IMG_3300

The elderly couple still laughed with the easy manner of giddy young newlyweds, teasing each other most likely for our benefit, but also in what appeared to me to be a genuine and playful manner.

Old John, a tallish man of average build, always pretended to be deathly afraid when we appeared on their doorstop each year on Halloween night – shaking with fright at the specter of the six of us with our dime store plastic masks, Fred Flintstone or Barney Rubble or Casper the Ghost – odd choices for young girls now that I think of it – bound to our faces with a thin, flimsy cord that more times than not broke before our brief night of Trick or Treating too quickly came to an end.

We lived a few miles outside of our small northern Iowa community and my parents were never inclined (or willing – but that’s another story) to drive us into town to knock on doors in search of Halloween bootie. Instead, we girls had to content ourselves with a trip to Grandma’s house – actually a further drive than what venturing into town would have been! – and across the road to the old, run down house where John and Lorna Smith lived.

Like the exterior of this seemingly abandoned home that my husband and I drove past on a road trip earlier this summer, the Smith house exhibited peeling paint, lacy curtains in the windows, and a crumbling, dilapidated covered porch held up with wooden columns leaning askew and creaky floorboards under foot. Stacks of lumber and old newspapers lined the path on the way to the screen door that led into the kitchen.

But once you were inside! Well. The old Smith place was full of wonders for us young Clark girls. I can still picture the kewpie doll attached to a stick – a county fair prize, as I recall – propped up inside a window frame. The kitchen, with no modern amenities, employed a hand-pump driven well to supply them with water. Cooking was done on an old wood stove. I can’t be certain as to whether there was no indoor bathroom but I’m inclined to think so as it was here that I was shocked and astonished to learn, for the first time, just what a ‘thunder mug’ was used for. An old fashioned ‘weather forecaster’ sat on the counter: if the rock was wet, it’s raining, if hot, there’s a heat wave, if gone, a tornado. Something like that anyway. I remember thinking then how funny and clever that was.

An old stiff (leather?) sofa was propped up on the east side of the living room and doors led to other areas of the house, presumably bedrooms. It was a spare yet cluttered home and I don’t ever think of it without recalling John’s feigned terror at our Halloween approach or the way Lorna, a little bit of a thing, would tease him for being ‘afraid’. As for our treats, there were usually apples and popcorn balls, maybe a candy bar or two. Nothing fancy and it occurs to me now what an effort they had to have made in anticipation of our annual October arrival. And most certainly only for us girls as there were few houses with young children living nearby. This makes me smile.

When I was nearing my twenties, I heard one day that Lorna had died. Within days, John followed her in kind. It seemed fitting that this elderly couple, who to this young girl’s mind seemed still very much in love, would submit to death in such close alignment with one another. And that too, makes me smile.

My five sisters and I grew up on an acreage south of town. Our property was home to the sawmill my Dad owned and operated, the old schoolhouse he’d attended as a child, the house we lived in, a functional, compact, barn Dad built from scratch and a small, wooden, nondescript edifice we called the brooder house.

I didn’t even know that was how it was spelled until just now when a quick Google search provided me with the official definition: a device or structure for the rearing of young chickens or other birds. An alternate meaning of the word would be a person who broods but that is another matter entirely.

For us girls, however, there was another way to describe it and that was playhouse. Although designed for raising chicks, it was never really used by Dad for any other purpose than storage, most notably sacks of grain for the handful of farm animals we occasionally kept in the barn just a few feet away. When the barn was empty, so was the brooder house and written large upon our imaginations were ideas of how to transform it, if not into something of beauty, then into a private hideaway or retreat of sorts.

I recall fashioning a type of bed and a desk out of scraps of lumber – plentiful when your dad works with wood for a living – and I think I even laid out cups and saucers to serve tea to unexpected guests. However, no matter how much I swept and tried to clean or hung up pictures on the walls, it was still, after all, just a brooder house. Even at a young age, I was fond of decorating and designing and creating special places to suit my enthusiastic, yet grandly misguided, ideas. Sigh. How does that go – something about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

Because the brooder house had rotting floors and unsecured doors and windows, it was pretty much open to the elements and therefore a handy refuge for both winged and four-legged creatures. Swallows built nests in its eaves, hornets constructed hives, and on occasion we heard and sometimes saw mice. Still we were undeterred.

Until…

Until Dad decided to move the brooder house to another location on the property and used the end-loader to lift it off its moorings. I think we were all stunned when we saw the large number of rats that scattered when the building was raised into the air and I was struck by how large – and fast! – these loathsome creatures appeared to us that day.

Even now, after all these years, I remember – with great clarity – that moment and the sick feeling in my stomach when I realized what it was that had caused those scratching, scuttling, scurrying sounds we heard below us whenever we spent time in that ‘special’ place of ours. It was, then, time to move on.