The House of Many Children

Posted on December 17, 2010


December 17 would have been the 113th birthday of my grandfather, Dale Shaw Redd. He died of an aortic aneurysm when I was 9 years old. I still miss him. Below is a memoir essay about him and the neighborhood where my grandparents lived when I was a child.

On Ontario Street in Bethlehem, where my ex-husband, still lived for several years after I moved away, there was a house of many children. That’s what my next door neighbor, Amy, called it, with irritation in her voice at their noise and at their hungry eyes peeping over her fence. Amy and her husband, Bill, moved in after my ex-husband and I did, and she was quick to tell people that she and Bill wouldn’t always live there. She was a little disappointed that this was the best they could afford. Me—I loved the muted clamor of kids and dogs, especially in the evening. At dusk, in the summer, the hilly neighborhood folded up around you like a blanket. You could camp out in the backyard and watch the sky turn pink. But I’m the one who moved away first before Amy did.

The children ran free like wild things and lived on ice cream from the truck that rolled down Ontario Street, beckoning with a jangly, tinny tune. They drank the Kool-Aid and ate the cookies I gave them and scraped their knees and accepted the Band-Aids I scrounged out of a drawer. They “helped” me in the garden by digging up newts and rocks until I couldn’t stand the distractions anymore and had to shoo them home for a while. Their pale, streaked faces looked up into mine when they’d taken a tumble and I’d asked them if they were okay. Their hair and hands smelled of earth, and sugar candy and the funny pages, which still caught children’s interest then.

The street on which my father’s parents lived in Toledo, Ohio — Victoria Place, with its huge oak trees and majestic front doors—had a house of many children, too. The neighborhood was turning (a racist comment), that my grandmother used to make, grimly, softly. The family name of the house of many children was Martin; I never once saw the parents, who seemed to have abandoned the oldest girl, Ann, to care for the brood of a dozen grubby little ones.

My grandmother, whom I called “Nana,” with soft vowels, “Aaah,” had eyes in the back of her head, as she said, and my grandparents’ house wasn’t an easy place for mischief, unless it was instigated by my grandfather, my “Pa.” The house of many children was a wellspring of cruel, destructive, and delicious pranks. My sister, Rachel, and I would sneak down the street with them and watch, guiltily and with glee, when they would stuff a sack with dog poop, light it and leave it on a neighbor’s doorstep, ringing the door bell. We laughed ourselves silly when tan occupant ran out to stomp out the fire only to soil his shoes. Or they would fill someone’s mailbox with shaving cream. Or feed peanut butter to the neighborhood dogs so their jaws became glued shut and their heads bobbed spasmodically as they tried to pry the goo off the roofs of their mouths.

But all was not carefree at the house of many children. The everyday nurturing that Rachel and I took for granted was not provided there. I nearly gagged one day when Maggie—a self-reliant waif, halfway between Rachel and me in age—sniffed at several bowls and cups festering in the sink, to find the least rancid ones in which to have a snack and a drink of water. Their house was a shambles; their faces dirty and streaked; their clothing tattered. To buy hot dogs, candy, soda and other summertime staples, Johnny and Justin, one of two pairs of twins, and my age, but seemingly worlds older, scrounged deposit bottles door-to-door, toting them in a red wagon with crooked wheels, and cashing them in for nickels at the grocery store. Tom and Al, the older boys, washed cars, mowed lawns and pawned things from their house—and other people’s houses too.

Though we savored their wildness and freedom, Rachel and I were a little wary of the Martins. When we tired of din and chaos, we walked back, past four or five houses, to the shade of the oak trees in the front yard and the sunny flower garden in the back yard. Inside the house, we could play with my grandmother’s collection of ceramic dogs or sit in the landing at the top of the stairs, with its magazine table filled with sewing notions, playing cards and my Pa’s word games.

Sometimes Pa would beckon to one or two children passing by the house to join him on the porch. Then more children would appear, as sparrows do, after you feed the first one. They were uncouth and raucous, jostling each other for a place at my Pa’s feet. Nana made a show of being annoyed, saying, “Oh Dale, you can’t adopt every child in town.” Then she would reappear with freshly baked raisin muffins. Pa had a magical, taming effect on the wild children. When they bickered or fought over the food, he’d settle them down with one look, so gently, it hardly seemed like discipline. “No manners, no treats,” he’d say. Referring to a cartoon book of ill bred youngsters, he’d ask, “Are you a goop?” After he’d shared the food — muffins or waxy, cheap hand-dipped ice cream cones from a carton he’d spirited from the basement—with five or six or eight or ten urchins, Pa would teach us rhymes, like:
“Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear
Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair
Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?”

Or he would sing a snatch of a popular song, like, “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamsy d ivy; a kiddlede diivy too, wouldn’t you?” Though he did not finish high school, because World War I came along, Pa loved words, and word games, and reading, and funny expressions, like, “He’s so crooked, he could dive through a barrel of pretzels and not get salt on ‘im,” or “I’m so hungry, I could eat the hind end out of a hobby horse.” Or he was say, that someone was “more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Sometimes he’d sit and coax the children to take turns struggling through the funny papers, because he knew they didn’t much help with homework at home. A favorite was “Family Circle,” with its single, circular frame, chubby kids, and episodes from the children’s point of view, and childish drawings of the characters. Sitting on the porch, the Martins seemed less feral, and I felt safe and surrounded by good cheer.

My grandfather collapsed unexpectedly from an aneurysm on September 14, 1970. I was nine and a half. The call came in the morning from my Aunt Katie, my father’s brother’s wife. My grandfather had been rushed to the hospital. That night my aunt called again to say that he had died on the operating table. My father staggered a few feet from the upstairs hall telephone and sat down hard on the bed in my room. “My mother was there at my father’s side, pleading for him to share his feelings with her. “What Dick, what?” My sister and I were there, absorbing my parents’ grief, wordlessly, through our eyes, through our skin. The dog, Hector, a gruff old mutt, burrowed his head between my father’s hands. Then, my father sank over and allowed himself to cry into Hector’s patchy black hair.

Our family flew the five hundred miles to Toledo; it was the only time we spent the money to fly. We stayed at my grandparents’ house on Victoria Place. Before we left on the day of the funeral, Rachel and I played underneath the big oak in the front yard, making tiny men from sticks and using acorns for their heads. There was an emptiness on the street and a wound in the world, like the great gash from lightning through the tree in my aunt and uncle’s yard, next door. A tornado had ripped the mighty tree open. Half the tree died and rotted away, but half lived, gummed over with black tar. A little more died every year until the gash swallowed up the tree and one morning my Great Uncle Gordon, my grandmother’s sister’s husband, had men come and take the tree away.

My father and mother were not religious, nor am I today, but I made a cross, smaller than my palm, out of twigs lashed together with green strips of bark. I carried it in my pocket and I believed that if I had the courage to drop it in Pa’s coffin, to lay it on his chest, that he would come back to life. I was willing to try any magic there was to make him be alive on the front porch again, telling stories, making us share. I wanted him to tease a smile out of Nana, to sing a silly song, to fill the rooms with warmth again.

So many people loved my grandfather. They all came to the funeral, neighbors, my mother’s side of the family too, people who had known my Pa for half a lifetime, half a century. When we came home to Victoria Place, I looked at the mantle with its hundreds of cards, doubled and tripled in layers because there were so many. Nana saw me looking. Her face tight with the tears she couldn’t cry, she handed me a card. I looked at it; on the outside was a dove, all glitter and cheap iridescence, bought with those hard-sought nickels. On the inside, wobbly and smudged, were the signatures of the inhabitants of the house of many children.

Later as an adult, it seems to me that their sending that card, since there was no adult guidance in their lives, was one of their first steps into an adult world and my knowing that they would miss my Pa too makes my mourning, as it cascades back into the past, a shared thing, if not easier.