When I was in second grade, our family moved to a huge house on Walcutt Road in Hilliard, Ohio. The house was actually a dilapidated mansion. There was a long carriage drive made of cinders that made a loop from the road to the house and back to the road. Steps led from the front door down a paved walk to granite columns where there had once been a gate. You could still see the rusted hinges attached to the granite, and one granite block, faced and polished like a tombstone, had a date carved in it.
Behind the house was a crumbling swimming pool, half filled with broken concrete, masonry blocks, and twisted metal—detritus from someone else’s life. Rainwater collected in the bottom of the pool and made an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. There was a covered walkway between house and garage and a mud room where you could take off dirty footwear. We kept a bag of dog food there, and each of us kids sampled it from time to time. It was crunchy, and the dogs seemed to like it.
A concrete veranda ran all along one side of the house with French windows opening on to it. We used to ride our tricycles (and sometimes even bicycles) on that veranda. It also made an excellent surface for drawing chalk hop-scotch squares.
Inside the house was grand. The French windows opened into a great room that ran the length of the entire house. Dividing the French windows on either side was a huge fireplace, and on the floor above it was a smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, a room we children were forbidden to enter without special permission. One end of this room had floor to ceiling bookshelves with a window nook between them and a window seat. A spent many a lazy afternoon on the seat reading. The other end was at the front of the house and opened off the entryway. We used to put up our Christmas tree at that end, huge trees that nearly brushed the ceiling covered with colored incandescent bulbs and metal icicles. Some of the lights were designed to blink, and we kids would lie on our backs under the tree and watch the changing colored patterns of light they would cast on the ceiling.
The house had a huge basement with a concrete floor. We kids used to roller skate down there. The laundry room was also down there with a door that opened out at the back of the house where the defunct swimming pool was. Mom had a wringer washer. It had a wash tub with an agitator, but after the clothes were washed, they had to be taken out and run through the wringer to squeeze the excess water out. Then she would put them in a basket and take them out and hang them on a clothes line to dry.
We lived there only three or four years, but the house and the time we spent there assumed mythic proportions in our collective memories. Mom loved that house. Though we were renters she felt it was hers in a way no other house ever did. My parents liked it so much that when the owner decided to sell, they tried to buy it. Dad went to the bank and applied for a mortgage. He was a laborer, working maintenance in a factory, with a wife and eight kids. The bank told him that he could not afford a mortgage. He pointed out that the payments would be less than he was already paying in rent. The bank was immovable. A short time later someone else bought the place, and we had to move. We packed up all our goods and moved to a small house on Alum Creek near Groveport.
On the day we moved we took almost all our furniture, kitchen goods, and bedding, but we left behind our clothes, books, and the piano for the next day. We were moving in January. The house had a fuel oil furnace, and the new owner wanted to make sure it was ready for them to move in, so he had the fuel oil tank topped off. My dad had had the tank filled several times before and knew that the fill gauge was broken. Unless you were careful, you could overfill the tank, and the overflow would spill onto the basement floor. That is what happened that night. When the furnace turned on, the spark lit the spilled fuel oil and started a fire. The house was destroyed. We were able to salvage a few possessions from the rear of the house, but most of clothes and books were lost. We kids lost all our Christmas presents. We also found, before we went back to get things that might have been spared, looters had stolen everything of value that hadn’t been damaged by smoke or fire.
My mom took the loss especially hard. It wasn’t just the loss of the house and our things; it was also the way people we didn’t know behaved toward us. The Hilliard community, hearing of our loss, collected clothing for us. We got bags and bags of used clothing, most of it unusable. My mom went through much of it, snipping off buttons and ripping out zippers because she hated to waste anything useful, but she finally gave it up and threw away whole bags of other people’s cast-off clothing because it was unfit for any use but rags. I think this experience left her soured on the charity of other people for a long, long time. She saw that many people, perhaps most, were capable of giving possessions they would otherwise discard as useless while congratulating themselves on their own generosity. How tempting it is to give without feeling the price! How rare the person who insists on sacrifice!