The sound of a mourning dove cooing outside my window will forever take me back to my childhood and days spent in my grandparents’ old Florida home.
My father’s parents lived in a two-story wood-frame house built in the early 1920s by my grandmother’s parents. I remember it so vividly. The house faced Stevenson’s Creek in Clearwater and was just a stone’s throw from the bay. It was an elegant but comfortable house from a whole different era. No A/C but an attic fan. There was a secret button under the dining room carpet. The lady of the house could step on the button to signal the kitchen help.
There was a lovely front entrance, brick steps leading up to the front door, but that was really more for company. Family always entered through the back door.
The back door opened into what my grandparents called the back porch. Perhaps at one point this was a screened room, but in my history in the house it was used as the family eating area, especially for lunches. There was a good-sized round table there with several caned chairs around it where most lunches were eaten. My grandmother would put on a lunch feast. Bread, cold cuts, lettuce, and tomatoes were always laid out artfully on plates, never put on the table in their wrappers or containers. Condiments were put on the table without their lids, each with their own utensil. Pickles, olives, homemade chili sauce from the built-in canning cellar, potato chips, and iced tea with lots of ice all loaded up the table, making it look absolutely Elizabethan in its abundance. My grandfather would stack jars and plates on top of each other to try to create more room and to drive my grandmother crazy from impropriety.
Off this room was a small bathroom that seemed to be my grandfather’s staging area between his woodworking shop in the garage and the house proper. There was always Lava soap at the sink and the grandchildren’s birthdays were written on the wall near the supply of magazines for the john.
Gammi’s kitchen was a magical place. Lessons learned there included:
- Raw hot dogs won’t kill you ‘cause they’re really already cooked, so go ahead and try one.
- Raw batter of any kind deserves a taste, and similarly won’t kill you.
- Bacon grease should be preserved at all cost and does not need to be refrigerated. It is properly stored in a jar on a small shelf just above the stove for easy and frequent access.
- Paquin makes your hands soft and smell like roses.
- Dishes are to be washed, dried, and put away, not left on a drain board until later.
- Even grandmothers cuss.
- Elegance can and should be infused into everyday life.
The kitchen had a most unusual architectural feature. At the back of the kitchen, near the back porch was a set of steep, narrow wooden stairs. These stairs led up to a landing which went further up to the second story. The unusual part is that the kitchen stairs were matched at the landing by another set of carpeted, less steep stairs leading to the living room. So if you were coming down from upstairs, at the landing you could turn left and go down into the living room or go right and go down into the kitchen.
I was scared to death of those kitchen stairs. They were steep and the treads were short. The old dark wood was polished smooth from decades of use, and I had slipped on them when wearing my hard-soled Sunday shoes more than once. My preference was to slide down the carpeted stairs on my bottom, bump, bump, bump, and walk around to the kitchen.
Sliding, or bumping, down the carpeted stairs was a regular activity for my brother and I. We were not acquainted with many two-story houses; the stairs were as good as a jungle gym outside. Since these stairs led down to the more formal area of the house, they had a beautiful wood banister that ended in a coil at the bottom. When I was very small, I could wind myself into the middle of the coil. That became a sort of measure of my growth as I got older, whether or not I could still get into the middle of the coil.
The living room was spacious and open, with a couch and two or three other chairs, some antiques, for visitors. The television was in this room, a fireplace with a painted mantle, and access to the front door and the main screened porch. The TV there was a monstrous thing. It was huge and set at some distance from the seating so (a) the volume was usually pretty high, and (b) the children were called upon to make any changes to station or volume—no remote controls. My grandfather made all technical adjustments himself, forever fiddling with knobs labeled “Color,” “Tint,” “Horizontal Hold,” and “Vertical Hold.”
Sundays, especially when my father was in town and my brother and I would visit, were given over to watching football, accompanied by alternately outrages and joyous yelling and jumping up and down. Since the house had heart pine floors and was elevated off the ground, jumping in the living room had the childishly gratifying effect of making lots of noise. My brother and father used this effect frequently in their ongoing attempts to drive my grandmother crazy. They developed a game wherein my brother would enter from the stairs, my father would “shoot” him with his finger, and my brother would “do a die,” dramatically losing the fake gunfight and expiring in the noisiest possible way, with leaps and landings designed to rattle the china in the china cabinet. “RUSSELL! WHAT are you all doing out there?!” my grandmother would holler from the kitchen. “You scared me to death!” My grandfather just laughed.
The mourning doves, on the other hand, that peaceful, lonely sound, could only be heard from my grandparents’ bedroom. Upstairs, to the right, I thought this room was the most luxurious room in the house. It was large; even when I became older it struck me as a large bedroom. And, whereas the rest of the house was furnished with lovely, but practical things, this room contained the lovely and impractical.
The large bed had bedside tables on either side. My grandfather had become an early riser; he slept nearer the door. On my grandmother’s side, she kept a photo of her and her sister Margaret as young girls and one of herself in her youth. Both were sepia-ish with hand coloring in the cheeks and lips. Gammi had an elegant vanity, a large mirror mounted in a small dresser-like affair at which she could sit and do her hair and make-up. Drawers flanked the mirror and wondrous, mysterious things were in the drawers: bobby pins in several colors, bristly springy rollers, silver-backed hand mirrors, boar-bristle hair brushes, brooches, and earrings both ancient and modern. A little corner of French-inspired femininity. There was also a pink upholstered chaise lounge “fainting couch.” I felt like a princess when I laid on it.
In the corner, at a window was Gammi’s sewing machine. Up here, with the window open to the live oak, palm, and camphor trees, was where I would hear the mourning doves. After the bustle of the morning had come and gone and all the noisy boys had moved on, I would help Gammi make her bed and lay on the chaise lounge as she dressed, listening to the mourning doves.