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Up Attic

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

In common, no doubt, with many other old codgers of my generation I face the brave new world of plastics and prefabricate without enthusiasm. It may be the advertising men have done their work too well, and taught me to accept no substitutes; so how, then, shall I be happy with nothing but substitutes? Nor do I think it necessary to have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth in order to reject a plastic one. A plastic spoon has a curious in-substantiality about it which transfers itself to the food, and leaves you hungry. I say nothing about its incongruity beside a porcelain plate. And don’t tell me that the plates will be plastic, too. I don’t care if they are unbreakable, I will never consent to them on my table.

Neither do I think it necessary to have swung a cat by the tail in the living room in order to appreciate a certain spaciousness in one’s dwelling. In fact, I never saw anybody swing a cat by the tail, anywhere, and would protest almost as much as the cat if I did. But I do like elbow room, I do think it has a definite effect on the human spirit, and far more than for two cars in the garage or push-button panels in the pantry, I think the American home of the future should aim for a decent spaciousness. Just the contrary, however, seems to be the trend. No doubt the economic interpretation must be applied to this bit of history, but that makes me no happier. In England 300,000 prefabricated metal houses are projected, to follow the war, which certain members of Parliament, to be sure, say are neither high enough, wide enough, nor deep enough for proper occupancy. In this country for a decade frame houses have been going up all over the land, set cheek by jowl (the jowl being the garage attachment) along rigidly gridironed streets, which after the care of the car is provided for leave precious little room for the care of the baby. Sometimes these houses are not unattractive’in design/having as origin the indigenous Cape Cod cottage, in which the second-story bed rooms are under the eaves, with dormer windows to let in a modicum of air. Sometimes they are modernistic and resemble nothing familiar unless it is the super-structure of the Albany Day Boat. But in either case there are no attics. I cannot face with equanimity a future in which there are no attics. If the television cabinet has to be let down to make a bed at night I don’t so much care; at least it would serve a useful purpose eight hours out of the twenty-four. But a child who grows up without a family attic overhead may very well be a child without a sense of the past, a child without roots. That way lies a trailer civilization.

It is no topsy-turvy figure of speech to say that the roots of the old American home were in the attic. There beneath the oak or chestnut rafters were stored in endless profusion— and confusion—the records of a family’s life, perhaps for a century. On a bright summer day the attic was unbearably hot and buzzed with flies; in winter it chilled you with a stale cold. But on rainy days it was a fascinating place to explore by the hour while the rain made a soft, soothing roar on the roof, and sounds from the domestic world below came up smothered and unreal. The roof of the old house where my boyhood was spent was adorned with a cupola, which in turn was adorned with colored glass windows, a different color for each point of the compass. Steep stairs led up to it from the attic, and through the four windows you looked out upon four different and strange worlds. The total unreality of a world all green, or all red, or all blue, was never-to-be-too-much savored, but the all-yellow world was a little terrifying, as if some ominous storm were brewing. If Emerson’s house had been equipped with such a cupola he would not have had to recommend that clumsier argument for idealism—stooping down and looking at a familiar landscape between your legs.

From the foot of the steep stairs to enchantment—or idealism—there stretched out in all directions until they vanished under the low eaves every sort of object saved from the long process of living in the house below. There were, for instance, horsehair trunks lined with old newspapers and stagecoach timetables, and filled with grandma’s quaint dresses and quainter bonnets. Many a time the delighted squeals of little girls would be heard aloft, and presently there would troop down to the lawn a parade that Kate Greenaway might have painted, save that these little misses had to hold up their billowing brown skirts and their happy faces were almost enveloped in great sunbonnets. Sometimes, too, the neighbors came and climbed up attic with mother to costume an “old folks’ concert,” the object of which, as I recall, was invariably to raise money for the church. How these good ladies enjoyed raising money for the church I Nor was grandfather unrepresented in the attic (which, by the way, he had undoubtedly called the garret). His tall beaver hat, as fuzzy as a startled hen, hung on a peg, and there were several boxes of his ledgers and diaries, and of his father’s before him, over which my father pored when writing a history of our town. I recall, too, the delight of a neighbor when in his attic he came upon some ancient account books of a store-keeping ancestor, and therein found recorded the purchases of “Jamaica” made by the parson, a famous divine at the turn of the century, noted for his Calvinistic piety and his distinguished offspring, four of whom bulked large in the nineteenth-century life of America. Monday through Friday, week in and week out, the good dominie purchased a pint of rum, but on Saturdays he was regularly charged with two pints. Why he did not buy his rum in bulk the, records did not disclose. Perhaps he could not trust the freedom of his will that far—an unworthy supposition, but there seems to be no other.

There used to be a professor at Dartmouth who declared that the greatest foe of history was the neat New England housewife who periodically cleaned her attic and threw away priceless material for research. New England housewives were neat, unquestionably, but in my experience they infrequently carried their passion for cleanliness up attic. I do recall, however, that once my mother on a rainy day decreed that the attic was to be cleared of its accumulated “rubbish,” and I was to assist in the operation. We worked ruthlessly and without sentiment for a long time, dragging out trunks and boxes, fishing through cobwebs under the dusty eaves, thumbing through old books and piles of magazines, testing broken chairs, and at length accumulated a huge pile on one side of the cupola stairs marked for the discard, and on the other side a small pile of things to be saved. With a sigh of righteous satisfaction mother straightened up, adjusted the dust cloth covering her hair, and announced down the stair well that father could come up now and begin the process of removing the discards.

But before father’s head appeared above the floor, I had already repented of scrapping a certain avuncular brown derby, much used in charades, and in all plays calling for a villain, and I had carried it over to the small pile. The first thing father saw, of course, was the stack of books. He immediately squatted down and began to inspect them. “What’s this?” he cried. “My old geometry?—and my Latin grammar ! Amo, amare, amatum—scrap this? Never!” And over to the other pile went book after book.

Meanwhile, mother was re-examining a painted chair, or fancy chair as they were sometimes called. The rush bottom had been sat through and dangled forlornly. “That was Aunt Lizzie’s chair,” she was saying. “I suppose it could have a new seat. These roses on the back—I guess they’re roses—are kind of pretty. And who knows, it might be in style again?”

It went over to the other side.

Father was sceptical about discarding a blue Staffordshire wash bowl and pitcher and slop basin. But we had recently installed a bath room, and mother was all for getting rid of any reminders of more primitive days. As I look back on those primitive days, I don’t know that I blame her. But meanwhile I had become fascinated anew by the picture in the bottom of the bowl—a romantic landscape backed by a house in the best Strawberry Hill Gothic and peopled in the foreground by languid ladies bearing parasols. My plea decided the question. Over went the blue Staffordshire to the salvage group. And then grandfather’s bootjack turned up, which we had found under the eaves. It meant nothing to me, and I think mother honestly thought it was nothing but an oddly cut bit of wood. But father snatched it out angrily, proclaiming it was just what he had been searching for for years, to get his congress boots off with. In fact, he carried it downstairs and put it carefully in his closet—where it remained forgotten again.

Mother was perceptibly weakening now. Old, discarded things were telling her their stories. I saw her hand lingering on the dusty back of the little rosewood sofa, the stuffing oozed from rips in the horsehair and one leg broken. Presently she called me to push it back against the chimney. So one by one the objects in the larger pile were moved to the other pile till it became the larger, and at last little was left for father to carry downstairs but a black-walnut table with a marble top so heavy that the whole table wabbled precariously if touched, a couple of broken picture frames, and some leaky rubber boots. Even the marble table top was to go no farther than the kitchen, where it later did duty as a mixing board. And mother and I descended from the attic, dirty and defeated.

It was a defeat for which mother was later grateful, I am sure, for not long after fashions did change and Aunt Lizzie’s painted chair did get a new rush bottom, and the pretty little rosewood sofa was repaired, and the ladder-back chair emerged from the attic, and grandfather’s Boston rocker was “done over,” and even the blue bowl and pitcher were decoratively employed. I cannot recall, however, that mother ever found a decorative use for the slop jar, and it has long since disappeared. Of these changing fashions I was but vaguely conscious at first, paying scant attention to the furniture in the attic. It was much more absorbing to thumb through the old copies of Harper’s Magazine, or to dig out an old bullet mould with which to make ammunition for my sling shot, or to investigate the condition of the butternuts spread on the floor near the chimney to dry. But as the old furniture began to come j downstairs and the Victorian black-walnut began to move up (or even sometimes out), there was no sense of strangeness in the house. I had seen all this stuff in the attic. I knew it had once occupied the places it now occupied again. It seemed to be quite at home. I came to have a great affection for the coffee-brown and satin-smooth arms of grandfather’s Boston rocker, polished by his resting hands. I could remember my grandfather well, and the willow whistles he taught me to make (though never so successfully as he made them). The spread feet and comb back of a certain Windsor chair, with spindles reputed to have been whittled by grandfather from hickory, had something jaunty and almost human about them. Just so would a cocky man stand, insisting on his rights. This furniture from the attic took on a personality and charm for me that I distinctly felt, but could not possibly have put into words.

It was no surprise when father came home one day with a banjo clock under his arm, which he had purchased for what now would seem a ridiculously small sum, about one fiftieth of its present market value. And no surprise when it went naturally on the wall above the ladder-back chair, while the black marble clock with a green bronze figure of Hamlet seated in deep dejection on top vanished from the mantel and ran down to silence under the eaves. What did surprise me was that father had to buy the banjo clock. Why had there been none in our attic?

The old house where the steep stairs led up to magic casements looking on green and red and blue and ominous yellow worlds, where dusty trunks held the costumes of a century, and old furniture told the story of domestic styles, is still extant, but the cupola has been removed and where the gate in the vanished picket fence used to be hangs a sign, “Tourists Invited.” It is almost forty years since I have set foot in that house, or wanted to. It stood beside what became one of the earliest main motor highways and was rendered impossible for civilized living. But I am not without an attic, a large one, too. I have possessed it, to be sure, a mere twenty-five years, but already it is crowded with treasures, such as a keg of handwrought nails pulled from old boards, panels rescued from tumble-down houses, broken Hitchcock chairs, the wrought iron slice grandfather used to take grandmother’s pies out of the Dutch oven, a stack of framed pictures which adorned (more or less) my college room and which for reasons now hard to explain I much admired, strap hinges from old barn doors, a pile of diaries going back forty years, a box of theatre programs from the days when the human voice was directly apprehended by the listening ear and really sounded human, an elegant frock coat and skintight striped trousers carefully stored in a moth-proof chest, Gibson Girl hats with huge brims and huger feathers belonging to my wife and now and then taken out and wistfully laughed’at, and I do not myself know what else. Some rainy day when there is a soft, pleasant roar on the roof I am going to take a few hours off and go up attic exploring to find out. I shall surely find something there from a forgotten past which I can bring down triumphantly and add to the domestic scene, being careful, of course, that it does not cause a domestic scene in another sense. Without the consciousness of that attic over me I should surely sleep restlessly at night. I should feel rootless and severed from my past, and the past of all my people. Oh, brave new world, indeed, that hath no attics in it!


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