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Issue Date: May 2006 Issue


Life and Time

A final tour of the house the writer grew up in offers a bridge reaching back 52 years to the family with the little brown dog who once called it home.


Michael D. Roberts
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com

The house was cold and quiet. The heat had been lowered and the spring chill lingered as I walked the barren rooms, my steps a hollow tread. The recollections of a half-century flicked by in a mental slide show: the Sunday dinners, the little brown dog, my brother’s monkey swinging in the Christmas tree, Fleetwing the racing pigeon who preferred to walk rather than fly, the old 1953 Chevy, the first television set, my sister’s pesky ways, the smack of a thousand tennis balls on the back of the garage and the smell of the wisteria vine.

I was a hostage to the memories in the house on Oak Park Boulevard in Garfield Heights. The modest home, built right after World War II, was the kind that began the migration from the city to the suburbs.

I paused in the room where my father died. A smoker, he slipped away on an early October evening after a bout with cancer. I watched him die with a half brother whom I had met only that evening.

My mother had lived in the house for 52 years, and at 93 last year, she finally agreed to assisted living. It was time to clean the house of its memories and make way for another family.

The house had accumulated things like metal filings to a magnet. I went through a stack of newspapers in the attic and found a copy of The Plain Dealer carefully wrapped in plastic proclaiming the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I had a byline somewhere deep in the paper. I had asked for it that night, eager for a piece of history.

Pristine copies of Life and Look magazines with their coverage of the assassination were there. In my solitude, the memory of those awful days came back in a haunting rush.

Letters from World War II correspondence with my uncles who were off in deserts, villages, valleys and high ground somewhere in Africa and Europe were piled in stacks. Ration books testified to the rigors of life here.

In a drawer, I found report cards for us three kids, documents that I had no intention of reviewing. But I was proud of the punctuality award I received in 1953. There in a corner was a faded picture of the little brown dog.

Every day at 3:45 p.m., the little brown dog would run to the front yard and await my father’s return from work at the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. The dog slept in a cupboard beneath the oven and would startle visitors when she would alight from her place.

One of the saddest days in the house was when the dog disappeared. She was old, and Dad took her to be put down with no advance warning to any of us. He would never get another dog.

The rooms were once warm and lively, smelling of frying chicken, apple pie and Prince Albert pipe tobacco. On one of those freezing winter days, there was no better place than the warm kitchen.

The high school yearbooks were still there, upstairs in the alcove. I wiped the dust from the cover of one from Garfield Heights High School. Next to the fresh faces were handwritten inscriptions wishing one well in life.

I paused at two of the pictures. Old pals from the first-grade — Tom Harrison and Bob Gibson — both gone now, Tommy in a car wreck down South and Gibby suddenly one day like the snap of the fingers.

In the basement was the room that we had dug out for the printing press I bought from Chandler & Price for $75. (The company trucked it from its downtown headquarters free.)

But it weighed a ton. One ton. When my father came home from work and saw it in the driveway, he scratched his head and asked me why I bought it. I thought about being a printer, I said.

He had to remove the doorway and get a block and tackle to get it into the basement. And, years later, he had to break it apart for scrap to remove it.

Dad paid $10,000 for the house. We moved in on March 1, 1954, in a snowstorm so fierce it left drifts as high as my waist in places. The strange new surroundings did not feel much warmer.

The spacious upstairs room allocated to my brother and me was not heated, and we went for several years before a furnace was installed in the room. We used to pull the blankets over our heads and listen to the old plastic Philco radio.

That radio saw us through the summer of 1954, a baseball season both memorable and sorrowful as the Tribe won 111 games, then lost the World Series to Willie Mays and the New York Giants.But we had the real Browns then, a triumphant team in which the city took immense pride.

We spent a lot of time in the tiny kitchen. I remember reading The Cleveland Press at the table on July 4, 1954, the morning after Marilyn Sheppard was murdered. We knew of Dr. Sam Sheppard for he had operated on Mother’s back to correct a painful disc problem.

She was always grateful to him, even after he was charged with murdering his wife.

We kids gradually left the house, but it remained a beacon and a refuge between school, jobs, Vietnam and marriage. At first we continued to celebrate our holidays there. But as the family grew, the house became too small to accommodate.

The place held so much of us. And as I made my solitary stroll through its rooms, I was seized by its emptiness.

The house was not the melancholy in me as I patrolled. It was the soul that was no longer in the house, the life and time that had been a family with a dog, stew simmering on the stove, church on Sunday and good neighbors long gone.

Time is a mercurial traveler, I thought as I said farewell, closed the door and wished the next inhabitant the joy, happiness and shelter that the house had offered us.


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