The Old House in Birmingham
© 2003 Vernon Miles Kerr
I only experienced that old house in Alabama, intermittently, for the first seven years of my life. I was brought there as a newborn from the hospital in 1943, spent a few months there in 1947 or 48 and then, finally, I was there when I was in second grade during a trip from California, when my grandmother died. But my memories of that old house seem to transcend that brief span of seven years, maybe because of my mother’s stories of growing up there. The images and events conjured up by those stories blend with my own memories to the point that, now, it’s difficult to discern the blurry line between first-hand and second-hand experience. But I suspect that those memories that are enhanced by smells and sounds and textures are my own: like the smell of the oil burning stove in the living room mixed with the newsprint-paper smell of the Sunday funnies and the warm, smooth texture of the linoleum floor, or the sound of thunder and spatter of warm raindrops, heard from my dry and cozy vantage point on the porch swing, during a summer storm.
The house was built, I was told, by my grandfather who died when my mother was a teenager. Although being only five when I learned that, I think I sensed that he had been a very resourceful craftsman as the real estate he had to work with was no more than a steep hillside sloping down, away from the street. This impossible lot made it necessary for him to construct stilts to support the entire rear portion of the house. The front porch was at sidewalk level but the back porch, off the kitchen, was connected to the ground by a long staircase, which was needed in order to access the coal bin he had installed into the slope beneath the house. The coal was fuel for a pot-bellied stove, which still heated the kitchen at the time of my last trip there. Now being a big boy, I was given the job of negotiating the stairs with a coal bucket and bringing back chunks to keep the stove going all during that visit. I remember that I loved the crunching, ringing sound that two chunks made when you banged them together. The coal had its own aroma also, sort of a black smell, in my seven year-old’s opinion. During my California experience, I had never handled coal. I imagined both of my uncles performing this same duty thousands of times, stretching back even beyond my mother’s time.
Both of them were several years older than my mother. She was the baby. In one of my trips down the stairs, I noticed there under the house, next to the coal bin, were the remains of an elaborate play house complete with a kitchen counter, wallpaper on the walls and a multi-paned window. My mother explained that one of my uncles crafted it for her from cast-off construction materials scavenged from somewhere. I could see that my grandfather’s sons had inherited his resourcefulness and today, I see that same gift echoed in my own two brothers.
At the top of that long staircase, I noticed, built into the railing, a counter-top with a curious round hole about the size of a bucket. When I asked my mother what the hole was for, she related that my grandfather’s weekly Sunday-Dinner tradition was to make a freezer of peach ice cream for dessert. The hole was his invention, a device for steadying the hand-cranked ice cream freezer at a convenient height. In that moment it seems that I was immediately transported from that gloomy winter day to a warm, peaceful Sunday afternoon in the early decades of the 1900s, standing on that porch, enjoying the elevated view of the woods behind the house, hearing the squeak, squeak of the rusty freezer crank, and anticipating the flavor of peach ice cream. Or perhaps that was one of my mother’s narrated memories–now adopted as one of my own. It doesn’t matter.
In November 2008 I was working on a project in Mobile, AL. One weekend I decided to go visit my cousin Linda in Atlanta so I planned a route through Birmingham so I could see if the old house was still standing. It was. The house was painted a cheerful light yellow and there were little kids’ toys on the porch. Everything around the house seemed so much smaller. The front yard seemed smaller, the street seemed narrower. The grassy hill across the street seemed smaller and not so steep. While taking pictures, the thought occurred to me that it was touching that even though the Norris family members were long gone from the house it was still serving another young family who may be building up fond memories of times spent there just as I did.