Daddy and Mama bought the big yellow house when I was 13 months old. Surrounded by red barns, white board fences, chicken coops, and corn cribs, the house sat on 80 acres of fields, pastures, and woods, bordering a creek. They paid $10,000 for it. Grandpa Nutt said they’d never live to see it paid! But he was wrong. They did! They paid the mortgage in full by mid life.
Daddy and Mama were hard workers, very frugal – didn’t charge, didn’t live beyond their means. As the years went by, they maintained the house and slowly made improvements as they could afford it: a remodeled kitchen, blown-in insulation, aluminum storm windows, and baseboard hot water heat – typical 60’s-style upgrades But one aspect of the house never changed – the woodshed.
The woodshed was actually the large, attached back portion of the house, but it was rough and unfinished. From the north side, a door led into a corner of the woodshed we called the milk house (a room where the milk was brought in from the milking barn). The big slider door (the one we always used) opened to the east. Hooks and nails covered the wooden slat walls, and held garden hoses, rakes, and corn brooms (one good and several worn). Lofts stored coffee cans, out-of-season screens, and “who knows what” treasures hidden through the years. And the basement door, which closed only by a hook, was in the southwest corner of the dark, often dank room – the woodshed.
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The years passed. Social security income didn’t allow further improvements on the house or the property. Dementia and crippling disease stifled maintenance. As Daddy and Mama aged, so did the house. It cracked and creaked and sagged. Its outside was worn, sunbleached, and peeled. It forgot all of its glory. It lost its hope. But I loved it just the same.
Daddy left the house first – went to the nursing home. (And that’s another story.) Mama followed – joining him (or so it seemed) in the same nursing home.
The house was cold and empty.
Utility bills, property taxes, and insurance premiums continued to fill the mailbox every month. The social security income was now transferred to the nursing home. The yellow house was being deprived of its nourishment. It was dying.
Reality set in: The house faced it and so did I.
Daddy and Mama wouldn’t be coming home.
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Because I loved the house, I wanted to feed and nurture it and let it live. And I knew that Daddy and Mama had wanted the house to live on and be filled with young, new life – with family.
So the time came to once again maintain, upkeep, and improve. And this time, it began with the woodshed.
Builders, plumbers, drywallers, painters, electricians, and furnace installers began slowly reviving the house. Three coats of paint moisturized and refreshed its outer surfaces. Its foundation received a “tuck” and a “lift.” Its walls and its floors were recoated. But the most drastic revitalizing came in transforming the woodshed. Now the house felt complete, as the woodshed became a true part of its body and soul. And in the process of rejuvenation, a few hidden items were discovered up on those dusty lofts of the woodshed : a white rubber boot, a couple of antique pulleys, a Michigan Stove Co cast iron stove flap, a child’s red plastic wallet, and a pair of black and white saddle oxfords.
The oxfords revealed their age, just as the house had, and as the people in the house had. I wondered who had worn these shoes. I took them home and placed them beside sympathy cards and death certificates.
Then one day, browsing through momentos, I saw the photo, and in the photo, Mama was wearing the saddle oxfords.
She was young then. The shoes were young too.
I remembered the setting of the photo: Lake of the Clouds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – an annual summer vacation to stay at my Grandpa’s cabin – obviously an autumn one this particular year. Browsing the other photos brought back fond memories, and I realized that I was wearing saddle oxfords also. The year was 1955; I was four years old.
I imagined the shoes on the floor of her bedroom, under the clothing rack.
I imagined her polishing them from time to time with both white and black shoe polish.
And I imagined her one day, placing them on the upper loft of the woodshed, assuming she wouldn’t be wearing them again.
My chest hurt to think of that day – the day she went from young to old.
She’s gone now. But I have her shoes – her old shoes – her saddle oxfords. Perhaps others would throw those old shoes away, but I won’t.
I’ll get some leather cleaner.
I’ll enlarge and frame the photo.
Then I’ll set the shoes besides the photo, and I’ll think of my Mama who once was young and lived in the big yellow house.
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