“The Power of Whose Domain?”

2 Jan

Grandpa and Grandma MapesMapes Farm House

Perspectives > Voices

The Power of Whose Domain?

Kathryn Mapes

• Sat, April 17, 2010 , in The Forum

The year I turned six was the year my grandmother died and the state of New York took the family homestead in Monticello for the rerouting of Hwy 17. Grandpa had told the authorities that he wasn’t leaving the farm until his wife died and that was final. In November, soon after my father arrived to pay his last respects, Grandma Lela died in my grandparents’ bedroom upstairs, the same bedroom where she had given birth to my father, and the house was effectively silenced. However, in the fifties children weren’t always included in deathbed rituals or funerals, and that is how it was that I arrived at the house on the spring day it was due to be demolished, not having participated fully in her death or feeling that she had actually passed on.

Built in the twenties, on the burned remains of the old sanitarium that had served as the previous farmhouse, the three-story house was a side by side with a wraparound porch and a rose trellis. On a clear day at the highest point on the farm one could see both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Below the road in front of the house, the black-eyed Susan-bedecked hillside dropped off sharply to the new racetrack beneath. Already “progress” had begun encroaching on an older, more sedate way of life.

When my mother and I walked inside, the first change I noticed was the gaping hole that the demolition crew had left in my grandmother’s kitchen wall, a hole that enabled them to get from one side of the house to another. It seemed like a violation of her very self, an invasion of the place where she had made her pies and cakes and her famous molasses cookies, and where the only pet, Puddles the cat, that she had ever allowed inside her kingdom, had been first rescued from a heavy rain by my grandfather, and then allowed to stay behind her stove. In the kitchen pantry where I had “stolen” the same cookies and sampled mint jelly and canned onion rings, I stood silently, trying to make contact with her presence.

Stepping through the large hole in the wall, a hole that was a smaller version of the mile-wide valley that had been blasted through the red shale in the back forty, I walked into my aunt and uncle’s kitchen, and then up the stairs and back into my grandparents’ side of the house, the part of the house that held the most memories and the part where I felt the most comfortable. I looked into the bathroom at the top of the stairs that had replaced the old six-holer in the backyard, and watched the breeze lift the polka-dot curtains lightly, marveling that no one would ever use the bathroom again. Next, I looked into my aunt’s old bedroom where I had fallen asleep to the dull grind of the trucks on Route 17. In my father’s and uncle’s room next door love letters from my father’s high school girlfriend wafted in a draft from the open window, apparently overlooked by my grandfather in the move. The final upstairs room held the most power for me. Here was where my grandmother had spent her final days, in an oxygen tent, the cancer having finally traveled to her lungs.

On down the stairs to the living room, where she had worked her crossword puzzles and down through the now-tall grass to the swing where she had swung me so high that I could see over the tops of the trees near the road. When she was alive, she would half-walk, half-run with me, her bathrobe falling open as she moved up (She was wide-hipped, a feature she shared with her sisters and had what my grandfather fondly referred to as the Scheuren bottom.) and lifted me onto the large wooden seat. Then she would recite Robert Louis Stevenson:

“How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside-”

She had embarrassed her own children with public renditions of “O Captain, O Captain!,” but she seemed to know that she had a captive and delighted audience in me, and she reveled in it. She would throw her head back and laugh, her white hair framing her broad German face, and when she had finished “The Swing” she would move on to songs she had memorized from the Methodist hymnal. After she died, my mother found a note in her hymnal, “Remember to show this to Kathy.”

As I further reconnoitered the property for familiar landmarks, I climbed over a limestone fence. I came across a gnarled apple tree under which I had played, and nearby an old porch swing that had been used for relaxing while picking huckleberries, and an old mattress that had evidently been discarded in the move. Close at hand I found a small planting of butter and eggs right in the place where I had been accustomed to picking them. Some of the things (if not the people) that had mattered to me were still in their proper places.

In front of the barn additional flotsam was caught in the tall grass, including a mounted black and white picture of a train wreck. On the back was scrawled the name Clara Carpenter, the name of my grandfather’s closest cousin. I picked it up and looked at the wreck closely and placed it under my arm. I now had a “treasure” I could take home with me-someone else’s tragedy, now become an object of fascination. My mother motioned me to the car and we stood in awful silence as the wrecking ball careened into the side of the house, smashing it-my grandparents’ home- into smithereens.

It was also published in the Sullivan County Democrat in the Down the Decades column on Tuesday, October 19, 2010 and in a second column the following week.

Mapes Farm 2

Mapes Farm 1

3 Responses to ““The Power of Whose Domain?””

  1. dh January 2, 2014 at 12:57 am #

    If you ever write about my ass and publish it in the newspaper I will be very disappointed.

  2. I promise to never write about your ass! You are so funny. I just had to chuckle. I just put the article up. You’re a quick reader.

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