We lived on the low side of a hilly street in a neighborhood where that was one of the only two choices. The high side usually came accompanied with any alley from which you could access your house, and your back yard was above your house. Our house was closely nestled between its immediate neighbors. The Foleys to the one side had their path to the back yard on the same side as we did, so there were probably about eight feet between us. The only thing that separated our house from O’Donnell’s on the other side was their narrow walkway, which dropped down about six feet below our front porch. This provided a great location for leaning across the path while threatening those who went beneath. It was like London Bridge meets The Billy Goats Gruff. It was quite satisfying when I was first able to lean over and reach; satisfying and an enormous relief that I didn’t plunge down those six feet onto the concrete below.
The largest part of our house was the basement. Under the porch was the coal cellar that held remnants of its original purpose with hunks of smudgy coal. It was small and dank, fitting its name, and held very little because of its inhospitable aspect. Mum would store some sort of preserved holly wreath in there, but I remember it as the only empty room in our little house. To get to the coal cellar, you had to step up from the dirt cellar. The dirt cellar was a more useful spot, there was an actual light switch rather than a pull chain. When turned on it revealed the stone foundation walls a couple of beat-up cupboards and the Christmas decorations. It acted as an inconvenient pantry and held the fuse box. It was called the dirt cellar because the floor was dirt.
Then there was the furnace room, whose purpose is obvious as well. What you would not guess at is the enormity of the mechanism it housed. A galvanized steel behemoth that had once used the aforementioned coal, it had been retrofitted to use natural gas. It still had the heavy door where the coal once had been shoveled inside of which, where now there was a ring of small blue flames. From this base extended exactly three broad pipe extensions that lead to the registers: one each in the living and dining rooms and one in the hall way upstairs between the bedrooms. There was little to do in this room beyond walk around the furnace to get to the laundry room, again self-descriptive, with the added oddity of a beautiful green porcelain oven and the mangle with which I had a love/hate relationship. The big problem with the laundry room was that the pipes were susceptible to freezing despite its massive neighbor in the next room.
Just like the early sky scrapers in New York, our house got smaller as you went up. You entered the house from the front porch into the living room. Between it and the dinning room was a stairway and a 4 x 4 area where the phone was kept on a succession of ugly wire holders with spaces for the phone books below. The dining room I always thought was large. In addition to an upright piano, it held a table for the six of us, a gorgeous old buffet that had belonged to Grandma Madden, a window box and our refrigerator. The refrigerator was in the dining room because the kitchen was too small to fit it. It was too small to hold much more than sink, the Magic Chef stove and a small porcelain table. It was absolutely stretched to its limits after dinner when it would also have to accommodate a few bicker sisters complaining to each other about the inadequacy of the clearing, rinsing or washing of the dishes.
Also off the dining room was the bathroom, both of these rooms having been added when plumbing arrived. As such neither of them had heat, which was more of a problem in the bathroom. It was solved by one of my favorite objects in our house: a small iron gas stove; it, too, called a register. It was about two feet high and a foot in either other direction. Even then it was old-fashioned. It was open on the front with an angled interior wall that was ridged like a washboard. Where it met the back of the stove were about a dozen tiny jets that you lit with a match. The bathroom was a special spot, being the only one in the house where we had the right to close the door and be left alone. Having six people in competition for that spot could present problems among us, but there was nothing more wonderful than drawing a bath (there was no shower) on a winter’s night, lighting the stove and entering into that damp room It would be perfumed by the hard milled soap my mother always ordered from the department stores and lit by the little flames from the stove. If you could manage to successfully have your bath without interruption or demands to “hurry up”, it was blissful. Actually it was anyway. Space and solitude being in short supply.
Up the narrow stairway were the two bedrooms. The front bedroom over the living room was our parents’ room, even occasionally occupied by both of them. In the back the four of us girls lived, mostly in bunk beds, sometimes in just twin beds in between the clothes that didn’t make it to the closet. In the ceiling of the closet was a push through hatch that led to the “attic”. My mother put the absolute fear of God (which at the time was substantial) into me about going into the attic because there were no floors and we would fall through the ceiling above the stairs. I was not particularly timid, but the visions that this conjured of feet flailing out of the ceiling combined with the difficulty of gaining entry into this unknown and dusty spot convinced me. It is another thing that has stuck with me from my childhood. As an adult, I lived in our house for nearly 20 years and I never went into the attic. But as a realtor for the same amount of time, I had no problem forging gamely ahead into basements.