tomatoes and peaches was in the front part of the cellar as well as the coal cellar which by contrast, was smelly, damp and threatening. The cement wash tubs were in the back. Clothes lines were strung across the whole area. My father's workbench extended the full length of the wall to one side. We played radio station and tap dancing school, public library and grade school down there. We invented the Change Club down there with elaborate rules and a club notebook with our alter ego names, and secret passwords to annoy and torment our two younger sisters. We played paper dolls and cut out pictures of movie stars from the sepia colored rotogravure section of the Sunday papers to paste in our scrapbooks.

My father went to a nearby woods and brought home eight saplings and planted them along the cinder driveway, which was renewed periodically with cinders from the coal furnace. He planted flowers and vegetables and some fruit trees in back. Beyond the garden, there was a vast area with hard yellow clay soil where nothing could grow. And beyond that, on Vesey's property was an abandoned nursery. It had gone to seed, yet every Spring we were treated to a "field of golden daffodils" as Wordsworth would say.

Was it always so wonderful in that village? No. There were unspeakable winters when we had to walk to school on unplowed sidewalks and streets, with the snow up to our knees; there were grasshopper invasions, there were the ever present skunks, the wormy apples in the orchard, the cyclone that washed out our cinder driveway, and turned our garage around!

Why did this ordinary village with its ordinary people mean so much to me, and continues to do so; I'm not so sure that I know the answer to that. Maybe because it was the place where my hopes and dreams died after Daddy died; when we had to give up the house and move to the city.

While we still lived in Lyndhurst we often spent a lot of time at Aunt Kathy's house in Cleveland. That house on Russell Road is very clear in my memory. It was on a side street in an old section of Cleveland. Kathy and my Uncle Vernon rented the house from Mr. And Mrs. Shadle, an old Jewish couple who lived behind Kathy with their house facing another street. The Shadles had taken the young family under their wing, and were very good to them. So we all knew the Shadles and were pampered by them.

I remember the day my sister Rosemary was born in that house on Russell Road. I was five years old. I remember a long room with a dining room table at the far end, where three men sat, all wearing fedora hats and all smoking pipes. Inside one of the tiny bedrooms off the living room was a pretty bassinet holding a pretty baby, only six weeks old. She was my new cousin, Coletta, Kathy and Vernon's first child. She had a small still red scar over her left eyebrow, from the forceps used in the delivery. I was thrilled at being told this story, because I sensed it was a family secret.

The three men sitting around the table were my father, his friend, my godfather, Jimmy McCoy and Vernon, the new baby's father. And walking up and down the living and dining rooms was my mother, dressed in a long flannel night gown, her beautiful red hair down around her shoulders. She was crying. No one seemed to be upset about my mother's crying but me, and no one explained it to me. Actually the whole mood of the house seemed to be jovial. Years later I realized that my mother was in labor and that a few hours later my sister Rosemary would be born.

My granny, Mary Anne Gordon, was the midwife. The birth was premature, so the tiny baby was put into the warm oven in the kitchen. This was the 1928 version of an incubator. The new baby had trouble nursing, so my Aunt Kathy fed her from her full breasts, and my mother fed Coletta, a husky six weeks old whose strong sucking could stimulate my mother's milk supply. Both babies thrived.

We spent a lot of time on Russell Road. My mother and Kathy were close even though they had hardly known each other as children because Kathy was much younger and my mother had gone to live with her Aunt Sarah in Regent's Park in London when she only 15 or 16. But when their babies were new they spent a lot of time together since the rest of the family lived in Rochester, New York. Granny and Grandad lived nearby in a small flat on Ansel Road, across from the seminary.

The little frame house was on a big grassy lot with plenty of room for children to play. I remember especially the black dirt that was fun to dig in, so different from the yellow sticky unyielding clay, in our Lyndhurst back yard. The house had a wood paneled attic with cots in it where we slept when we stayed overnight. The kitchen was large, bright and sunny. There was a black wrought iron hand operated coffee grinder attached to the wall near the window. How vivid that memory is, along with the smell of newly ground coffee beans. At home it was so different, my parents drank strong black tea with milk in it, no coffee at all. I remember my Aunt Kathy well. She cleaned her face with Lady Esther Cold Cream, and wore short flapper dresses and had her hair cut in a bob.

Next to Kathy's house was a dingy two story building with many tenants. Elinor Cook lived on the first floor with her parents. Her father was a big red headed Irishman, but we never saw her mother. I liked Elinor and played with her when we visited Russell Road but had never been in her house until a day, long into our friendship, when she invited me in and I met her mother, a pleasant black woman. I didn't understand it at the time but in that white working class neighborhood, Elinor, with her mixed blood, was a loner and an outcast. But evidently my family and Kathy all recent immigrants didn't buy into that and welcomed Elinor into their house.

But back to Lyndhurst and Spencer Road and the sadness that followed. It seemed to be an ordinary Sunday, back in Lyndhurst, except that my cousin Oonah and her mother, Aunt Sarah, were visiting from Rochester. Oonah, a few years older than myself, my sister Alice and I went to church together. Alice and I wore our white organdy confirmation dresses which our mother had made. We took the bus to the next town to church. After mass as we waited for the bus, the town druggist, who knew my father asked how he was and I told him fine. Oonah said to him, "No, he's very sick." I was very surprised by that answer. When we got home, we were whisked over to the neighbors across the street for dinner. I even remember that we had pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy and string beans. For dessert we had home canned purple plums. It is still so vivid! After dinner, Aunt Kathy came to the door crying, and told us that Daddy had died.

Originally Posted (Jul 02, 2002)


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