They Can Raze the House, but They Can’t Touch the Memories

114 Pleasant St., June 9, 2009

This is my Aunt Jeanette’s house on Tuesday, just before it was razed to make room for an exit off the interstate.  My aunt was a WWII widow and a very special lady.  Her house was always open for as many people as it could hold and then some.

Here are some of the memories I have of that house and my aunt:

written August 1.2005

On our vacation this year, we went by my Aunt Jeanette’s house, which will soon be razed for a highway ramp. Aunt Jeanette’s was always the first place we went when we visited Fairmont, WVA, where my parents were born. Aunt Jeanette’s second husband, Finley, passed away at the beginning of May, and my cousin has been urging me to go back and see if there was anything I wanted from the house. My memories, though, are of  my aunt and of the house, not so much of anything in it.

To get there, my husband and I had to find the house, which involved getting off at interstate exits with which we were unfamiliar, but we managed. We went up East Park Street, where my dad lived until he was seven and his parents lost the house because of the Depression. We went by where the old toll bridge was. I remember my dad paying a nickel for us to cross just so I’d know what a toll bridge was.

Finally, we found State Street. I used to walk down State Street to cross the river and go to the pool. I also visited my Great Aunt Lucy. Good memories. But Aunt Lucy’s last house is boarded up, and the house she had before that was not in much better shape. It looks sort of like people have given up on this side of Fairmont already.

Then we were on Pleasant Street. We parked and walked around the house. There used to be an orphanage at the top of the hill, and that is gone. One of the neighbors noticed that we were there and came out to find out who we were. She wanted me to call my cousin, who is the executor of Uncle Finley’s will. I did call to please her, but I was sort of glad he wasn’t home. I didn’t want to go in. I wanted to remember the big garden at the side of the house and the black cocker spaniel, Prince, who lived in a house behind it. I wanted to revisit the grape arbor under which I lay on my back and watched the clouds roll by.

Then I decided I wanted to visit the house across the street. I could tell that this surprised my husband, and he actually just pulled the van up and watched. The house across the street housed an Italian family, and the summer I was ten, I played with their youngest daughter, Mary Theresa. I told the mom who I was, but she did not remember me. She remembered my cousins, who visited much more frequently. She invited me, though, to wait for Mary Theresa, who was due at any time.

I was getting a little nervous making small talk, especially since the lady I was talking to did not remember me. Neither did her older daughter. But see, I did not spend time with her older daughter. There was a group of kids just older than Mary Theresa and me, and they did not want “the kids” hanging around. So we played with each other.

Finally, Mary Theresa arrived. She knew me right away, although she had not seen me for close to forty years. I felt a lot better. We made a lot of small talk. She has one son. She showed me his picture. I pulled out the pictures of my kids and the grandbabies. When I left, she gave me a hug.

My husband was quiet after we left, and I was sort of teary. Then he told me that he had actually not been able to envision me as a child before, but as he watched me talk to Mary Theresa, it was as if we were both ten again.

That summer, see, I came back to Fairmont with my Mom’s dad because our bathroom was being remodeled. My sister had just graduated high school, and my little sister was three. I guess my parents figured it would be better for me to have my cousins to play with than to be there amidst all the remodeling chaos. We only had one bathroom. Surprisingly, I do not remember putting up a fuss, and I was a homebody as a child.

Aunt Jeanette had a lot of kids in her house, and times were safer then. She really didn’t care what you did between meals and bedtime as along as you were there for your assigned chores at the assigned time. So that summer, unlike other summers in my life, I was free to wander. I remember wandering out in the country just to see where a road would lead. And I was all by myself. I probably didn’t go more than a few miles, but it seemed like quite a trek to me. I went up the hill to visit Aunt Florence and Agnes, and I came home when I wanted to. I lay on my back and watched the clouds roll by. These are all kid things to do, but that summer is really the only one that I remember doing them.

All the houses on Pleasant Street will be gone by this time next year, so I probably will not go back to Fairmont again. I am glad, though, that I got to see it. I am glad I let Mary Theresa know that spending time with her is a pleasant memory for me. And I am glad that my husband finally got to see me as a little girl.

–written Sept. 19, 2008

When I was a little girl, one of the trips that we took frequently was to visit my mother’s older sister, Jeanette, who lived in West Viriginia.  From our part of Ohio we took the Turnpike and, as I remember those pre-superhighway days, we got off at New Stanton, PA, and made our way to her house.

We always left on Fridays after my dad had worked a full day, so we got there really late.  My mom and her sister were country girls, and I can still remember the porch light being on for our arrival, moths flitting about it.  I can still hear the slamming of the screen door as Aunt Jeanette came out to greet us.  Her kitchen was in the rear of the house, and I remember wandering through the dark to get there.  There was always a freshly-baked something for us kids, and Aunt Jeanette always put on a fresh pot of coffee for the adults.  Much of the time, her kitchen had that steamy feel from late-night canning, and I would sit and drowse in that warm, familiar atmosphere until my mom urged me gently to bed, upstairs to the bunk beds that always awaited me.

Tonight, the hubby and I await the arrival of our son and his family.  We made peach jam this evening, from peaches that somebody gave us.  We canned a lot in Ohio; I still love hearing the lids pop as the jars seal.  Our son had to work late tonight, so he and the family won’t be here until about midnight.  The porch light is on to await them.  The kitchen has that canning feel, the jam jars waiting on the counter for the hours before they can be moved.

I know that my grandsons anticipate their arrival here much as I looked forward to mine at Aunt Jeanette’s.  The daughter-in-law said that while she was packing, RJ wanted to know where they were going.  She told him Grandma and Grandpa’s, and he asked which one.  (He has three sets.)  When she told him he was coming to Indiana, he replied,” Oh, good.  That grandma and grandpa play with me.”

I remember thinking that about Aunt Jeanette, too.  She had a special knack for letting kids be kids. I stayed with her for a couple of weeks the summer I was ten, and it was one of the best summers of my life.

I can only imagine how much visitors meant to Aunt Jeanette.  She was widowed during WWII.  Her children were grown,and although they lived in the same town, I am sure she must have missed the hustle and bustle that her own growing up in a family of seven kids entailed.  I was a kid, you know, and I doubt she ever knew how much those visits meant to me, but now, as I await the late-night arrival of my own family, I have a lot more understanding of what our visits must have meant to her.

Maya Angelou says that …” people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  What I remember about Aunt Jeanette’s house was feeling free.   What I remember is a place that everybody could feel at home.  What I remember is a place where a ten-year-old girl was free just to be. Those are things that progress, despite its bulldozers its excavators, and its never-ending hunger for freeway exits,  can never take away.


2 Responses to “They Can Raze the House, but They Can’t Touch the Memories”

  1. 1 Kerri Grandstaff June 12, 2009 at 11:44 am

    I love this story. Please contact me at the abocee-mail. I live on the corner of State St and Cole. I have looked at this house for several years, but everyday for the past 5 years. It is like a guardian to me. A landmark. I sat in my yard and watched the houses come down. I have pictures on my facebook page. I will be taking pictures of when that last sentinal is removed. please feel free to contact me and look at the picturs.


  2. 2 Carol June 14, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Wonderful memories! They have reminded me of some of my own. Thanks for sharing.

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