The Old House

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It was late summer, the last of the vacation time when Katie and her family were visiting the plantation. It really had once been a plantation, and generation after generation had managed somehow to keep it in the family. The house was hardly grand style, but was more of a working farm’s house that you were as likely to find in the Midwest as in the South. No grand entrance and no crystal chandelier, but it nevertheless had a charm, or at least a personality all its own.

The legend was that President John Tyler had slept here. What made that so interesting was that Tyler had never been elected president, but as vice-president, succeeded William Henry Harrison when he died. Harrison, a hero of the War of 1812, had run under the slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” as though Tyler were an afterthought. Tyler sided with the Confederacy and served as a Confederate Representative, making him the only U.S. president ever declared an enemy of the state.

Katie’s father had shared this history with her many times – too many, she decided, but it was now permanently affixed in her memory. If the question ever came up on a television game show, she was ready. She liked to believe that one of the Washingtons, Jeffersons or even a Lee had slept here, too. This was Virginia, after all, and the place had been crawling with those aristocratic families.

Most of the land that had once been full of cotton and tobacco was gone, of course. About 80 acres remained and most of that was leased out to a neighbor who alternated planting corn, soybeans and sorghum. His tractor did double duty keeping the “lawn” under control, although as kind of a tradition there had always been a couple of goats who tended to the grass closer to the house.

Katie’s grandparents lived in the old house, although they were getting on in years, and the common expectation was that her father’s younger brother would take over the old house when the grandparents had passed. It was just as well, she thought. She wouldn’t want her family to move into it since it had lousy cellphone coverage, and was not exactly near anything that would excite a young teenage girl.

During the week at the old house, Katie checked out the pond and wished it were spring. At least in the spring there would be tadpoles. Not so in the fall, although she did see a turtle who lazily slid off the log on which he was sunning himself, and then swam with surprising speed away from her.

Being late morning the temperature was rising, and Katie headed for the house. She vaguely understood that indoor plumbing and electricity had been added over the years. On the other hand, she was acutely aware that somehow they had added central air conditioning. Once inside she checked the refrigerator and decided on lemonade instead of sweetened ice tea, which normally was her choice. She had almost forgotten that she was alone, her parents and grandparents having headed into town together. She had declined their invitation because to a 13 year old girl, wherever they were going and whatever they were talking about would be totally boring.

As she walked around the old house, with nothing better to do, she found herself actually looking at it. Some of the window glass was very old and had ripples in it. Her grandmother had said that glass was a very thick liquid, and the ripples showed that over the years it still flowed. She had looked that up on the Internet and that source had said that sheet glass had been made by pouring the molten glass onto slate, which gave it the ripples. She didn’t care which was true, but she decided the slow flow of glass was more interesting.

How many coats of paint had been applied to those window frames over the years? How many baseballs and rocks had inadvertently passed through the windows of the old house? Then she thought of the Civil War and wondered how many bullets had damaged the house, breaking its glass and tearing into its siding.

Idly she began opening doors and looking inside. This closet was where she had been hiding when she won hide and seek against her cousins. This was the bedroom she had slept in when she w toddler, before she rated a regular bedroom.

Normally she didn’t enter her grandparents’ bedroom. There was nothing interesting in there, it smelled funny and, it just didn’t seem right. Today, however, she was so intent on examining the old house that she was already looking in her grandparents’ closet before she realized it. She had never looked into it before, so she had never noticed that it had a second door in the back. Naturally she opened it.

She hadn’t expected anything interesting, so when she saw stairs leading to the attic, it just seemed normal. It certainly was better than the fold-down stairs in the ceiling trap door of her suburban home. She started up the stairs, then turned around, retrieved a flashlight from the backpack in her room and then climbed the stairs.

It was hot and dusty. Spider webs were everywhere. The attic contained very little – boxes with Christmas decorations, empty suitcases and the usual trivia that people hang onto long after the need is gone. A window in the peak of the roof gave plenty of light, but since she had her flashlight, she played it around on the rafters. She stopped in amazement when she realized that the oldest construction was held together with wooden pegs, while sections that were slightly newer had nails that were obviously handmade. She began to examine the construction more closely to see what else she could learn from it.

That’s when she spotted the envelope. It was not an old envelope, nor was it fancy – just a nine by eleven manila with the prongs to seal it. Inside, however, was a letter and quite a bit of currency, unfortunately it was Confederate banknotes. The letter merely said, “Ask your father. He’ll explain it to you.”

Figuring that the envelope had been safe in its place for 150 years, Katie carefully put it back.

Later that night, after supper, Katie and her parents sat on the porch talking with her grandparents. While she heard them speaking, most of it was merely a pleasant drone while she thought about the old house and her afternoon in the attic. Her grandparents excused themselves to watch their favorite game show on television, and

Katie was left with her parents. Her mother got up, but Katie cleared her throat, letting her know that she needed something. Her mother at back down next to her father on the porch swing.

“I’m supposed to ask my father something,” she began, “but I’d rather talk with you both.” Her father leaned forward expectantly, but said nothing.

“I found an envelope full of money,” she began. She saw her mother’s eyes widen. Her father patted his wife’s hand, and gave her a reassuring look.

“It was Confederate money. I looked it up on the Internet, and it actually would be quite valuable to collectors. Confederate money is collected and traded like stamps or baseball cards. Don’t laugh, some baseball cards are worth quite a bit.”

“I know,” answered her father.

“The letter said I should ask you.” Her father took in a deep breath.

“Okay. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly,” he began. “Our family, while not one of the premiere families in the South, was nevertheless prosperous. Our ancestors profited because they ran large agricultural operations without having to pay their workers – they relied on slaves. Those farms were very similar to today’s corporate agriculture, except that today farmers buy, own and sell machines rather than humans.

“Our ancestors were adamant before and during the war. When Reconstruction began, they were livid. They did things that I am not proud of, but will spare you until you’re older.

“I have no idea how many slaves our ancestors owned – the records were in one of the many government buildings that were burned. Could have been burned by Union soldiers, or by the locals – no one alive knows. I guess I’m glad I don’t know myself.

“I sometimes wonder if my great-whatever-grandfather owned the great-whatever of one of our neighbors. It’s possible – even probable, but I try to pretend it never could have happened.

“In any case, each generation wants its children to do better; to be better educated and more successful. Successful means – successful SHOULD mean doing good, not just doing well.

“So that’s most of the story. The rest is that the family tradition is that the first child of each generation that finds the envelope has first right of refusal to move into the old house under the idea that whoever cares enough to examine the house will be the best one to carry on the tradition. Oddly, so far, only one child from each generation has found the envelope.

Years later:

Katie had finally gotten her baby daughter to sleep. She picked up a few things while her husband set up the coffee pot for the next morning; she remembered one of those tasks that keeps getting put aside. She went over to where her desk was and rummaged through the drawers, collecting a bottle of ink, and old fashioned ink pen and a blotter. She took everything up to the attic and found the old envelope and opened it. Although the writing was fading, she could still read where it said, “Ask our father.” She blew the dust off the floor and carefully spread the paper. She dipped her pen in the ink. Under “Ask your father”, she added in neat cursive, “Better yet, ask your mother.”

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One response to “The Old House

  1. Oh, the old houses of our past. Some remember most the “living room” where “our fathers” entertained guests and had parties. Many others recall the attics and cellars of our old houses in which were thrown a number of our unpleasant experiences, failures, embarrassments, and even rubbish. There’s often a measure of noisome, vexing, and uncongenial appointments, like loathsome “environmental rats” that continuously endeavor to climb up and infest our “house”…our consciousness.

    You’re right, Steve. When we ask our mother, our attic or cellar need not be a cesspool or a sewer of repressed “junk.” Mom will often say the attic is where she stored loving memoirs and our childhood playthings. And it was in the cellar where she collected our hobbies and where a loved one slept.

    Ask mom! She’s the person to lean on, and also the person who ultimately makes leaning unnecessary.

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