The Back Room at 3671

My father’s idea of maintenance was to ignore any and all upgrades.  He was not one to pre-plan or estimate the improvements a home might need over a period of years.  Thus, nothing was ever updated until it had completely broken and there was no choice but to fix it.  Like the cobbler’s children, we didn’t get new floor coverings or carpet until the old was absolutely worn and used up.

The back bedroom had been added on with Daddy’s and Mom’s compliance; her aunt, Tante, needed a home and culture dictated that my folks provide at least the ground.  Tante had the money to build to her taste.  Unfortunately, she was scared of the gas heaters that were then available (she had survived the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake) so she waived any heat or suggested extension of heating in her “wing” of the house.

Thus, the backroom was always colder than the rest of the home and we used to joke how we could properly keep meat back there without a freezer.  When Uncle moved in, he accepted the circumstances and made the best of it, but not without turning the reality of his ice box quarters into a comic routine.

That room could be absolutely freezing in the winter time, dropping to the low 40’s.  Uncle would rise, warm his arthritic hands under the hot water faucet of the small half bath, then dress and come into the kitchen.  He always had a smile and witty remark to begin another day:

Rudolph sends his best! or

I just saw Santa fly by…

Mom couldn’t help but giggle.    When her only brother lived with us, even I understood my mother was more relaxed and less worried about him and we all benefited from her peace of mind.   What I perceived in child like terms was that his living with us meant he would eat regularly; the folks mentioned something about his drinking too much; this would come up now and then, even though they tried to keep it from us little ones.  I soon heard them describe my uncle as an alcoholic, whatever that meant.

All I knew was that I loved my Uncle Johnny dearly.  I would sit next to him on our sofa each evening.  He’d let me hold his warm pipe in my hands after he was through with that evening’s smoking.  I can still smell the Half and Half that was his favorite tobacco.  He’d sit and tell stories in funny voices, mimicking the radio programs of the past, reminding all in the room that “The Shadow Knows”… never once failing to fascinate this little girl.

At an early age, I was drawn to him.  He was one of the many mentors who treated me as a very special person.  Uncle Johnny would walk with me down the street to the store and always make sure I was on the inside of the sidewalk, away from the road.  He would explain:

Ladies always walk on the inside, Annette.  The gentleman walks on the outside to protect the lady from the dangers of the traffic.

From the time I was old enough to remember, I was one of his “ladies”.  Until his death, he carried my first grade photo in his wallet with the inscription “my sister’s angel” written in his hand on the back.

By the time Uncle had moved on and I inherited the back room as my own, the only items that kept me warm were the electric blanket and incandescent bulbs in the nightstand and desk lamps!  I told myself that my freeze-dried skin would keep me looking young for decades to come.

Of course, Daddy’s response to any of our complaints about the cold was that

It’s good for you!  …makes you strong!

Several years later, I’d drop by and see Daddy working over the morning figures from the stock market page, computing with pen and paper what his holdings totaled that day.  Any suggestion to him about remodeling the main bath for his and Mom’s comfort was met with the same indifference.  It wasn’t necessary; as he reiterated many times,

You’ll be happy one day; one quarter of this house will be yours.

Good. Then I want my old room back.

Hopefully, the termites would still be holding hands when that day came…