Friday, February 18, 2011

This is a picture of the little log cabin that my brother built for his daughters in their back yard in Mason, Michigan.  The scale is a little hard to determine, because that's a little kid chair lying next to it.  I think it's about four feet by six feet.  All of Andy's family lives in Chicago now, but Amanda was visiting the place she grew up and she posted this picture of it.

This is a replica of one built by my Great-Uncle Ernst, in Oneida, Kansas.  He was from Switzerland, and was an amazing woodcrafter.  He made a doll bed for me that I still have and a dollhouse for Andy that I recently restored and sent off to the youngest of his relations, to keep it in the family.  We loved to visit Uncle Ernst and Aunt Clara because of the cool things around their farmhouse.  There was a little lighthouse made out of stones, wire and concrete, that had a light in it that really worked.  COOLEST OF ALL, he made a tiny log cabin that kids could play in.

That cabin was the inspiration for Andy to build this one for his kids, and also for this story:

by Frances Augusta Hogg

I must have been short enough once to walk through that little door without stooping, but now I can hardly imagine being that small. I have a vague memory of being fascinated by the door latches, of opening and closing them. It must have been one time when my family had come back from Michigan to visit Uncle Ernst and Aunt Clara Gerber. I look up at their decrepit farmhouse, twenty yards away. It has been empty for years, and only used by the family for furniture storage. The house looks sad. It’s too bad I don’t have enough time before the auction to give it a coat of paint.

The front porch swing hangs from one chain. I suppose I could try to fix that. I remember when Kirby and Johnnie were pushing it. Their backs against the clapboards, they hit the back of the pine swing with the heels of their hands as hard as they could every time it came back toward them. I could hear their laughter. I could hear the squeaking of the chains in the eyebolts and the shuddering jerk of the swing every time the boys hit it. I remember my sister Julie squealing. Julie scared out of her wits on the swing as it flew out again and again over the rosebushes and sunflowers.

But there is a flash of something like white light. It’s something that happens to me sometimes. I focus on the feeling of the rake in my hands and it helps me pull myself from my reverie. The auction is tomorrow. I’ve come all the way from New York to help my Kansas cousins get Uncle Ernst’s house cleaned up and ready for the crowds that will come in the morning.

I look back down at the little log cabin that my great-uncle Ernst Gerber built. It’s about four feet tall and six feet long, with roof shingles made of split cedar shakes. I rake leaves away from it and marvel at this perfect child’s toy. There are panes of glass in the tiny windows, and the door is a double one. A Dutch door, they called it. But the Gerbers weren’t Dutch. They were members of the Swiss Apostolic Church, and people called them Swiss Amish, or Dutch, because they spoke a kind of German. I think Dutch was probably a mispronunciation of “Deutsch.”

Childless, our great uncle built what he called “Das Kinderhaus” for his nieces and nephews to play in. I think it must be at least sixty years old. But did Mom and her sisters also play in it when they were children? If so, it might be eighty years old. Maybe older. Mom will know. For a moment I think about asking her, but then I remember that I can’t. Both she and Dad have been dead for a decade. I am no longer anyone’s child. I wonder when my subconscious will ever accept that. I am not anyone’s child anymore.

I rest my rake against the peak of the roof and lean down to pull away a curtain of withered morning glory vines from the side window. A spider races across my knuckles, and I’m glad I’m wearing work gloves.

The glass pane is covered with a pattern made by raindrops hitting dust. I rub off the dirt and try to peer into the inkiness within. I try to remember, was there any furniture? I think there was a little footstool, painted red. There used to be a doll bed, too. Uncle Ernst made doll beds for all the girls. Cousin Barb uses hers to store magazines next to her sofa. I wonder what happened to the one he made for my sister, Julie? I wonder if Uncle Ernst made anything special for us boys? I can’t remember.

I kneel, shield my eyes with my hands and look through the glass. Could that dark shape in the corner be the footstool? I seem to remember that Aunt Clara had painted white flowers on it. An eighty year-old painted footstool might be considered folk art that somebody in New York would pay a lot for. Maybe I should get it out, and put it in the barn with the rest of the stuff for the auction.

The rusty latches complain against budging, but I manage to open them. I kneel before the open door. I can see the red stool standing in the corner on its four stubby legs. If I go sideways, I think. If I slant my shoulders, I can get through there. It’s a tight fit. I have to crawl and drag my legs behind me, my head down. The dirt floor smells damp and pill bugs run crazily in all directions. I sit up and wipe spider webs from my face. Dull light comes in from the unwashed north window that faces the house.

I dust the stool with the sleeve of my corduroy jacket. Yes. Here are the flowers I remember. White peonies. They look pretty good after all these years! The paint is remarkably bright, having been protected inside the kinderhaus.

I look around inside the tiny room, and wonder how long it has been since any child has been in here. Aunt Clara died in the ‘60s. Uncle Ernst died when I was in high school. None of us cousins were married then. None of us had little kids. I suppose the last person ever to be in here after me had to be one of the youngest cousins. Maybe Caroline.

I lean forward to clean the window, but the grime is mostly on the outside. The view of the old farmhouse through the little window is a dreamy one, viewed through a filter of dust of years upon years. The picture changes in my mind and I see window boxes spilling flowers, and Aunt Clara in her dark Amish clothes, hanging laundry at the side of the house. Bright white sheets are flapping in the wind. Bees tend to royal-looking sunflowers by the porch. I can almost hear the laughter of some little cousin, as he chases after one of Aunt Clara’s banty chickens that freely roam the yards.

I can almost hear laughter. I can almost hear screaming.

That flash again. I’m back. I’m a balding 58-year old man, crouched uncomfortably inside an ancient play fort.

I see myself in the reflection of a little mirrored cupboard on the wall. It is an old wooden medicine cabinet. We used to put things in it when we were little. I remember Cousin Janet pretending it was a refrigerator, and Cousin Kirby and I pretending it was a bank vault. What treasures had we stashed in there? I stretch my hand forward to open it.

It is empty now, but once it held the imaginations of dozens of little kids.

I hear a surprising sound outside. It is the “buck-buck-buck” of a chicken. How odd! I suppose some neighbor around here might still have chickens, though there’s no farmhouse near. I close the cabinet and look into the dusty cracked mirror. The magic of the dirty glass seems to linger. The lines of my face seem somehow softer. I reach up to run my fingers through my tousled hair.

Then I stare at my hand. Where is my work glove? I don’t remember taking it off. I stare at myself in the mirror again. At my reddish-brown hair that hasn’t been that color since I turned forty.

There are more noises outside. A dog barking. A child laughing. I hear the slapping of damp laundry on the line. I reach for the little Dutch door and push it open.

I walk through the door.

Aunt Clara is at the side of the house, hanging out the laundry. This time it’s overalls and towels. A hen is scratching the dust near the pump. I can hear Uncle Ernest in his woodshop, sawing something. On the porch, Kirby and Johnnie push Julie on the swing. They are pushing her hard. The swing flies out and Julie’s braids fly up in the air. She looks terrified. She is screaming at them to stop.

I run at them, waving my arms in the air. “STOP!” I yell. The fringes on the sleeves of my genuine Davy Crockett jacket wave like little brown fingers. “STOP, GODDAMN IT!”

Then I’m knocked to the ground by a wall of white light.

* * *

“Paul?” It’s Cousin Janet. She’s been in the barn, helping set up the long tables they’ll use for the auction items.

“What are you yelling about? Are you OK?” she asks. “What are you doing in there, anyway?”

I hand the little footstool out to her.

She says, “Oh! Our chair! I remember playing with this, don’t you? What else is in there, Paul? Is my refrigerator still in there?”

“Yeah,” I say. I squirm my way back out into the sunshine. “But there’s nothing in it.”

She touches the worn shingles on the roof of the little house. “Uncle Ernst made us such neat toys, and we always had fun. I always felt sad that the Gerbers never had their own kids? They were so nuts about us. I was so upset when our parents wouldn’t let us come here to play anymore.”

I’d never heard this story before. “Really? When did that happen?” I’m still feeling woozy, so I sit on the ground with my arms resting on my knees. My jacket is filthy with dust and cobwebs.

Janet looks at me, surprised. “Of all people, I never thought you’d forget!” She crouches down to look into the little room. “They say you always remember the first time you see a dead person.”

She doesn’t seem to notice my shocked silence, and swings the two portions of the little door closed, allowing the latches to drop with a “click” sound. “You want to know something odd, Paul? The thing I remember most about when Julie fell off the porch swing and broke her neck, wasn’t how she looked, lying there in the grass.” Janet stands up and brushes off her knees “The thing I remember the most was the look on your face when you saw her.”

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