grapevineThe Magic Housegrapevine


Every once in a while I still ask after it.

It exasperates my mother, I think; "Falling apart, of course," she'll answer. "No one ever takes care of it anymore."

Perhaps the feeling about "the magic house" has always had something to do with the illusion of stepping back in time. It certainly wasn't due to memories of my grandparents--my dad's mother died when I was three and my grandfather was an equal product of his times and of the Old Country, crusty, prejudiced, and occasionally abusive in his younger days. He was not the sort of grandpa who made jokes and bounced you on his knee. He'd toiled six days a week digging ditches for the Providence Gas Company during his working life, and when he retired he wanted nothing more to do but plow and plant the vegetable gardens that covered the back yards of his property (and those belonging to his children who lived next door or across the street), listening to Italian records in his greenhouse and garage.

There is no one to really look after the house now. My bachelor uncle still lives there; always the quiet one, he worked with plants and growing things all his life, and as stiff as he is now, still keeps a bit of a garden where he is the happiest, but he's not fit enough to cope with the aging structure. The grandsons-in-law come help occasionally with a severe problem like a hole on the stairs, but each year the paint fades a little more, a bit more yellow creeps into the wallpaper and the matte linoleum, as if the house itself is trying to blend back into the past it came from.

From when I was tiny, visiting there on Saturday mornings was a ritual. While the other kids lolled in their pajamas watching cartoons until noon, by eleven I was seated in the broad front seat of the big 1958 Chevy driving from our house in what was then still called the "Speedway" section of Cranston (a race track was there in my dad's youth; earlier still it had been a trotting track) to the house on Farmington Avenue, still in the Cranston section of Silver Lake.

("The Lake," it was always called, and my inevitable question was always "Where's the lake, Daddy?" Even people his age--he was born in 1913--didn't remember, for it was a marsh even in his youth. In my own childhood the marsh was filled in and a supermarket built on the site. But at one time there had been a little lake there, snuggled at the foot of Neutaconkanut Hill.)

When we'd get there, parked on the steep slope of the hill, we'd walk through the iron gate--the oft-repeated admonition "shut the gate!" still rings in my head 38 years later; its clang in my childish brain was like the ringing of a great gate in a medieval epic--and up the sidewalk that also led to my aunt's house next door. A turn left under the grape arbor into the paved part of the yard (the precious grass and flowers up front were fenced away from childish feet; the backyard, with its concrete retaining wall that I loved to walk the edge of, was completely vegetables), and we were there. In the summer this area was covered by knotted and tangled grapevines, shady and cool in all but the most brutal heat wave.

Sometimes we'd first go in the hand-built greenhouse to say hello to Papa or in the cluttered garage that looked old enough to have been a barn and was filled with the same type of ironmongery, but always we would go inside to say hello to my eldest aunt, who played housekeeper for Papa and her bachelor brother along with keeping her own apartment--and husband and child--spotless.

The yard sloped from the front to the back, so that one entered "the cellar" from a sturdy green door set in the side of the house, rather than from inside the house, as in our basement, or from a set of flapped doors like at my godmother's house. You stepped down and were immediately in a plain, stone-walled room always cool, even in the warmest summer months. This was another of my mother's "sighs"--that although upstairs has been beautifully redecorated, a new stove installed back in the 50s, the family eternally met here in the cellar with its battered linoleum floor and faded paint and elderly table, and the big cast-iron black range that had been converted from wood to gas. My grandmother was not a well woman, and she should have been upstairs where it was warm.

To me it was always warm: the first thing you saw was a big old dark-wood sideboard that held a comforting statue of the Madonna, sometimes flowers, always had Italian cookies or Hershey miniatures or some type of candy on them: ribbon candy and Italian fruit slices and nuts at Christmas, more nuts and foil wrapped eggs at Easter, conversation hearts at Valentine's Day, nuts and cookies at Thanksgiving. Straight ahead was a door that utilized the natural cold of the stone cellar as a pantry and wine cellar--my grandpa made his own, including a rich dark burgundy that made the finest wine biscuits and is sorely missed--and next to it was the big long old fashioned table with its blocky, carved legs and straight-backed plain chairs.

The table could seat 10 comfortably and on holidays often 12-14 of us squeezed in for an elbow- touch-elbow meal. It was the scene of everything that went on in the cellar: eating, drinking, playing games, drawing pictures. To protect its top--to this day I have never seen the actual top of that table!--my aunt had the green velvet and board folding tabletop protectors, covered with several layers of oilcloth. She'd buy a new oilcloth each year, but leave three or four of the old ones underneath so that the table looked like an old-fashioned girl in many petticoats. I would surreptitiously lift each layer, as I got older remembering which year it was associated with, and enjoying the differently colored, differently patterned, smooth shiny tops with their stiff woven undersides.

Other fascinating things included the built-in china cabinet painted a brick red, the ancient refrigerator with its motor on top, the big deep sink with its odd, old-fashioned faucets, and that big black range with its myriad doors and the round burner tops which had to be pulled out with an iron handle.

A horizontal board wall--just boards, painted a soft grey--divided this room from the rest of the cellar, which held pantry and tool shelves, the oil tank, a beautiful old icebox with a wood exterior and a shiny white enamel inside, and quantities of old clothes and winter clothes stored for the summer and vice versa. There were knotholes in the boards and a bored child could go back there and peer through them at the chatting adults, playing spy or adventurer.

Upstairs, in the house proper, was a kitchen, connected to the dining room with a glass- windowed door, something called a "den" which was a big bare room with linoleum floor and an elderly sofa-bed, and the living room, which still had the iron gas fixtures that had been converted to electricity. From the den a steep narrow stair led up to the one bathroom with its white porcelain X-faucet fixtures, three largish bedrooms (only one with a closet!--and the mysterious door to the attic) and a tiny room big enough only for a single bed and one dresser.

The Magic part of the house, however, didn't happen ordinarily. It could be found some evenings, or on dark rainy mornings, but Christmas was where it lived in the most glory.

Whether it was snowy or not, emerging from our house on Christmas Eve always had a fairylike feeling from the start. The air was crisp and cold, any stars bright diamonds on a black velvet background. There was an excitement in going out after dark, even if it was just to Papa's, and if it had snowed, the crunch and squeak of it underfoot were magnified in the muffled world the snow always created.

The warmth of the cellar would embrace you when you opened the door. Surely my aunt had been cooking all day, because the air was steamy with food from supper just cleared. The room was full of relatives talking, still eating, having a quick smoke. You were hugged and kissed, coats and hats and scarves were taken, and then you were drawn into the hubbub yourself. The sideboard was piled deep with not just the usual treats, but with huge plates of Italian holiday cookies: wine biscuits, molasses cookies, almond bars, pizelles, and other goodies like coconut macaroons. Ribbon candy and candy fruit slices and tiny boxes of Torrone occupied another dish. There might be Whitman's chocolates or other boxed confections.

Despite a full supper you would be offered dessert and coffee, and when you could barely rise from your seat after those treats, the table was cleared for business. For days we had been saving pennies, carried with us in a paper lunchbag. Now the cards came out, and the Pokeno boards with them. Three piles of pennies were formed. Everyone, including the kids, could play as we used the poker chips to match the cards called with the rows of cards on the game boards. The excited shouts of "Corners!" or "Middle!" or "Bingo!" (a row in any direction) filled the air, along with the clinking transfer of pennies.

We kids probably could have played all night, but the grownups tired after about an hour. The women would gather to talk--stuff we really wouldn't have heard any other time of year, about marital troubles and miscarriages and other mysterious adult stuff--while the men played poker. As they got older, some of the cousins, both boys and girls, learned how to play as well. It was fine with me. It left me to disappear, to slowly make my way up the cellar steps to the back entry, and thus to the kitchen.

As always it was dark, except for a nightlight, in a room that looked as if it hadn't changed since the 1940s. The newest appliance was the big white-and-chrome Roper stove with its two ovens, seated like a squat monarch overlooking a tiny kingdom. The table, looking like a dwarf compared with its big cousin downstairs, was covered with a red-checked cloth, and with the glass-fronted kitchen cabinets and the homey little memorabilia on the walls and side tables, it looked like something out of a dream. Aunty never forgot the upstairs tables; cut glass dishes held ribbon candy and chocolates even here, and I'd be able to sneak a few more bites away from Mom's disapproving eye. But food was not the lure, but the light...

There was a soft glow from the dining room coming through the glass-paned door; to open it led you in a room from another century, furnished with the heavy sideboards and dining room set, and lit, like some enchanted glade, simply by the light of the Christmas tree. This had electric lights, of course, not the more dangerous candles, but these were always the original, large bulb sets, supplemented for many years by a dwindling few of the fascinating bubble lights. In those bulbs the ornaments flashed and glittered and twinkled: old molded glass fruits side-by-side with the Woolworth's balls both old--including clear ones from World War II--and new, the branches hung with the heavy old-fashioned icicles in lieu of the newer mylar ones. They danced in the little bursts of air that crept nevertheless under the cold windows and collided with the warmer air from the cast-iron radiators.

If I were truly alone, if one of the uncles had not crept upstairs to watch the big cabinet TV and fall asleep--"I'm just resting my eyes!"--on the capacious sofa, I could curl up on the floor under the tree where brightly wrapped gifts and the manger set sat, to smooth the cotton footing under the various statues, to move sheep into their proper places, and wonder what it had truly been like in Bethlehem on that night. If you laid back on the cold floor just right and looked up, there was a faerie path between the tree branches lit by color and glitter--if you could only walk forward, you too could be a part of the Magic. There was the quiet to think, to dream, but still comforted by the sounds of the party below and the faint murmur of Christmas stories playing on the television.

When times are the hardest or I am at my saddest, that old failing house comes to me in flashes, in a blink of an eye at work, in the touch of the light going off before bedtime, as if the Magic place is beckoning me to somehow go home, to mount those stairs again, to creep through the silence of the kitchen to what lies beyond. And I ache with homesickness, for how lovely it would be to break through time just once, to be able to go back, and dream among the Magic places once more.

   

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Grandma Lanzi in front of the house on Farmington Avenue. Year is uncertain, but it's before 1958. Probably late 1940s.      Michael and Mary Lanzi in the driveway of the house on Farmington Avenue. Probably 1948 or so.

 

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