“Over the river and through the woods/ To Grandfather’s house we go” meant traveling three days and two nights on the train from Charleston, South Carolina to Hankinson, North Dakota. Grandfather’s house was a glorious, gingerbread affair set on a huge lot with elm-shaded boulevards on two sides. In Charleston, our apartment lay at the back of the block-long, castle-like Old Citadel, with a row of palmettos in front and beyond that, the wide expanse of a gravelly Marion Square. Waking up mornings in Grandfather’s Hankinson house was like waking up in another country.
Not only another country, but another way of life. In our Old Citadel apartment, sixteen-foot ceilings rose into shadows, and window-wells were so deep I could lean my elbows on them. But we had only four large rooms edged by a long narrow hall and narrow bathroom. Nothing like Papa Max’s house with its six rooms downstairs and five bedrooms up, topped by an attic covering the whole house. The quiet was so intense I sometimes “heard” sun motes keeping time to Papa Max’s canary Sweetie Pie singing in the bay window.
Hankinson, named for a colonel in the Civil War, sat on the edge of onetime prairie, turned into fields of wheat. Glacier moraines sloped gently above sloughs and Lake Elsie. When my grandfather arrived there as a young man from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, it was probably around 1890. Calculating back from my mother’s birth in 1908, he must have married his first wife, the daughter of his employer, around 1892. They must have built the house, only one-story at first, a year or so later.
The first wife died in childbirth, leaving my grandfather with a daughter. He was on the go a lot as county auditor, “giving the horses’ their heads” to carry him over snow-mounded fences home. It must have been during one of these trips around the county that he met my grandmother-to-be, a school teacher whose name was Augusta Olein. She’d been born in Sweden. I never knew her. She died five months after I was born.
Her parents, who brought the family to Fargo, left her a kind of orphan, to be raised by two older sisters who, for the rest of their lives, kept watch from a distance over Augusta and her children. These were the Aunt Emma and Aunt Hulda who eventually moved to Spokane, Washington, and whose cards of congratulations fill my mother’s fat fat memory book. My mother Maxine was the second-born twin to brother Max,. He was sturdy, she was slow to thrive, plagued with rickets (which gave her spine “two curves”) and a weak stomach all her childhood. But she outlived all her siblings to die in Charleston, South Carolina, aged 94.
By the time she took my sister and me on these cross-country train trips, she was intrepid, vigorous, and truly fond of “home,” meaning Papa Max’s house. By the time we started visiting in the late 1940s and early ’50s, the roof had been raised on Papa Max’s house. Its scalloped and diamond-shaped shingles, painted tan, taupe and light pinkish brown, made it look like a gingerbread house.
Yesterday I had a call from a woman who, out of the blue, just bought Papa Max’s house on the internet. I kept calling her Carol or Carla–not her name. I don’t know what go into me. Cindy wants to return the house to its former grandeur before Papa Max died and it was carved into apartments. We spent at least an hour talking, and I was amazed at my ability to guide her through the front door, and into the spacious entrance hall with the parquet floors and the three-tiered staircase ending in a bronze Winged Victory.
I remembered how the staircase divided just before its final descent, and one set of steps headed back to the kitchen, the other to the front hall. She corroborated that the beautiful stained-glass window at the top of the stairs had been walled in for the apartments, but she has retrieved it, and is having it repaired. “We will hang it in the dining room,” she said, “so it isn’t buffeted by weather.”
She has also located the second stairway, very narrow and steep, and entirely closed off from view. This was for the live-in maid–whom my mother called something like “Ennutz,” telling us it meant “good-for-nothing” in German, my grandfather’s family tongue. It’s this sharp humor I’ve come to associate with my grandfather, altogether a sharp-dealing businessman who bought up farms around Lake Elsie, when the original owners couldn’t pay their back taxes during the Great Depression.
My grandmother’s taste (with the funds to indulge it) ran to dark walnut and oak furniture, with subdued, embroidered silk upholstery and drapes. I have some samples handed from my mother to me: deep turquoise silk, with leaves and vines and berries and flowers embroidered in subdued yellows, greens, and reds. The parlor, to the left of the entrance hall, had only one wide window overlooking the porch. It was always cool and shaded . Then I was reading from huge volumes stored in glass-fronted cabinets below half-pillars which separated the parlor from the entrance hall. More half-pillars and glassed-in cabinets led to the much sunnier dining room and Sweetie Pie’s cheerful singing. We two girls and our mother flanked Papa Max who sat at the head of the long table, a huge napkin spread across his vest, as he ate lettuce soaked with cream and sugar. To us girls, raised on our Italian-American father’s salads dressed with oil and vinegar, this was as strange as eating dirt.