The Big House
October 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
Presuming Daddy stays in the Big House
while he shops for a home of our own,
it’s possible, even likely, Mama, Bill, and I come too,
which makes it my first Gastonia domicile.
In any case, it’s where I first remember being
(in a high chair at the Sunday table)
and where I always feel secure.
Papa Torrence, who dies a dozen years before my birth, builds the “Big House” in his heyday, two blocks from his the Torrence Building on the northwest corner of South and Main, catty-corner to the Gray estate—which, by the time my generation comes along, has long since been demolished to become the southeast corner of commercial downtown: east on Franklin (Spargo’s Barber Shop, Penegar’s Office Supplies), north on South (the old Webb Theatre, Standard Hardware). 209 South York is by no means a mansion, but it still exists, and compared to our respectable but modest six-room Cape Cod dwelling in Brookwood, it is big.
More than big, it’s a refuge, where all sins are punished and forgiven in the certainty of our rich, aristocratic heritage, under the wing of mother hen. Here Torrences return to roost: Aunt Sparke when her husband dies in 1924; Marie, widowed in ’45; Nancy, divorced in ’46 or 7, with Nan and Little Bill. I see them all around the table Sundays after church on those occasions, Mama Torrence at the head, with random aunts and uncles (Lois and Bill, Charlton and Ring, Helen and John), when once a month or so we come to visit, Mom and Dad, me and Bill, then April (after Mama Torrence dies) in an antique high chair; little baby Mary; suits and ties, hats and gloves…
It’s just a short drive from the church, three blocks west to the corner of Franklin and York, turn left, Garrison General on the left, Dr. McChesney on the right, and beside him, beyond a modest front yard and several mammoth shrubs, a Colonial Foursquare looms, with a driveway to the right with covered walk and steps up to the huge low-roofed front porch; drive on around to a huge back yard alive with color spring through fall, around the crape myrtle, whose limbs we ride as horses, encircled by daffodils; and in my mind’s eye is an old garage or shed (or servants’ quarters) under an enormous oak, and park.
We never come in through the latticed back porch. Either Daddy lets us out at the side (when it’s raining) or we walk around to the big leaded glass front door and into the massive front hall, wide and long, the grand oak staircase at the far end on the left, the breakfast room beyond.
To the right: the music room, in red, with the piano; then Marie’s room, Mama Torrence’s, a small pink bathroom; to the left, the never-used living room, flanked by the sun parlor, the dining room, the walk-through pantry to the kitchen, the back porch. Upstairs, from the landing, at left: the back bath, Aunt Sparke’s room (later the linen closet), Mama Gray’s room, Pappy’s room, a coal fireplace between; at right, Aunt Nancy’s room, with walk-in closet with stairs to the attic; then the kids’ room (once the Torrence “sitting” room), where we play when we can’t go outside, window looking out on York Street. Later Nan moves to her mother’s room, then with Pappy (she’s his pet who ring jim cigarettes and whiskey) till he dies and leaves her finally, at 13, with a room of her own. Lastly, in the middle, between Pappy’s room and Bill’s, in pink tile, is the front bath with a huge white porcelain tub and a Johnny with a chain I pull whenever I do Number Two.
And all the rooms have radiators that whistle and clank.
I never know which room is Dad’s. He doesn’t live there long—from his abrupt removal from McCallie till his second marriage, maybe; back (like all the others) when it fails, until he marries Mama. No longer than I likewise live—my high school years as well—with him and Ellen, baby Sally, in that tiny house on the hill just outside Bessemer City, and I wonder if he’s as surprised to find his family in the Big House as I am, home from college freshman year, to find him (and a baby brother) in the house on Country Club Road I always know as Lois and Bill’s, where I spend summers and holidays until I marry Sandra.
In any case, I must assume he lives here while he courts Mama, and (maybe) brings us here after the War while he and she hunt houses. (Or not; we may move right into Brookwood.)
It’s a happy place for me—far more than my home life. From sparkling conversations over roast chicken or sweetbreads, rice and gravy, various legumes, iced tea, chocolate meringue pie—everyone talking at once—to Michigan rummy in the sunroom, horsing around in Bill’s room (“Hey! Calm down! You’re shaking the chandelier!”) and secrets in the shed with Nan, to (most of all) long afternoons alone, upstairs, at the window, looking out across the street at the hospital, passing cars, listening to Caruso and the rain…
There’s a button under the dining table, under the fraying Persian rug, at the head where Mama Torrence (later Mama Gray) sits, which she presses with her foot to sound a buzzer in the kitchen to call the cook: “We’ll have dessert now, Fanny.”
And there’s the Pot Rag tale. Once upon a time back in the old days, some relative is telling someone else some long-forgotten trifle having to do with a pot rag (a hot pad quilted from rags), and in the middle of her story a third party joins them, at which point the teller starts over; but before she can get to the point, another friend shows up, and so on, so that now whenever anyone comes into a conversation and says “What’s going on?” we say “Pot Rag.”
This will be late ‘forties, early fifties. Mama Torrence dies in ’49; then Pappy, ’53. The next year Mom and Dad divorce, and I don’t visit for a while.
Aunt Sparke dies in ’55, and Marie moves into a place of her own, leaving only Mama Gray and Nancy, Nan, and Bill to rattle around until they can’t afford to keep it up and Nancy sells our cherished homestead, moves them all, plus baby Tracy, Nanis disgrace (pregnant, then married and quickly divorced, the last of the lot to return) to a brick ranch house on Armstrong Circle, less than a mile from Country Club Road.
* * *
There’s now a Midtown Motor Inn where the Big House proudly stood, and York Street is the busy (local) northbound junction of US 321 and 74 (the Andrew Jackson Highway)—all concrete and commercial, branch bank, filling station, Goodyear Tires, Condos down South York, offices and parking lots north to Main, where the old Post Office still stands, vastly enlarged.