My father’s house is no mansion

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by Jackie Alfonso | April 1, 2009 • When uncle Walter bought an acre and built a house for his family, he also convinced my parents to build. He would be the contractor, so it would be affordable. So it happened that when I was four, we moved into a finished basement – the house would come later.

The basement came about a yard above the soil level. There was a box stuck on one end for the door, and at the other end was the chimney. Inside there was one big space that was kitchen, dining, and living room. There was a bathroom with a shower and a drain in the floor, and behind the bathroom was the “utility room” for water softener, furnace, etc. There was one bedroom for the parents, with closet space between it and the bedroom for two children. When our great-grandmother moved in, and the third child was born, there were six people.

Uncle Walter, while earnest, was not a very good builder of basements in clay soil. The upshot was that all the furniture was put up on bricks in spring, and we wore galoshes in the house. My father tried every wet basement gimmick on the market, and finally had a dry basement in his last years.

Six years later, the real house went up, and we all got to participate, priming siding, carrying tools, keeping the yard tidy for the contractor. We were very proud to help, proud to have a real house. Many people in our area went through this process. It was so very much like what it must have been to live in a “soddie” in South Dakota, we felt like pioneers, not like deprived children.

Every Sunday, our mother’s stepfather came to dinner. He always brought a bag of
M & M candies, and a quarter each for my brother and me (and later our sister). Mother’s sister came to spend weekends after she moved to Minneapolis, often bringing friends. Our cousins lived next door for a few years, and then they moved to a bigger house and strangers moved in – strangers who would become very dear to us.

Across the street was a post-war housing block: 12 quonsets with a family at each end, 24 families with children all the same ages. If we counted the people in real houses, there were 116 children under 12 on the block. A great time for hide and seek in the gloaming, building snow forts, tree houses, climbing over and under everything. We all left home after breakfast, reappeared at lunch, and had to be called in after dark. An amazing way to learn the realities of existence.

Today we have an offer to buy my father’s house. We three know it must be done, and at the same time we all hear the echoing of kick the can and capture the flag, rolling down the block. There is no way to save that essence other than as the inner reality with which we go forward.

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