While the inside of the house was fascinating at first, the real joy of the next years came from the immense yard around the house. There were two acres of neglected landscaping, perfect for hiding, building forts, and camping out. Eventually there was a large lawn edged by a steep hill perfect for rolling down in the summer and sliding down in the winter. A huge 500 year old maple tree sat at the bottom of the yard and had branches my brother found excellent for climbing. I have never taken to tree climbing, so I mostly watched.
The yard was full of indigenous plants, particularly violas, johnny-jump-ups, ferns and blackberries. The estate had once employed a gardener, and as I grew older I enjoyed finding terraced garden areas, stone benches and hidden staircases. The yard got very little sun in the only flat area, so we were never able to recreate a vegetable garden as I had experienced as a young child.
The best part of the yard was a small brook that ran across the bottom of the property, draining a large pond of the neighbor’s before it went under the road and railroad tracks and emptied into the Willamette River. The neighbor, Ruby, was rumored to be a witch, and we never went on her property. She had a sign warning that trespassers would be prosecuted. For many years I thought that it meant we would be persecuted. The only persecution I was aware of in those days was of the Jews in Europe, and I was convinced, by combining the notion of her as a witch with her warning sign, that she intended to put us in ovens if we trespassed. This horrifying concern never totally left me even after I realized what the sign actually meant. I never even saw Ruby in all the years we lived next door. And I never wanted to!
I wonder now if all neighborhoods in those days had one reclusive resident that children were wary of . And I wonder how many of those recluses were tagged witches.
You might wonder how my mother filled this huge house with the furnishings from our smaller one once the Salvation Army had hauled everything away. She didn’t. We had our beds, dressers, one sofa, dining room set and toys, but little else to start with. The living room, which was so large it could fit four 9’X12′ rugs, had a bare floor. We rode tricycles around in it. The kitchen still had a large wood burning stove, but we had our electric stove from the old house, and it went into the same huge room.
For my mother, eight months pregnant when we moved in, this was far from an adventure. For us kids, however, it was a lot of fun. The house had two staircases from the first to the second floor. The kitchen had a huge pantry next to it. There was a special room called a linen closet holding hundreds of sheets from Miss Nelson.(The Salvation Army had missed them.) My brother and I still shared a room because Norman had the run of the third floor.(Remember Norman came with the house!) But we had our own bathroom!
The house needed a lot of work, and my parents took out a loan equal to the cost of the house to do the needed repairs. It took many years before the house was entirely full of furniture. In fact, it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that the living room was redone. But my good memories of that house were the games of hide and seek we played when we first moved into the very unfurnished enormous place. Our own private kingdom with much room to roam.
Now my mother was pregnant with baby #4 and we were still in a two bedroom, one bathroom house with my brother and me in the attic. Our next door neighbor, Don, came over with a promising proposition. His aunt Lela had just died and left her his house. His aunt was a recluse and a hoarder who had once used the house as a home for mentally limited adults. Don had a poor relationship with his aunt and a phobia about setting foot in the house. If my parents would buy it directly from him without him ever having to go in the house, they could have it for a very reasonable price.
The house was enormous, three stories, five bathrooms, set on two acres of property. It was also in a very exclusive neighborhood with an excellent public school. My parents took a look at it, acknowledged the issues facing them with the purchase, and bought it. I only saw it once before we moved in. The house was full to bursting with newspapers, magazines and who knows what else. My mother made a deal with the Salvation Army. They could have every thing in the house if they took every thing in the house. Three whole moving trucks later, there was room to move our family in.
Oh. By the way. There was still one person living in the house–Norman. He came with the house. It turns out that was part of the deal.
As I got older, camping was a little less fun and a lot more challenging. Here I am washing my hair with a bucket of water to the side of our camp spot. In those days, Oregon campgrounds had no amenities. No running water, no chopped firewood, no outhouses. We hauled water from a rapidly flowing stream. My father chopped up dead trees. We dug latrines off in the woods. There were no designated camp spots either; we just set up near the lake and not too close to anyone else. For my 16 year old self, it was getting old.
Clearly I was still worried about my appearance, at least enough to wash my hair, despite the fact that no one I knew was around. However, this is some outfit! Cutoff jeans with knee socks with my tank bathing suit and red Keds.
Activities at the lake that used to intrigue me now were bo-r-r-r-ing. The little camp store(really just a person renting rowboats and selling Hershey’s candy bars) lacked interest. I was able to rent a rowboat, row myself out to the middle of the lake, hunker down on the floor of the boat and be alone. As I recall, being alone when I was 16 was preferable to being with my younger siblings.
I longed for easier accommodations. Hotel anyone?
One of the constants of my growing up was tent camping. Here, at age two, I have been bedded down in my own little pup tent, just large enough for a single air mattress, even though I only fill half of it. My parents shared a larger tent for the two of them. In fact, whenever we went camping the kids were in one tent and my parents in another. Eventually the kids were in two tents and my parents were in the station wagon. When we asked them why they preferred the car to a tent, they told us they liked to listen to the car radio!
We had a favorite place to go camping in central Oregon called Three Creek Lake. Today it is easily accessible from the now booming town of Sisters. In the 1950’s Sisters was a small ranching town and the road up to Three Creek was dirt and barely navigable. The ruts were very deep, and my parents had to balance the wheels to the sides of the ruts to drive on the road. To drive in the ruts ensured what they called “bottoming out” which apparently was a very bad idea.
For us kids, the drive was well worth the difficulty. We would watch our parents pitch the tents next to the lake, put on our bathing suits and jump in. Here I am floating on another of those war surplus air mattresses that we had plenty of. The lake was utterly freezing since it was at an altitude of 6550 feet, but we loved it. Only when we were shaking with cold and spouting blue lips did our mother insist we get out. “But Mom, we’re fine!”
In 1963, my mother drove the four of us kids to Pike in our trusty “B-mobile”, a Ford station wagon. We stayed one night at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park and watched the Old Faithful geyser erupt from our room window. I remember being delighted that there was actually a schedule of the geyser’s displays of steam. It really was as predictable as its name implied. Other highlights of the trip were the Craters of the Moon(a desolate odd park) and Wall Drug Store. If you have never driven from Portland to New York via Wyoming and South Dakota, you may not know about the Wall Drug Store. It is the only thing for miles, and billboards endlessly advertise its approach. Cars also display bumper stickers saying “Visit Wall Drug Store.” Of course we had to stop there! Ice cream and ice cold soda pop was enjoyed by all.
I was 16 by then and restless at Pike, no longer content to ride a bike and swim. I missed my friends, and had been invited to visit one in Arlington, Virginia. My grandparents arranged for a train ticket to Arlington from Pike via Washington. The closest train station was a flag stop in the near by town of Arcade. It turns out that the name is literal, and the station master actually waved a large flag to stop the train to let me on. I remember being amazed that the train would stop just for me to board.
I returned to Pike, but not until 2002 when my visit included a stop at the cemetery where my grandparents and aunt are buried. I needed directions to their plot and stopped at the little Red and White Grocery Store I remembered from my childhood. When I asked about my grandparents(who had died in 1971 and 1978) the butcher remembered them forty years later and directed me to their graves. Such are among the blessings of small towns.
When I was 11, my brother 8 and my sisters 5 and 3, we again took the train, this time the Northern Pacific, from Portland to Buffalo to visit my grandparents. On the journey, we went coach, so there were no separate beds or bathroom. We slept more or less sitting up and washed and changed our clothes in the common women’s bathroom. My father had given a porter a generous tip as we began our trip, so we were well looked after on the journey.
My brother and I had free range of the train, a great experience for us. We ate by ourselves in the dining car and took a deck of cards up to the Vista Dome car. We played endless rounds of our two favorite card games, Casino and Canasta. One late night a porter invited my brother and me out onto the platform between two cars to watch a box car on fire across the prairie. Going between cars in general was a great thrill, as one balanced on one car while the door slammed behind you and you pushed on the car door ahead. We would often walk the length of the train and back.
Pike, as pictured here from the back entrance, was paradise at this age. We rode bikes, played, swam and checked out books from the library. A special thrill was trying to catch fire flies. We didn’t have them in Oregon, and their flitting lights among the flowers delighted us all. We were never able to catch any, but we had a great time trying. We spent a full month this time, pretty much unsupervised along with all the other kids in Pike.
When I think about being a kid in the summer, I think of that summer in Pike.
In the summer of 1952, I was five and my little brother was two. My little sister was just in the making, and she wasn’t born until January of 1953. My mother took the two of us across the country on the train to visit our grandparents. We were in a Pullman sleeper car, so we had a self contained room with bathroom and bunk beds. My mother was desperately morning sick, and we spent almost all our time on the first leg from Portland to Chicago in our room. The porter was very loving and brought our food to the room. My brother and I were not suffering from nausea and we were often hungry. My mother had stocked up with activity books for me, especially my favorite dot-to-dot books. I remember feeling cooped up, but probably not nearly as much as my mom felt with the two of us in that small compartment.
The last leg of the trip from Chicago to Buffalo was much less pleasant, but it was much shorter. We were on the New York Central Railroad which was filthy in comparison to the Union Pacific we had been on. The high spot was the dining car whose menu is pictured above. I loved that menu as you can tell since I kept it all these years.
We had come to see my grandparents because my grandfather wanted to christen my little brother. He had christened me when we still lived in New York, but my brother had been born in Oregon. While my parents weren’t religious, my mother honored her father’s desire to pray over my brother.
I remember my grandfather lifting me off the train in Buffalo and then little else about the trip. In Pike, he donned his clerical robes and christened my little brother.Then we played happily for days, reassured once again of God’s love as it shone through my grandfather.
My next visit was the summer I was one when my parents had gone to Oregon for work. I started out in Buffalo, at my grandparents’ house, and then accompanied them and my sixteen year old Aunt Cary to their summer place in Pike. I had just learned to walk, and here I am still pretty tentative about trying to pick up a croquet ball and still remain upright. I love that my aunt is wearing a dress on a summer afternoon. I never saw my grandmother in pants, and I am sure she expected Cary to look “presentable” wherever we were. Fortunately I got to wear my corduroy overalls to totter around.
I think that the feeling of safety and peace that I associate with Pike took root during this sojourn with my grandparents and aunt. While my grandmother was fairly restrained, a product of her upbringing by a Victorian English mother, my grandfather had no pretense and a rollicking sense of humor. I know that he adored me, and my memories of him throughout my life are positive ones.
The side yard at Pike was flat and an ideal place to play croquet. I played it throughout my growing up years, continuing to play it as an adult. I am dreadful at the game, despite my years of play. Still I love the thwack of hitting the ball and the bang it makes when it hits another’s ball. And there is no joy so complete as placing your foot on your ball, placed next to your opponent’s ball, and hitting yours hard enough to send the other one flying. Supposedly croquet is a sedate afternoon pastime. Not any game that we ever played. It was all about knocking the opponent’s ball far across the yard.
The sun is out. Our grass is mowed. Where is our croquet set anyway?
I had forgotten(though clearly I couldn’t have remembered) that my first visit to Pike came in the summer of 1947 when I was three months old. Here my father practices the time honored exercise of making faces at a baby while the baby(me in this case) practices making them back. Even now, whenever I am around a baby I find myself making faces and watching to see the baby’s reaction. Babies work very hard to mimic expressions, and if you give them enough time, you can watch them try to arrange their faces to copy yours.
One of the constants at Pike was a hammock hung between two elm trees in the front yard. Summers in Pike were often hot and humid, and some of my best later memories were of lolling in the hammock, avoiding having to do anything helpful. Fortunately, with both my mother and grandmother present whenever we were in Pike, two people in the kitchen were already one person too many, so I didn’t have to contribute as much as I would have at home.
It’s a hot day today in East Hartford, and the first hot day of summer here always brings memories of Pike back in a visceral sense. Of course there was no air conditioning, so the evening breeze was especially relished. Even more so from the comfortable perch of the hammock.