By Therese Ladell
The family of seven left Chicago, moving to Wisconsin in the spring of 1957. The four bedroom green Cape Cod style house was spacious, on a quiet dead end street at the very edge of the little town surrounded by farmland. The father was relieved to be away from the big city with its increasingly confining buildings and unsafe streets. Though a thirty minute drive to his new job in Madison, he selected this house for the open terrain surrounding it. He had long ago given up his dream of moving to Alaska and settled for Wisconsin, knowing the great north woods was only a few hours away. The mother was uncertain, leaving behind her friends and family in the crowded Irish Catholic neighborhood where both of them had lived most of their lives. Upon arrival at their new home, which her husband had selected on his own, she felt some disappointment in the plain empty house, with its practical asbestos siding, devoid of any charm.
The children relished the new-found freedom, all the places ready for exploration.
There were pea fields to the north, the crop to be harvest for the local canning factory. That is, less the few pods that were picked, squeezed open and devoured by the children. Not for love of peas, rather for the delight of found-food, and a bit of thievery.
To the east, a gravel road led to an empty stone slaughterhouse; here someone kept a bull in a field surrounded by barbed wire fencing. The bull was a mystery with no apparent function, except perhaps to sow fear into anyone who thoughtlessly wore red clothing when sneaking by. Certainly the bull would attack at the sight of anything red, and a flimsy wire fence was no protection. Legend had it that certain boys had dared to run across the bull’s field and lived to tell about it. Mostly, one just slipped quietly along outside the fence thru tall grasses to the creek. The creek bed sat about four feet below the surrounding land. The sides were muddy so bare feet were best for the descent and the careful navigating of the creek to the other side. There might be tadpoles if you had arrived in the water quietly. Before climbing the other side, one always checked feet and ankles for leeches. Small ones, easily brushed off, but worthy of a scream or two.
Beyond the creek were the woods, perhaps 20-30 acres, owned by a dairy farmer who let his Holstein cows wander through on their way from one pasture to another. Children quickly learned to tell the difference between fresh cow pies and the stale ones. In the summer boys built forts and tree houses, played war games and brought snakes home in their pockets. Girls packed picnic lunches and ate them under the lone tree at the top of the neighboring pasture, listening to the church bells ring the Angelus and the noon whistle from the volunteer fire department.
Someone dug up pink columbine and Dutchmen’s britches and brought them back to the sturdy green house, the beginning of a wildflower garden. Apple trees were planted in the backyard; a birdhouse for purple martins was built and maintained. The father hung a swing from the clothesline post. The mother pinned freshly washed laundry with wooden pegs, one piece of clothing reaching out to the next, but there was no friendly neighbor to chat with over the fence. Fat toads lived in the window wells, salamanders hid under damp rocks.
Venture south or west from the house and the town spread out before you…church and school, leaky stone water tower, and, down the hill, all the businesses of Main Street. Continue south past the noisy porcelain factory, where a few workers lingered in the open doors, covered with white dust. Then, hot and steamy, the canning factory churned out cans of peas, corn and green beans. After crossing the railroad tracks, be sure to look down and see the same little creek, which has carved its way to the town park. If you climb the hill, the rectangular public swimming pool offered refreshment on hot summer days.
Three more children came to the family, which numbered ten in 1962. The house was full and content.
Much too quickly this town grew and completely surrounded the green house. The woods became an upscale subdivision. The father led camping trips to the north woods or the shores of Lake Michigan, seeking the quiet and open space he once thought he had secured at the very edge of the town. The mother eventually built some lasting friendships among the other women at church in this solemn town. And, as they are prone to do, the children grew and moved on to homes of their own.
Upon the death of the father in 2000, the mother chose a burial plot at the far edge of the Catholic cemetery, overlooking the nearby marsh. Several years later, the son with Downs Syndrome and, recently, the mother, were also laid to rest in this peaceful spot.
This summer, the green house, covered with tasteful grey siding and adorned with dark blue shutters, has a for sale sign in the front yard, where an elm tree once grew. A barrier of tall pine trees breaks the view of the neighbors’ houses. Somehow the mother’s red rose bush along the front walk has survived all the years of hopscotch and bikes. There is a fine workbench in the musty garage, where the father had built sailboats. The old fashioned kitchen has a slightly scorched window sill for apple pies to cool. All this is included in that for sale sign that was installed six weeks ago.
The real estate closing is next week. We wish the new owner the best of everything, leaving the house in the best shape possible. But we are selling only a house and land. The home we will keep with us, sharing and then hoarding away our memories for comfort in our old age.
Now, on the far west side of town, there is a branch of that same old creek, cutting through a park that was developed about ten years ago. A recent lunchtime stroll along the asphalt path brought me to a metal bridge where a young woman patiently waited for her two boys in the rock strewn creek bed below. Shoes off, wet to their waists, they told me they were explorers and yes, there were tadpoles, up the creek a ways, in the deeper water. I did not ask them about leeches.
August 2, 2012