The House at the End of the Street
My best friend’s family immigrated to Iowa from the island of Faial, home of the famous volcano, Capelinhos. Her name was Linda Pereira. Pereira means “pear tree” in Portuguese. It was the first word I learned in the language I later grew to love.
Linda’s Portuguese father came from the Azores to help develop the dairy farms outside of our town, but the Second World War began and interrupted the building of the dairies, as it did so many other businesses in those times. During the war, there were signs on many shop windows: “Closed for the duration.”
Onawa’s homes displayed shiny satin stars that designated how many sons of the household were in the armed forces. A blue star for each son, a gold star for each one who died. Some women hung all gold stars in their living room windows.
The whole town engaged in the war effort. We made shirts and blouses out of torn parachutes that soldiers sent home. I collected milkweed silk with our neighbors. Because the silk was buoyant and lightweight, it was used for stuffing flying suits and life vests, and also to make soft bandage liners.
Leaves of milkweed plants are a favorite of Monarch butterflies. A decade later, as a young mother, I found a milkweed pod with my daughter Linda. I told her the story about how we used milkweed during the war and how Monarch butterfly pupas can develop in the pods. We put it in a jar and waited. After some weeks, a beautiful orange and black butterfly emerged.
When I was in fifth grade I stayed after school and got into a ruler fight with the best looking boy in the class. He cut my lip with a ruler. I went home with it bleeding and my parents asked themselves if they should call his parents. They never did. In Iowa then we solved most problems by not talking about them. God got even with him though, he was the first in my class to die, from cancer at fifty (revenge is mine sayeth the lord). I should have known right then never to fight with a man. I’d end up bleeding, in some way or another.
One afternoon when I was eleven, I broke my leg running to visit my friend Linda. She lived in the most rustic house on our block, soon to be torn down. The Pereiras had no indoor plumbing or heating, except for the black pot-bellied stove that sat in the middle of their living room.
All the houses on our street had concrete sidewalks leading up to our doors, except for the Pereiras. Their walkway was made of wooden slats. On the day I broke my leg, I was hurrying to hear Linda’s father play the guitarra and slipped on a slat just outside the front door. I heard my leg bone snap when I fell, and yelled for my brother Steve to run and get my father. Dad and Linda’s father, João, carried me home to the Sick Room.
The doctor said it was a “greenstick” fracture — broken in the jagged way green wood breaks when bent. It made me a celebrity. Almost everyone I knew came to visit so they could autograph my cast. My grandparents took the train down from Nebraska to cheer me through the long hours of convalescence. Linda’s mother sent over rice cakes. I think even Grandmother Stevens, a renowned cook in our circles, marveled at Mrs. Pereira’s culinary artistry.
I loved staying overnight at Linda’s house. Tucked in a loft under the steep pitched roof, we snuggled down together in a pile of soft quilts, talking till we fell asleep in her old iron bed. Since there was no other heat in the house, the family gathered around the stove to listen to her father play the guitarra portuguesa while her mother sang mournful fados. Sometimes we danced the chamarrita hand-in-hand, all of us circling around the stove as Mrs. Pereira sang.
Linda’s father emigrated from the Azores to help develop dairy farms outside of town. Before he could get started, the Second World War began, interrupting the building of dairies as it did so many other businesses. Signs appeared on the shop windows: “Closed for the Duration.” The Pereiras were our neighbors throughout the war years and a bit beyond.
I taught Linda a secret code I’d made up, so that we could have a private language of our own that no one else knew. She, too, was deeply interested in the telegraph, radio and other communications. No one else in our town spoke it, so we used Portuguese words in our code. We could tell each other secrets in front of our friends.
My mother, with her knowledge of Spanish, tried to help translate for the Pereiras. She could read Portuguese, but couldn’t get much of what was said when João spoke it. We all worked hard to understand and communicate with each other. The openly emotional way Linda and her family interacted and spoke enriched my life. Our friendship nurtured my craving for Latin culture and the passionate expressive life it seemed to embody.
I often invited Linda over to bathe in our giant claw-foot tub and spend the night when we moved into our new house, the old Holbrook mansion at the end of Main Street. We poured pink sparkling sea salts into the steamy water and sometimes lolled in bubble baths, practicing our secret code talk. These were the only times she got to take a hot bath and soak in a real tub. At her home, they bathed with washcloths and sponges dipped into a porcelain basin, or more rarely, in a larger galvanized tub filled with warm water heated in tea kettles on the pot-bellied stove.
I adored the Holbrook mansion from the moment I set foot on its walkway. After climbing the massive front steps and crossing the porch, I encountered the giant oak door with its burnished doorknob. A big stained glass porch lamp hung above it. It was this same light that my boyfriend Bill turned off just before he kissed me goodnight (my first kiss) a few years later.
Mrs. Holbrook looked like Katherine Hepburn, elegant and beautiful with thick red hair. My mother had known the Holbrooks for years, since she first arrived in Onawa as a young school teacher. Originally from the East, they were Onawa’s elite. Mrs. Holbrook was the first cosmopolitan aristocrat I ever met and I knew it the minute she invited me into her home.
The gorgeous carpets, the grand piano and slightly foreign furnishings astounded me. A shining brass apparatus that looked like a miniature xylophone sat in one corner. It was a shoe-shining device from Turkey, according to Mrs. Holbrook. Its row of brass tubes held polishes of every color. An enormous hookah with silver carvings also stood in the living room. She said she had to polish it every week. I ran my hand over it and had a distinct premonition, even at age eleven, that the exotic life lived there was meant for me.
We got to know Mrs. Holbrook and her handsome son Weare as more than formal acquaintances when she offered to cook Thanksgiving dinner for us one year during the war. My mother was hospitalized for thyroid failure. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, but that one was extraordinary. I was thrilled when Dad appointed me to go to the Holbrook’s and bring back the feast.
Although rationing was in force, Mrs. Holbrook had prepared the most exquisite dinner, all with un-rationed ingredients. There was roasted pheasant rather than turkey, biscuits made out of cream of wheat. It looked like a dinner created by the Faery Queen herself.
The Holbrook house had a butlery between the kitchen and the dining room, where their “butler” kept his utensils.
“My hired man had to go into the service,” Mrs. Holbrook explained, as she packed the Thanksgiving dinner for me.
“Now the polishing falls on me.”
Mother sometimes hired a girl to help with cleaning, but I never knew anyone before or since Mrs. Holbrook who had a “butler,” until I moved to Colombia twenty years later. She stood out as high society in our Iowa town, but she also was unassuming and kind. My eleven-year-old self felt quite certain she behaved as a true aristocrat would.
I felt enchanted as I carried the feast home on its silver tray. Before I left she said to me, “Now Glenna, you keep that tray for the start of your own hope chest.”
I put the tray next to my bed. When mother came home from the hospital she told me she didn’t believe in hope chests.
“You don’t need a dowry. You are your own treasure.” I loved the tray though and always kept it by my bed to remind me of the elegance I wanted my life to become.
After that Thanksgiving, I thought of Mrs. Holbrook as our benefactor. Secretly, I took her as my mentor, my model for style and taste. It grieved me when I learned that she had to leave her grand home to spend her last days in a hospital. Townspeople told me she was kept alive on champagne and oysters. I’d eaten oysters as a Christmas delight and I’d heard of champagne on the radio. It seemed miraculous that someone could live on them.
Fifteen years later, when my first husband and I sat next to the president of Colombia, watching George Balanchine’s ballet, I felt a deep gratitude to Mrs. Holbrook for showing me how to be at home in the cosmopolitan world.
I also adored Weare Holbrook, who wrote for The New Yorker. He had long wavy hair and manicured fingernails. I’d never seen a man with elegant hands before. One afternoon when he dropped by to visit us, I was reading a movie magazine. My parents were embarrassed that I would display such lowbrow literary taste in front of our cultured friend, but I thought then that all words were okay. I still do.
In spite of my trashy reading tastes, Weare Holbrook took a liking to my family and sold his mother’s house to us after she died. He asked my parents’ permission to leave some of the books and possessions in the gorgeous mansion at the end of Main Street.
We moved in the year I turned thirteen. It was a palace for small-town children like us. I chose the upstairs bedroom, which had a glass porthole. It made me feel as if I lived on a ship. Its windows faced west and north, letting in the blue air.
Mother revered the brass doorknobs on all the upstairs bedroom doors, embossed with curvaceous unicorns. I polished them as one of my chores. My parents did not believe in allowances, but they paid us for work we did around the house.
When Grandmother Stevens died in Nebraska not long after we moved, Grandfather came to live with us. He took the small downstairs bedroom, which I think originally was for the Holbrooks’ butler. I often came home early from school to read Pope and Dryden to him, his favorites.
The house at the end of Main Street included a sleeping porch, where we all slept with the windows open in summer. We grew tall and hardy and didn’t need a Sick Room anymore. The ghost stories hibernated in our memories as four healthy teenagers took off on our separate paths. Without a steady audience of sick children, Grandfather began to write his family tales down using his old Smith Corona typewriter.
As a teenager, I corresponded with Weare briefly. He told me he thought I was the mysterious one in my family. To me, the Holbrooks were the exotics. How had they come to settle in a tiny Iowa town, build this gorgeous house and endow my life with such riches? In his letters, Weare mentioned his cousin, M.F.K. Fisher, the noted cook and author of so many meditations on food. His family inhabited a rarified realm that aroused my curiosity. I longed to be part of that world of writers, travelers and great food.
Even my high school boyfriend, Bill, could see that my adolescence felt too small for my dreams and ambitions. I’d lost my heart to him when I was fifteen. His family had founded a small town near ours and his grandfather was the judge in Monona County. A farmer, his father did some business at my father’s lumberyard. I had a crush on Bill for almost a year before the night we sat in his car, holding hands. Later, he kissed me after turning off the bulb in the light of the house at the end of the street.
Bill took me to dances at forbidden roadhouses. We swung to Gene Krupa in Sioux City and followed jazz bands, blues singers, and rockabilly musicians as they toured the back roads of northwestern Iowa. My favorite song when we were dating was “Blue Moon.” Such romantic lyrics: “Blue Moon/you saw me standing alone/without a dream in my heart/ without a love of my own.” That was our song and we danced to it all through the Missouri River-bank towns. I can still feel the thrill of those rhythms in his arms.
I love the big band jazz of the 1940s. It reminds me of that young romance. In the same way, I value old-fashioned bluegrass music, because it makes me think of my grandfather’s mandolin, of my family gathering to listen to my mother play piano and to sing nineteenth-century folk tunes like “Dark is the Mine.”
My friend Linda and I went through high school together, code talking and discussing love. Both of us hated sewing on the treadle machines in our home economics class. We were required to make dresses. Neither of us could get our treadle coordination right nor keep the stitches even, hard as we tried. The principal wouldn’t let Linda graduate until she finished her dress. My mother had wanted me to take homemaking, telling me I should try to be more like other girls. I always regretted that I did not take Chemistry instead and still yearn to study it. I’ve never been like other girls, and the Periodic Table of Elements is a giant code, enticing to crack.
Linda left Onawa without even telling me, “Ataja.” I felt like I’d lost my friend forever, but I prayed she would end up on the farm she had always wanted. I named my first daughter for her. When she read about my Linda’s AIDS work in Time in 1991, she got in touch with me. She had achieved her childhood dream of living on a dairy farm. I never did realize my fantasy of becoming a movie star. By the time we met again, life had carried me a long way from Onawa. I too lived on a farm, an avocado ranch in California with my second husband, my true and everlasting Bill.
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