Wednesday, February 27, 2008

East Walnut Lane

When my mother was eighteen months old, her mother died. Her father sang tenor in The First Lyric Quartet on the vaudeville circuit, and since he did not feel he could take the baby with him as he toured the country, he left her in the care of friends. She grew up considering this couple her parents. The older sister in this family was my Aunt Emmy.

When I was small, we lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia. One of my favorite things was a visit to Aunt Emmy's house. Mother and I would take the trolley in to 69th Street, and then a bus to Germantown. When we got off at East Walnut Lane, we stepped into another world. The streets were cobblestone, and the sidewalks red brick. I loved the pattern of the bricks and the way, as they had settled, they formed little hills and valleys, with the occasional brick missing or jutting upwards just enough to stub a toe if you weren't cautious.

Row houses lined the street. Each had a small front porch and a postage stamp sized patch of grass, separated from the sidewalk and from one another by wrought iron fence. Aunt Emmy's house was like all the others except that hers was at the end of a row on an alley, so there were windows in every room. At the curb, many houses had a hitching post with a carved horse's head.

Inside were what we called railroad rooms, each one opening off the long hallway, and there were front and back staircases. First was the front parlor. I was not allowed to go into the front parlor, but I could stand in the doorway and look around. It had the stereotypical horsehair sofa, the lamps with fringed shades, and an upright piano draped with a Spanish shawl. So far as I knew, no one ever played that piano. Then came the back parlor. Not very interesting. Then the dining room with its massive, dark furniture. Last was the kitchen, which I loved. A big butcherblock table in the center of the room, an old fashioned icebox, and best of all, the sink. No modern faucets there. It held a small handpump to get the water. And always in that kitchen was Aunt Emmy.

Emmy was a tall woman who stood very straight. Her hair was pulled back severely in a knot. She always wore dresses in subdued colors, high neck, long sleeves, and a long skirt, almost to the floor. And always a bib apron to protect it. She would frown down at me and ask if I had been a good girl since she saw me last. If anyone dared to tell me I looked cute or had a pretty dress, she would snap at them, "Don't tell the child that! You'll turn her head." Emmy had a hard life. Her daughter and son-in-law had both died young "of the consumption", and she had raised their two children. I'm not sure how I knew that Aunt Emmy loved me, but I did, and I loved her dearly. After a few more stern questions, she would tell me, "Go play. And use the back stairs."

Up the stairs I would go. I don't remember the bedrooms at all. Guess I never bothered with them. The bathroom was wonderful! There was a huge tub with claw feet. The toilet had a tank suspended above it, and you had to pull a chain to flush. I thought that was great!

But the room that was my destination was the front room. It had been made into a sewing room and had a machine with a treadle. And sitting on the big window seat under the bay window overlooking the street was a record player - a big wooden box with a crank, and a funnel shaped speaker just like the ads. All that was missing was the little dog with head cocked. And there was a pile of records that held songs I never heard anywhere else. Outside the window was a street light. It had been converted to electricity by then of course, but still looked like an old gas light. And one of my favorites on those records was "The Old Lamplighter". I played it so many times it's a wonder I didn't wear out the grooves on the wax record.

I often wonder what East Walnut Lane looks like today. But I'm not ever going to go back to find out. I prefer to remember it as it was in the 30's, and to remember Aunt Emmy in her kitchen.


Dianne said...

I felt like I was there. I could even hear Aunt Emmy's voice, sounded to me much like my Nana's voice - falsely stern to mask unconditional love.

I found a street like this in Boston last time I was there. Brought back so many memories.

East Walnut Lane lives in many hearts - I am certain of that.

kenju said...

What a good post! My grandmother lived in an apartment like that - a long hallway and rooms off to one side - when I was in high school. I used to say that the hall was like a bowling alley lane. She also had a huge claw foot tub, but a more modern toilet than you speak of. I loved that bathroom; it was huge and had a black and white mosaic floor that was very artistic. When I sat in that tub, I felt small (even though I was 5'10"!

Minnesotablue said...

Aunt Emmy sounds like my Grandmother! Besides the garb you listed, mine always wore flesh colored long cotton stockings and black leather shoes with a heel. And the bun in her hair had to have a hairnet.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

What a wonderful remembrance. I love how you describe everything. It drew me right into the story. I've been writing family short stories like this in the past month or so, and one day I hope to have enough of them to print them and bind them for the family. Last weekend, I read some of them to my 86 year old mother and she listened with great care and corrected some of my memories.

Unknown said...

This was just lovely, were able to get across beautifully just how vivid your memories of your aunt Emmy's house still remain. Well done.


Anonymous said...

Marvelous, Bobbie! What a deft literary brush you use, to paint this evocative word picture. Rather like the descriptive passages in a really good novel, transporting one back in time. Thanks for sharing this... Deb

me ann my camera said...

I remember, "The Old Lamplighter"... I can remember the tune and it is running through my head as I write this; my mother used to sing it as she went about her daily work. Your post is very beautifully written and it brings back many memories of my childhood when I visited with my grandmother. The loving sterness, like that of Aunt Emmy's, was bestowed upon many children in those days I think.