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Our House's Homemade Character

I grew up in the house my father built. For 50 years, Dad owned and operated the Chevy garage on Main Street in our small town in Wisconsin. We lived in a small gray bungalow just behind it.

My father was no carpenter. But more important, he was a happy man, an optimistic bohemian who chose to overlook "minor flaws" and celebrate the positive whether in buildings, people, or the affairs of everyday life. My feisty and pessimistic Irish mother, on the other hand, was ever concerned that doom lay around every corner. Amazingly, they made a lively go of it for 52 years.

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At my mother's knee, I listened to "Hickory, Dickory Dock," "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater," and also:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile, .... And they all lived together in a crooked little house.

At the time, I was too small to know I was growing up in a house every bit as crooked as the one in the nursery rhyme. Our house loomed asymmetrically into the low-hanging branches of box elder and evergreen. Like the Maunesha River at the end of our street, it widened and narrowed in the most unlikely places. One wall of the upstairs hallway bellied out; its surface rippled and swelled like a fun-house mirror.

You had to keep your wits about you when descending the stairs. The second step from the bottom was shallower than the rest. Just as you hit a steady cadence, the narrow riser upset your physical and mental equilibrium. It wasn't nearly as bad going upstairs because the jolt hit you early, before you were lulled into a false sense of security.

Dad wasn't into practical planning or traffic patterns. The living room was smaller than the dining room, you had to go through the living room to reach the bedroom, and through the dining room to answer the front door. The wiring was hazardous, and the heating system was inadequate, partly because the windows fit so loosely.

That last flaw paid summer dividends, however. The vines on the outside of the house crept through the crevices and crawled across my ceiling, making my bedroom a private summer arbor.

Closets, kitchen cupboards, an upstairs bathroom, and insulation were afterthoughts added through the years. When Dad added cupboards in the kitchen, he put up shelves and covered them with thin sheets of varnished plywood. The doors were rectangles cut out of the panels. Narrow strips of dark molding covered the raw edges. Dime-store hinges and latches completed the project.

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One of Dad's more successful improvisations was the cellar door. The basement doorway and a bedroom doorway stood at right angles. He installed a door that could be closed at the top of the basement steps, or swung 90 degrees and latched as a bedroom door. The only drawback was that both areas could not have a closed door at the same time. His gloating was positively sinful as he swung that door back and forth, forth and back, amazed anew at his own ingenuity as he demonstrated the door for his goggle-eyed audience.

The back door was crooked, and that created a strange optical illusion. Was the back porch sliding away from the house at the bottom edge? Or was the door sliding into the house at the top edge? That topsy-turvy entryway resembled a lop-sided grin.

Every house has a story to tell. This one shrugged and knew the laugh was on it. But like a lovable person, it had the talent of adroitly turning its wit upon itself. "What the heck!" it seemed to say.

The porch-swing planning was off a bit. A push sent the thing banging into the windowsill just a mite below the glass pane, but as Dad always said, "An inch is as good as a mile." We never discussed philosophy in our house, we lived it.

Beyond the porch, three box elders shaded the side yard. Grandfather had planted them when I was born. Maybe a Depression baby rated Depression trees, for there are those who call them the weeds of the tree world. They grow too easily and too well. Members of the maple family, they are considered poor relations - soft skeletons in a hardwood closet. They dropped winged seeds on the sidewalk and attracted myriad black and orange bugs each spring.

IN any case, the trees set a worthy example. They cradled my hammock and supported my swing. Simple, honest, sturdy, and unpretentious, they grew into fine shade trees that didn't believe in putting on airs.

By this time you know that this house, a not-so-livable but very lovable disaster, had a rare personality. Please also know, I am not poking fun. We only josh (as Dad would say) with those we hold in honor and in love. And I have come to believe that walking on sloping floors is far less dangerous than walking on eggshells - in the long run, that is.

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