Publishers' Clearing House
As a young child I had an obsession with drawing houses. There was nothing especially imaginative about these drawings: they all followed the same basic design of a triangle topping a square, with two mullioned windows and a door on the ground floor positioned with as much symmetry as my four- or five-year-old hand could muster. Sometimes there was a chimney to one side, with a wafting squiggle of green or orange smoke, and sometimes, more exceptionally, two further windows and a further door on the second storey, though it was hard then to get the windows to fit under the roof line. But these additions, it seemed, were not so much embellishments as an attempt to arrive at a sort of Platonic completeness: this was what a house was, all it needed to be whole, to do the job.
My notion of house-ness must have drawn something from our own house, which, sitting foursquare and plain at the entrance to our farm, was about as basic and house-like as a house could be. Yet it could not be said that our house was ever more than just barely adequate to the job required of it, or that any of the fifteen-odd people who passed through it during my childhood--aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents, grandparents--ever considered it anything more than a waystation, what would have to do until some more permanent arrangement could be made. In the case of my aunts, my father's teenaged sisters, that meant making a suitable marriage; in the case of my uncles, for whom cots were set up in whatever corner could be spared, it meant amassing a little nest egg before returning to families in Italy; in the case of my grandfather, it meant exchanging the largest bedroom in the house for somewhat more cramped quarters after he dropped dead one day when he was coming home from the fields. As for the rest of us, we made do, though with always the idea in our heads that our real house was not the one we lived in but the one we lived for, the not-quite-even-imagined dream home that all our sacrifice and hard work would one day bring into being. In the mean time we were lucky to have a house at all, or so I had gathered from the dire warnings of my parents and from certain notions about mortgaging and repossession that I had picked up from the Saturday cartoons.
Our house had a glassed-in front porch that was quite special in many ways, not least in that it had a crawl space underneath that was very convenient for hiding in in the event that chores needed doing or punishments were being meted out. The porch itself was special perhaps exactly in being superfluous: in a house crammed full with people, with beds in the living room and three- quarter walls built around alcoves to accommodate still more beds, here was a room that no one actually slept in, and which therefore constituted the one feature of our house that could be considered a luxury. We children were often sent into exile there, three or four or seven or eight of us as the case might be, during which time the rest of the house, stripped down to its mere adults, must have seemed as sane and sedate as a Victorian boarding house. In the cool of evening, the porch took on a tangy porch-and-old- furniture smell that it shared with other porches I knew (the ones of those relations who did not actually live with us), as if it was joined with them in a kind of porchy fraternity.
In the future house we lived for, there would also be a front porch; except that this porch would not be the butt-end of the house that our own porch had become, where extraneous objects, old newspapers, furnishings, children, were shoved out like droppings, but rather its elegant, welcoming entranceway. I had seen houses in town of that sort, with elaborate front porticoes or generous verandahs where, I imagined, people who never had mud on their shoes were ushered into rooms with polished floors or spotless wall-to-wall carpeting. Our own household, of course, had not yet evolved to the state of civility that allowed anyone to enter the house from the front; and indeed for those of us who lived there a sort of ritual of decontamination had to followed out before we could even so much as set foot on the back stairs. This ritual involved a trip down to the basement, where, if you were small, you climbed up into the big porcelain laundry tub to wash your feet under the faucet, or, if you were big, you filled a blue plastic basin for the purpose; and when you had scrubbed your feet clean and towelled them dry you slipped them cosily into the house shoes you had earlier exchanged your outside shoes for at the shoe rack in the furnace room.
The shoe rack was perhaps the place where present reality came up most starkly against future hope. The rack itself was a crude structure cobbled together from spare bits of wood and which in its triumph of function over aesthetics showed the unmistakable handiwork of my father. On its bottom shelves were rows of shoes that could break your heart--ancient, cracked, mud-caked work shoes or old high-topped Keds that had passed from my aunt to my older sister and were now working their way through my older brothers down to me; on the middle shelf were a few lonely pairs of too- small Sunday shoes. But the top shelves were reserved for the house shoes--slippers, they might be called elsewhere, but in our house they were considered full-fledged shoes. These shoes played a major role in our ongoing apprenticeship for our eventual accession to elegant living, being one of the ways in which my father hoped to breed out of us our fundamental barbarity. Gamins and ragamuffins we might be, steeped in pond sludge and frogs' blood and briars, but then every evening, scrubbed down and scoured, we would waft through the house in our house shoes like little aristocrats-in-waiting. In later years I would be reminded of our house shoe regime by one of the novels of Italian writer Elio Vittorini: in it, a formerly wealthy family reduced to penury after the war goes through the motions every evening of eating an imaginary chicken using only knives and forks, to make sure the children will be in practise should the family's fortunes rise again.
Much of what went on in our house had this same air of being a sort of training for our more civilized future. Saturday afternoons, for instance, my mother waxed the kitchen floor, which in itself, being old and not even linoleum but asbestos tile, did not merit, in most of our opinions, the attention she lavished on it. But that did not stop us from regarding the activity with a certain measure of reverence. Sometimes one or two of us were seconded from work in the greenhouses or fields to help with the polishing, getting down on hands and knees with our polishing rags and scooting around the floor like water spiders. When we were done, waxy-kneed and smelling of lemon, the floor had a sheen like glass, which it would hold a couple of days before the heavy traffic in our household, house shoes or no, had worn it down to dullness again, though in the interim we would have had a taste of what those houses in town, shiny-floored all, merely took as their daily due. There was always an hour or two after the polishing was complete but the wax was still in its final, fragile stages of hardening when the utmost care had to be taken, when the tiniest water drop or a careless bare or house-shoed foot could wreck utterly the momentary perfection the floor reached then. My mother placed rags at every entrance to the room then, and we would shimmy our way through it careful and hushed as if not to disturb a sleeping child.
Saturday was also bath day, and those dangerous couple of hours before the wax had decisively set often coincided with the first bath shifts of late afternoon. Bath shifts were alotted according to complex rules that we children worked out amongst ourselves, having often to do with certain code words that had to be uttered over the course of the day. Despite the wax issue, it was still immensely preferable to be on one of the earlier shifts, not only because of the time you thus shaved off work but because of the assurance you then had of a supply of hot water. When we were small, my brothers and I usually shared our bath time, often creating together then a special secret world we called Soapy Land. But when we had become old enough to merit separate baths, competition over shifts grew quite fierce. In our future house, of course, such unseemly battles would be avoided because there would be many bathrooms and because, more importantly, we would be equipped with that essential item of modern living, a shower. A shower, we believed, would make possible a veritable promiscuity of cleanliness, since showers, unlike baths, were practically instantaneous and could be had on the merest whim. We had heard rumours that in certain households it was not uncommon to shower daily; though when our oldest sister, entering her mid-teens, got in the habit of bathing every night before bed, we all considered this a form of derangement.
Sleeping arrangements in our house were a matter of some creativity and also of considerable flux. Until I was five and the last of the unmarried aunts left the house, I continued to sleep in the crib in my parents' room (where, judging from the birth of twins nine months or so after my departure, I had apparently functioned as a form of birth control). Thereafter, as babies grew and as uncles came and went, I was part of a shifting arrangement of beds that culminated finally in the demolition of our beloved porch and the construction of two purple-walled bedrooms there, complete with folding-doored closets and sliding windows. This momentous event was a bit of a shock to our systems, not only in its demonstrating the mutability of a structure that we had until then considered, for all its shortcomings, a sort of fixed, organic whole, but also in its suggesting, more ominously, that the grand, total, life-shifting change we had all been anticipating might be usurped by such patchwork half-measures. It was true, of course, that for the first time since we'd lived in our house there was not a single bed in the living room, and that we had been able to arrange there a plastic-covered chesterfield and arm chair, a Formica-topped coffee table, a General Electric TV, with an admirable, almost enviable degree of decorum (and this is not even to mention the holographic portrait of Christ on the wall that changed, at a certain angle, to the Last Supper). But there were still those of us--myself--confined to the old ghetto area of the house, with its poor excuse of a three-quarter-walled alcove for a bedroom, and also those of us--my older brothers--who, though beneficiaries of one of the new rooms, were not properly appreciative of same, being unable to tolerate, in said room, each other's presence. This incivility on my brothers' parts, no doubt hormonally based, did much to set back the cause for our eventual dream home, being often cited as evidence by my father that we had not yet been sufficiently domesticated to warrant the investment a new home would entail.
For many years, however, we children planned to do an end run around my father's recalcitrance, faithfully completing the entry form every spring for the Publishers' Clearing House Sweepstakes. This was the contest in which the grand prize was a luxury home of one's choosing--what I thought of as the `clearing house' referred to by the contest's name, imagining that a clearing house was a sort of vast, cleared, open structure that one then divided and gaudied up according to one's tastes; and amongst us children there was a general feeling that this contest had been expressly designed to meet the needs of our own household. It came as somewhat of a surprise to us every year when we did not actually win, since it was unclear to us how there could other families in the world that coveted a luxury home, or deserved one, as much as we did. Eventually, growing more worldwise, we decided that the `No purchase required' rule of the contest was actually a ruse, and began to place orders from among the wares offered by the Clearing House publishers in the hopes of improving our chances of winning. A slew of magazines started appearing in our mailbox, Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies' Home Journal, Popular Electronics, Popular Mechanics, Teens & Boys. Our parents didn't show much interest in these magazines--our mother couldn't read a word of English and our father mostly chose not to--until the bills for them began to arrive, at which point we were unmasked as their source and all our hopes for our own private clearing house were dashed. The only upshot of our years of diligence was an apparently lifetime subscription to Chatelaine, which continued to arrive long past the time when most of us children had left the house.
Leave the house we eventually did, one by one, without ever seeing our hope of a dream home realized. But when the last of us had gone, leaving behind for the first time the incredible luxury of empty bedrooms and no waiting line at the bathroom, my parents sold the farm, bought a four-acre lot, and built a house whose master bedroom alone had more sleeping area than all the bedrooms combined of the house in which they'd spent the previous twenty- five years. Four bathrooms, two kitchens, living, dining, family, and rec room: a veritable clearing house. I imagine my parents wandering the empty rooms there now in their house shoes agoraphobic with space, huddling perhaps in the closets trying to recapture again that cramped, secure feeling they had always associated with home.
As for our old house, it still stands, looking from the outside not much changed from how we left it, if a bit sprucer; though inside who knows what changes have been wrought, what happened to those sepia-toned asbestos tiles in the kitchen, to the shoe rack in the furnace room, to the three-quarter wall around the alcove. A two-carred, two-childed family lives there now, and the place--with a few walls torn down, perhaps, and an en suite bathroom or two installed--probably fits them like a glove, as if it has finally, with its simple house shape, reached that state of Platonic completeness I hankered for as a child. But though I often drive past the place whenever I visit home, I never ask to go inside. You can't go home again, make no mistake; there are no house shoes made to enter that place, the past.
© 1997, 2003 Nino Ricci. Reproduction or use without the author's written consent is prohibited by law.
First published in Writing Home: A PEN Canada Anthology, edited by Constance Rooke (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997)
Lower image: 'A Bucks County Farmhouse' by Thomas Willoughby Nason (1937).