19 January 2011

Post 298: Marybeth Cieplinski (guest blogger)

At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  ISBN: 9780767919388 (ARC - published October 5, 2010).

I read small sections of Bill Bryson's At Home propped up in bed before going to sleep, carefully held out of food range while eating meals, in doctors' waiting rooms, while waiting for my college classes to start, and in the bathroom. It's a big book. It's also crammed with so much information I could only read for so long before I had to put it down in order to absorb everything. The bibliography by itself is twenty-five pages! So much information gave me a lot to think about, but mostly it made me look at my own house, and the houses I grew up with, in a different way.

My parents' first house was a three-bedroom ranch that eventually held six people. We had to share the bedrooms and there was only one bathroom, making for cramped quarters. Dad eventually had to build a large family room (with a half bath attached) so we'd have somewhere to play without being underfoot He also built a bar-type counter so we would have more space to eat since there really wasn't a dining room. Within days, my mother had put a series of dents in the surface by trying to crack a jumbo jawbreaker for us. I often wonder if those dents, and the bar itself, are still there.

We only lived in the next house for eighteen months. My parents bought it because Dad had transferred to a new office and this particular house fit our immediate needs. It wasn't any bigger than the last one, though, and it had what is euphemistically called a "postage stamp" yard. If there was more than ten feet of grass on any side of that house I'd be amazed.

Dad hated the short, steeply sloping driveway that was impossible to keep clean in the winter, as well as the challenge of mowing the corresponding hill in the front yard. Mom hated the driveway, the neighborhood, the yard, and the house itself in no particular order. The short galley kitchen was also the entrance to the garage, and the water tasted like rotten eggs. The sunken family room came with a tank of guppies. Mom liked having complimentary fish until she personally experienced the reproductive proclivities of guppies. We left two tanks full for the new owners when we moved out.

My younger sister and I shared a room where we had to sit on the end of the bed in order to open the dresser's drawers. Mom insisted that the twelve foot cathedral ceiling deserved a Christmas tree to fit the space. She forgot we didn't own enough lights, garland or ornaments to decorate such a monster, so we only decorated the most visible area, zigzagging the lights and garland like a picture in a coloring book. Mom was thrilled when we moved, especially after all twelve of the mice in my older brother's science fair project escaped into the laundry room. We recaptured all of them, but it took a month and I don't think she ever viewed the house the same way again.

After that, my family moved to a huge house. Well, it seemed huge to me: three bedrooms with nice-sized closets, two full baths, a big family room with a small attached laundry room, and a dining room big enough for a trestle table and eight chairs. The kitchen had floor-to-ceiling bead-board cabinets and plenty of space to move around. There was an enclosed, finished back porch off the kitchen that eventually became a much larger laundry room. A small open porch off the family room was perfect for enjoying pleasant evenings, until the bats came out of the rafters and chased us inside. The living room had a full-length bay window that was echoed in the bedroom I shared with my sister. We got the largest, to make up for the previous shoebox. It held both a double and twin bed, two nightstands, a chest of drawers and dresser, and eventually at least a hundred wind chimes from my sister's vacations cruises. I loved that room.

The house had been moved from the center of town, a mile down the street, a few years before my parents bought it. The neighbors said they thought it was full of water because the glass in the downstairs windows was blue tinted. Mom did some research over the years and discovered that it was built in 1854 and had originally been a general store. The full-wall bookcase in the living was the store's front window, and the living room doorway was the door into the store itself. Over the years rooms were added on until, by the time it was moved, the trees along the road had to be severely trimmed to let it pass. When the house was lowered onto the new foundation, they found the basement rafters were pointing the same way as the floor joists, instead of at right angles. There was nothing to support the joists, so everything buckled and sagged. None of the floors were ever level again. One of our dogs quickly learned that she could drop a ball at the kitchen end of the dining room and chase it toward the living room. Liquids spilled at the dining table were best mopped up by going to the other end of the room and following the flow back to the source. The basement walls leaked like a fountain -- literally. I never got tired of going to the basement when it rained so I could watch jets of water shoot from the walls.

I lived in that house for seven years (not counting the two when my husband and I had to move back in with the family), and every time I flipped the light switch in my bedroom, there was an audible tinkling of broken plaster falling inside the wall. Bats made occasional forays into the house, thanks to gaps in the plaster between the roof rafters and the walls. One year, a hive of bees took up residence in Mom and Dad's bedroom wall. The humming was loud enough to interfere with television viewing or listening to the radio. The yard was a good two acres: maybe my parents' attempt to make up for the previous postage stamp. I often think fondly about that house. When my parents moved to Florida five years after I got married, I would gladly have bought the house myself if it had been possible.

Marybeth Cieplinski is what colleges euphemistically call a "non-traditional student," meaning she's next to older than dirt and just finished her BA in December.  Her immediate plans are to panic while attempting to finish her grad school admissions portfolio by the Feb 1 deadline.  Future plans are subject to change depending on when she gets out of bed in the morning.  She loves to write about almost anything but doesn't know when to stop.

LibsNote: The guest blogger borrowed the book from me, and I received it from the publisher's booth at ALA 2010.

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