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Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Promise Fulfilled

Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty in the Gold Room with their friend Mary Orbison wearing a dress from one of the trunks in the attic.  The photo was taken to publicize a home tour in the 1960s benefiting the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, of which Aunt Nell was a founding member.


While Aunt Fan may have won us over completely during our visit to Neenah, Aunt Betty was no slacker in seeing to it that her guests were properly entertained. She had organized a trip for my brothers out onto Lake Winnebago in a speed boat, as well as a visit to one of the local paper mills to see how paper was made. As I was considered too young for either one of those activities, a play date had been arranged for me with a local boy my age whose family was known to Aunt Betty through the First Presbyterian Church, where she and Aunt Nell were life members. And when it was learned that a tour had taken place at Aunt Fan's (albeit primarily for Mom’s benefit), there was nothing but that Aunt Betty would lead a similar tour of for us boys.

Only odd fragments of that tour come back to me now some fifty years later, and then only in images that no longer retain distinct focus. Most of them center around the parlor, which with its gold damask upholstery and gilded chairs was appropriately called the Gold Room. Dad said he always referred to it as the "padded cell" because the wainscoting was entirely comprised of tufted brocade. As an accomplished artist Mom expressed an equally jaundiced opinion (although not within Aunt Betty’s earshot), finding fault in the bird and a nest of eggs depicted in one of the pastoral scenes of the hand-painted Limoges fireplace tiles.

“It looks like she laid her eggs in some old tire,” Mom said.

Unlike Aunt Fan’s where everything was new and beautiful and expensive and untouched, here the items in each room had a story, and because of that they were great family treasures, regardless of monetary value or condition. Even the broken cut glass globe in the parlor chandelier - the pieces anchored back together at great expense with tiny copper rods - had a story, having been shattered by Dad with a tennis racket while trying to kill one of the many bats that plagued his aunts’ lives each year. The majority of stories, however, came back without fail to Aunt Betty’s father, who had built the house in 1883 and had died more than ten years before Dad was born. “Father always insisted,” Aunt Betty would begin, inevitably ending the anecdote with some reference to the economic value of waiting to buy, and then only the best quality available, the savings being in buying only once in a lifetime - or in this case two. As a result, little if anything of significance had ever been changed.

Far clearer in my mind are the vivid images of what Aunt Betty showed us in the attic. Led up past the maids’ room into a secluded gable, she opened one of more than a half dozen battered old steamer trunks, all covered with stickers of ocean liners and exotic ports. And then searching through this drawer and then that one, she showed us a succession of sacred marvels stored there: her father’s stiff shirt collars and collapsible opera hat, and dresses from her mother’s wedding trousseau, made up of yards and yards of fabric and never worn due to a death in the family. There was even a box of civil war bullets and canon balls ploughed up at the Appomattox farmhouse of a distant cousin. The rest of the attic was similarly crammed with even more treasure, including the side saddle from Aunt Nell’s equestrian days and the cradle each newborn in the family had used, as well as all manner of other hulking mysteries, each of them covered humps of old sheets and grey canvas, a herd of dozing pachyderms.

It was also later that same day that I had the strangest experience of my life. It was in the early evening and somehow I had wandered out unattended onto the verandah. There, standing by the tower, I was listening to the city band playing in the park across the street, when suddenly I was overwhelmed by a single complex thought that came into my head as though being spoken directly into my ear by many voices, not with words so much as just the emotion and meaning behind them. At the same time it was a sense of total being and connection, of feeling surrounded and embraced, a comprehension that standing there was something right and good and meant to be, the fulfillment of something promised. It was a strange sensation, but not one that was frightening. In fact I remember being washed over with a sudden calm, even though my arms and legs and neck were tingling. And then just as quickly it was over, gone, and I went inside and told no one about it until now.

The next morning Dad packed us back into the station wagon to continue our travels, ladened with chicken salad sandwiches, potato chips, and bottles of 7-Up, all thoughtfully boxed and wrapped in wax paper by the cook and brought out to us at Aunt Betty's direction. As we turned out the driveway Mom settled in for our third and final reading "Thunderbolt House," and as we drove off no one looked back but me, from my lowly position in the family hierarchy, out the rear hatch. The weekend was quickly put behind us, and there was no discussion of ever returning.

But we did.

CHAPTER I continues HERE


  1. I have to say that I was amazed by some of the other stuff in the attic, i.e., balls of string from received packages, boxes of all sizes & shapes from the same, and books...Oh the children's books were amazing. I do remember that Mother finally talked the aunts into donating all their baby clothes to the historical society.
    And do you remember all the pictures that Aunt Fan had displayed on her grand piano? That started me on that habit as an adult except that it was always a pain to take them off in order to play.

    1. Funny, I remember those pictures as a pain to take off when I dusted that piano! That and your head of Chopin.

      I remember the story that Grandma (Mary Adams) would roller skate in the attic on rainy days. That must have made a racket!

    2. Generations of kids have played and skated in the attic, and it did indeed make a horrible racket. The story goes that Mrs. Kimberly was over on one of these occasions and down on the first floor questioned how your great-great grandmother could stand it, to which she replied, "Oh, leave them be. They're just having fun." When I think of that and see the pictures of all the cats and dogs they had here, I sometimes wonder how anything survived!

  2. And don't forget the boxes of ironed tissue paper!

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  4. Curious if you ever had any more experiences like the one you mentioned while listening to the city band?

    1. Yes, and I'll be writing about that as well when the time comes - probably in late April or early May.