From the Heart
She went digging to uncover the history and character of her home.
A woman seeks out the roots of her bayside home.
The two sisters were a bit unusual. Aleda kept her gray hair tied up in a neatly braided bun, but I’d heard it reached well below her waist. When she and sister Mabel hired my sons to weed, they paid in green beans. They showed the boys how to put plastic bags over the dandelion tops before digging so the seeds wouldn’t scatter.
They were friendly and welcoming to my young family, new to our home on the saltwater bay. It was clear they enjoyed having us close by. And as I soon discovered, they knew some of our house’s history.
“You know,” Aleda told me one day over coffee, “We owned your house some years back.” I likely rattled my cup as I set it down on the saucer. I knew neither sister had married. I knew Aleda had been a teacher, Mabel a nurse, and that they’d cared for their aging father until he died.
Aleda went on to explain that she, Mabel and their father had taken care of a dying neighbor woman as well as the neighbor’s home and cow. In return, the woman deeded them her house—now ours.
They told us of Mrs. Jacobsen, who’d lived in the house some time later. She’d sit on the front porch and count the heads of her many children as they swam in the bay out front.
Our conversation made me realize that while I was beginning to research our family tree, the house
had an intriguing history of its own. My mother, completely enchanted with our then 75-year-old home, encouraged me to delve into its roots. In following her advice, I came across wonderful stories. And I didn’t always have to go searching— they sometimes appeared right on my doorstep.
Chuck and his wife knocked on the back door one day and introduced themselves, explaining that he had grown up in this house in the 1940s and ’50s. I invited them in to see the home as it was now, but I could tell he was stepping back into another time. He told about having seen cougars, bears and deer around the house. He remembered helping dig out the dirt basement (now concrete) to make a parking space for the family’s Model T.
Standing in the kitchen, we all looked up at the ceiling, its wallpaper hung in crooked strips. “The wallpaper hanger who came to do it was drunk,” Chuck said. “My mom railed at him the whole time.”
By the time Chuck and his wife left, I felt I’d made a new family connection. He sent me a photo of the house from when he was young, and I put him in touch with the local historical society.
Several years later, another knock at the door announced Emery. He had lived in the house for just three years, while he was in high school in the early 1940s. Though he had been here only briefly— he went into the service when he was 18 and served in World War II—he said he’d loved it, and that those were some of the best years of his life.
Emery remembered his stepfather carrying on a feud with a neighbor, Mr. Johnson. One day Emery watched his stepfather wave a crowbar at the man. When they were on speaking terms, however, the men had raised a pig together. After butchering it, Emery’s stepfather brought the head home and asked Emery’s mother to make some headcheese. She put it in a pot of water on the stove but hadn’t known to remove the eyes. Every time she lifted the lid, he said, she saw those eyes looking up at her.
I once visited with a friend’s mother, who lived in my neighborhood when she was younger. She had no stories about my house, but she talked about the tavern she and her husband had owned nearby. She recalled, too, the neighborhood women who took produce—berries, chickens, eggs and cream—by boat to sell in the public market. And she explained how she and others cleaned the huckleberries they picked in the area. “We dumped them out onto a big Turkish towel on the table and then rolled them back and forth,” she said. “The leaves and stickers stuck to the towel and left the berries clean.”
Sometimes we dug up history quite literally. When my sons were building roads in the dirt for their toy trucks, they excavated old marbles, a little porcelain cup and scraps of toys, evidence of children who had played here before. When we stripped off the wallpaper in the boys’ rooms, we found different patterns in layers like you’d find in the middens of Native American archaeological sites.
My kitchen hasn’t been updated since 1970, though I did have someone paint over the crooked paper on the ceiling. But the house has now passed the century mark, not too common for this part of the country. And it has a rich ancestry and roots made strong with love.
Mary Ekstrand captured this double rainbow from her home’s porch, where Mrs. Jacobsen would sit, counting the heads of her children as they swam in the bay.