The following essay by Mrs. Edison Davenport of Mackeys, N.C. (Washington County) won third place in the state in the A.C.W.W. essay competition “The Rural Home.”
“Suitsme! What a clever name for your place!” My neighbor left off hanging out clothes and came to the fence to look at the little sign Joe Polack had just hung.
“Guess people’ll think it doesn’t take much to suit me, if this does,” I laughed. My glance took in the white frame cottage with green blinds, the newly mowed lawn and the riot of red roses on fence and trellis.
Joe Polack gave me a queer look as he straightened up from picking up the hammer he’d dropped. Instantly I was ashamed, ashamed that I had spoken so lightly of the much I had when he and his sad-eyed wife had so little. His name was not really Joe Polack, but some unpronounceable Polish one. We village folks had dubbed him Joe Polack when Father William installed him and his family of five in the humble little house at the edge of the village.
“I had a good little house too back home in Poland,” Joe said in his funny, broken English. “And a good business making shoes before….” He left the sentence unfinished and that haunted look came into his eyes. It was always there when he spoke of the horrors of that time. He turned abruptly and went around the house to finish mowing the grass.
My neighbor when back to her clothes line, but I stood where they’d left me looking at the new sign. It lacks a lot of suiting me, I thought. What woman is ever completely satisfied with her home! I tried to excuse myself for my light remark about my adequate little home. I still have plans and dreams for it, but if those dreams never materialize, it is comfortable, fairly attractive and full of priceless memories.
My thoughts went back 25 years to the way it looked when we moved in, a bleak January day in the middle of the depression. Like Joe, we had a much more pretentious house in those pre-depression days and my husband had a good mercantile business in a thriving little Carolina home. But both house and business where swept away in the debacle of 1929 and we were back where we’d started 10 years before with the exception of our three growing children and our dreams for them.
Like Joe and his family of five, we, too, were displaced persons. Even so, we were much more fortunate than Joe. We had somewhere to go, back to the old homestead where my husband’s people had lived for generations. We were fortunate in securing work, my husband with a wholesale concern and I a position as teacher in the consolidated village school.
“The house is large enough for all of us,” my husband’s mother said generously and then giving me a bright, keen look added laughingly, “but Mary will agree with me when I say ‘Not even in those mansions on the heavenly plan can two women live happily who love the same man.’”
How wise and understanding she was! I gave her a squeeze and contributed my bit of nonsense, “For while on their golden harps they sing and play, their words and wings and music get in each other’s way.”
The very satisfactory outcome of our poetic little spasm was that we were to have our choice of one of the tenant houses on the farm.
And so not long after a truck filled with all our worldly belongings backed up to the narrow front porch of the weatherbeaten little five room house and we moved in, grateful for shelter, warmth and privacy.
The years that followed are full of memories of good times and bad, of struggles with the frozen pump on the wind-swept back porch, wood stoves and ashes, kerosene lamps, out-door toilets, flies and mosquitoes, ice men who forgot to bring ice, weeds and bare, hard-swept yards.
Before the end of the first summer there came a day of celebration when my husband and small son finished screening the windows and the porches. We celebrated by throwing away the smudge can and having lemon ade and cookies on the insectless front porch.
There was plenty of wood on the farm and the faithful old Wilson heaters kept us warm, while the kerosene lamps did their bit to dispel the gloom as we hovered under them on winter evenings to read and study. The following Christmas an Aladin mantle lamp replaced the three glass lamps on the living room table and scattered us about the room to more comfortable reading distances.
By the next summer the weeds had disappeared from the yard, but only a few venturesome sprigs of grass dared to peep through the hard-packed earth, mindful of their losing battle against former vigorously plied yard brooms. The view from under the high front porch of the wash pot and wood pile in the back yard was not inspiring, to say the least, and the unobstructed view of the sagging, dejected looking out-door toilet didn’t improve the scenery.
That spring I joined the local Home Demonstration Club and attended the spring federation meeting. The speaker took her text on underpinning and screening with native shrubs. I could scarcely wait to get back home to raid the woods for gall berry, myrtle, dogwood and redbud to set out to hide the view, but was far too impatient to wait for them to grow.
I talked underpinnings incessantly and soon made a convert of my husband who sent the local handy man up to take the necessary measurements. It wasn’t long before neat green lattice work shut off the view of wash pot and wood pile and a high lattice fence between the front and back yard served the same purpose for the not-so-decorative toilet.
By the next spring, I was an enthusiastic home demonstration member and even had the audacity to enter my yard in the yard beautification contest. I saw no reason why my few springs of grass and punny shrubs shouldn’t be judged beautiful. They were beautiful to me. The judges went around the yard, taking notes and making suggestions. Finally they stopped at my special pride and joy, a newly planted climbing rose. Looking from the wee bus to the towering trellis above, one of the judges remarked dryly, “We’ll have to give you credit for optimism, Mrs. Davenport.”
Optimism and youth were about all we had in those years, but they paid off in rich dividends of happiness, family cooperation and an ever growing pride in our little home.
Painting the house the next fall was a family affair with my husband doing most of the work and the children and I displaying more energy and enthusiasm than skill as house painters. By Christmas the inside as well as the outside was pick and span with new paint, and we felt that the Ultima Thule of good things had been reached when Santa brought the family a battery radio set.
That was the winter I tried cooking by long distance and discovered that even water can’t be boiled successfully while listening to Kate Smith bring the moon over the mountain four rooms removed from the kitchen stove. Despite the burned biscuits, overcooked vegetables and overdone meats, it was a grand experience, and our living room was often filled with friends and neighbors.
The children were in high school now and the radio was an attraction for the young people who invariably trooped out to the kitchen sometime during the course of the evening for a raid on the ice box or to make a pan of chocolate fudge. This custom finally brought on a domestic upheaval joked about in the family to this day and energetically engineered by myself at the time.
That particular evening my husband and I left the living room up to the young people and and settled ourselves in bed with books and papers for the dual purpose of improving our minds and keeping from freezing. The arrangement of the house was not conducive to privacy with one room, then the living room, across a narrow hall, and the other four rooms in a long ell opening into one another and out to the back porch. Ordinarily the young people made their raids on the kitchen via the long back porch, but that night they chose to avoid the cold outside by going through the house. My husband and I gave vehement, but muffled protest from underneath the blankets over our heads, but to no avail. When they were all back in the living room one more we came out from under cover and I vowed that I would make some arrangements for more privacy the very next day.
When my husband came home the next evening I had literally turned the house front side back. He found himself sleeping where the kitchen had been, with walls and ceiling a little begreased, it is true, but heavenly private. The girls’ bedroom across the hall where the living room had been was private too, and Bill drew the semi-privacy of the studio couch in the dining room.
“But this was the kitchen!” my dear bewildered family kept saying. “Whoever heard of sleeping in the kitchen!” After such unorthodox doings my husband and children concluded that they never need by surprised at anything I did.
Soon the sound of hammering was heard from our small house far into the night and beneath the blows the walls between the living room and hall, like the walls of Jerico, came tumbling down. When the debris was cleared away we found ourselves with a nice, big living room 22 by 15 feet, opening into a 15 by 15-foot dining room. Dusty pink walls, built-in book shelves, a mulberry rug with blue and mulberry draperies worked a transformation and the coming of the power line with the installation of electric lights made the metamorphasis complete for the time being.
The next years were full of getting the children through college and two of them married. We had scarcely gotten accustomed to being grandpa and grandma before World War II was upon us and our son left his little family to enlist with Uncle Sam and our youngest daughter joined the Marines.
I tried to take our son’s place in the store, but despite my assiduous efforts, the proverbial bull in the China shop had nothing on me in a hardware store. When the war was over and our son was back, my husband succumbed to a nervous break down from the strain of trying to make a hardware saleswoman out of me.
“It would be much more sensible of you folks would move to town where your business is,” our friends often said to us during those difficult war years of driving under gas rationing. We admitted they were right and even bought a lot in town and consulted an architect about plans for a house, ironically deciding upon a four bed room house with a recreation room in the basement now that our children were grown and we no longer needed it.
While we debated and discussed the matter of building one year slid into another and we found ourselves making changes and improvements in our little home with the view to renting it, if and when we built in town. We made a bath room at the end of the back porch and closed in the rest of the porch as a utility room. The much ridiculed kitchen bedroom still remains the bed room, conveniently opening into the bath and boasting a big closet, new floor and new walls painted a soft grey with yellow curtains and bed spread. It is here with the sun streaming in through the south window on winter mornings that I read and write and spent many a contented hour with no need for long distance cooking, as it joins the kitchen.
The kitchen, too, has undergone a face lifting with new walls and floors, electric stove, cabinets, refrigerator and automatic washing machine forming a U with the double sink unit occupying the end under the two south windows that overlook my favorite corner of the lawn. Across the room under two large windows, giving cross ventilation, is the breakfast nook looking out upon trees and shrubs which fully justified the optimism of those first years.
Prodded by the children to come to town where they are all living, we revive our building discussion at intervals, but always wind up by laying the plans away while my husband says, “In another year or two perhaps we’ll build. Now is not a good time.”
“By then,” I usually add, “the trees and shrubs on our lot will be much larger. I just can’t bear the idea of a brand new house with no shade.” But both of us know we’re not deluding ourselves nor each other: we really have no desire for a new house; our hearts are too deeply rooted here. Here I stand reminiscing! The new name came suddenly into focus.
The children and grandchildren, all 16 of them, were coming for supper to celebrate the installation of our new television set. There was the asparagus to cut and the strawberries to pick. No time to be sentimentalizing! Suitsme! Not a bad name at all! The new sign was a little obscured by the mist in my eyes.
“All through, Mrs. Davenport!” Joe Polack came around the corner and saw me standing where he’d left me still looking at the name plate.
“It’s good,” he said, his eyes too resting upon the name.
“Very good, Joe,” I replied. “And there’s no reason why you couldn’t have one just as good some day.”
“Sure!” Joe flashed me a white toothed smile as he jingled the money I gave him in his pocket. “America is a good country.”
“Suitsme!” I said laughingly over my shoulder as I hurried into the house.
This essay is located in the Special Collections Research Center at D.H. Hill Library, N.C. State University, Raleigh.