This Old House, This Old Room – Tom’s essay recalls the history of an old house, once an inn for travelers, that now houses memories of people, places, and poetry.
For the sake of history and legend, certain attributes, character traits if you will, have to be appointed here at the beginning of This Old House (B. 1742), home for half a century of my life, and This Old Room, furnished with a computer by me for the last 27 years. Yet, I swear thick-cut Edgeworth pipe tobacco bears its welcome as strong as the creaking chair of my grandfather, the diminutive Johnny Igoe. This most memorable compartment was also his room for 20 years of literate cheer, storied good will, the pleasantries of expansive noun and excitable verb, and his ever-lingering poems—each a repeated resonance, a victory of sound and meaning and the magic of words. Yet be of stout spirit, for the chair mocks time only in the clutch of darkness thick as the eternal void, and the tobacco’s no longer threatening in its gulp.
To walk these stairs, up or down, a signal for day or evening in the heart of otherwise silence, is to hear sassy children underfoot, the underlings of square nails stretching their might, hanging on for two-and-a-half centuries worth of treads and risers and hand-hewn stringers. Ah, pingsnap! Last night I heard one letting go, tired of the holding on. Without doubt, age talks back to you at night. Pingsnap! Pingsnap! Oh, woe! Hear that message, hear that voice.
A few major beams, some a foot across, are newly exposed by my reach back into the house’s beginning, revealing axe marks permanent as severe scars. Bark on round edges of odd main beams clings in place, refusing to let go. That refusal boggles the mind to think these beams were slabbed out of trees closing in on three-hundred years of being, if not already there. With a span of uncounted generations, their grip hangs tenacious.
A special window sits snug, close by the porch roof. How many times it has been the way in or out for generations of youth, on to daughters or destinies we’ll never know. My sons and attesting companions saw one Halloween night—stars mere, the moon absconded with light—the shadow of a man in a felt hat. A strange man, they swore and swear. So strong the sight that all these years later they step aside passing through the back hall, as if making room for the dusky persona grata, granting memorial space for the solitary and dark intruder, though it’s also sworn he wore the hat of a kind last seen hereabouts only on my father.
From a most personal confrontation comes another point of house lore. Standing by the twin windows of the bathroom one weekend morning, I watched two of my sons and a daughter at early play. The day bristled and crackled, leaves were thick of pile, like golden and myriad red Persians at a momentary standstill of their October march. My eyes trained on my own beginnings, where an old barn, sloped at ridge beam and atilt, leaning forever, continued to lose energies and imaginations. Inside that barn, rain would hang on like old statements. Soft, wet corners heaved mushrooms out of droppings swept from stallions, now but bone. Spider webs, taking up their dew, walked on railroad silver, aiming for stars locked at night. It’s likely wetter underground but can’t smell like this: old blankets out all night, dog’s breath, and leather still breathing hide work that a mule threw off his brewed chassis after barreling the field all day.
My intent was to watch and marvel at child’s play and hustle, to propose and endure love from a distance, tempest of the far heart. Mysteriously, I was joined by another father who peered over my shoulder, sharing my intent. This man, this visitor, appeared out of the damp air of the room, a specter of comfort and custom, and tried, I assumed, to take his place again, steal something back he had lost. I told him without looking back at him, sort of indirectly at first, and then most pointedly, that this time was mine. That father, and who knows how many others in conjunction with him in the same space, went quietly back to his eternal comfort. There were no tears, no ministrations or implorations, no wringing of hands, no fright wrought out of his visit, as though an inalienable right had been invoked.
This house, in its infancy and another heyday, was the Oyster Inn, a stagecoach stop on the Boston-Newburyport run, late in the eighteenth century. Part of the proof is a layer of discarded oyster shells that every garden in the backyard has revealed: thick, white archeological strata most likely boasting both pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary chalk. Such digs have uncovered old sump holes, dried and rock-throated wells gone harshly back to earth again. Leech fields and cesspools also bear rock, all laying a way of drainage off to the river a quick 200 feet away. The theory is after 17 feet of such plunging through sand and soil, purity is re-established, resurrected.
This is a house whose rafters and beams of its three floors are either 9×12 or 10×13 or 8×11 or thereabouts in its barn-body mix. On these beams, an ancient coin was deposited by carpenter or builder as a token fetish. Inside one wall and atop one window came forth a child’s high button shoe nailed with a square nail to a lintel as a carpenter’s statement. The old shoe’s sole is worn extremely thin on one side as if that carpenter’s child or builder’s child had dragged one foot through a period of her early life. The shoe most likely is a fetish, a buttoned talisman or an amulet, or, as my father once pointed out from his worldly tours with the Marines, an antinganting, which a legendary Filipino had left impressed on his storied mind.
Oh, that child haunts me yet. She comes back each time I look upon the shoe framed in a recess of glass with a museum of house nails and clay marbles exhumed from beam restoration or foundation gravel. Each night, as I douse the last kitchen light, empty out day like a shopkeeper at the till, I think she might have been the daughter of the other father who looked over my shoulder that day in the upstairs bathroom, where my territory and time were invaded, with a quiet retreat following. Honor among parents, perhaps, or the Good Carpenter, Joseph himself, making a stand for his tradesmen.
This house is where boards in the roof are sometimes thirty-six inches broad, telling me the local forests have gone through generation change. A portion of one cellar is a single stone no horse could have moved during construction and instead became part of the house’s lasting support. Archways of red mickey bricks out of a long-gone nearby kiln stand as tunnels through the basement. Two-and-a-half centuries later, those bricks continue to hold up all eight fireplaces, needed for warmth, including two beehive ovens. Some nights alone, letting all my genes work their way into a froth of knowledge, I taste the bread and the beans from those ovens. I know the mud that sealed these domed cooking chambers, feel the kitchen work its magic.
This is an abode from whose front yard I can—even today, approaching my 90th birthday, and bet the farm on it—throw a stone clear to the First Iron Works of America, Cradle of American Industry. A smooth granite hitching post, four hundred pounds or better and buried for nearly a century in the backyard, waits to sit again in that front yard, by the granite walk and steps. A hole drilled through ten inches of that granite snubbing post and horse holder was for a wrought iron ring, which has fled back into the earth again. One son, I know, will put both back where they belong—time coming, time allowed, tools at home in his hands and history.
On the floor of the wainscoted front room, in front of another fireplace sitting on those red mickey arches, was where my wife, as my young son said at the time, was kissing baby Betsy on the floor. Betsy, in the wrath of a momentary seizure, grande mal, and Mommy, RN, gave mouth-to-mouth to her daughter for the first of two tries. That same spot of life-saving retrieval was later only a few feet away from the door where I met fifteen-year-old Betsy sneaking back in at four o’clock in the morning, having slipped out her brothers’ window. “Oh, Dad,” she said unflappably, “you’re up early.” (Now she has three children she must watch!)
All that aside, it is this room here that counts. It is both meager and plush: 11×15 in measure, a fireplace and hearth jutting off one wall, another wall lined with 60 feet of bookshelves. A quick look shows all the signed copies from Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, Donald Junkins, and Donald Hall among other Donalds, John Farrow’s (sic) “City of Ice,” comrade James Hickey’s “Chrysanthemum in the Snow,” some bound mementos of my own, and dozens of sports trophies in hockey, football, baseball and softball awarded to my children.
One window looks out on the Iron Work’s original slag pile, Saugus River’s salt basin plush with reeds and marsh grass, and telescopes towards Boston and the ocean a mere five miles away. Without doubt, it is the warmest room in the house with only one 11-foot wall being an outside wall, the other three being inside walls with camel’s hair in the plaster mix. The floor is maple that I can’t replace commercially; where a closet once stood, it is fitted with lumberyard oak, slightly off-color but in the mix. My original computer, an old Mac with a screen like a postage stamp, no longer hums late into the night or well before dawn; now it sits against one wall beside the fireplace. Here is where I work on a newer unit, chock full of ideas, aspirations, and memories of him.
For this is where Johnny Igoe ate only oatmeal in the morning, then a boiled potato and a shot of whiskey for lunch. Here, he found Yeat’s voice to be his own, that marvelous treble and clutter of breath buried in it; The Lake Isle of Innisfree popped free like electricity or the very linnets themselves, Maude like some creature I’d surely come to know. Johnny Igoe wrote his poems here and yielded to me Yeats and Mulrooney and Padraic Gibbons out of the long rope of his memory, the knots untied every Saturday evening of his life and mine. He also launched many of my own poems here, by the hundreds.
The saga of Johnny Igoe is the epic of a nation. At ten, he ran ahead of the famine that took brothers and sisters, and lay father down. In the hold of a ship, he heard the myths and music he would spell all his life, remembering hunger and being alone, and brothers and sisters and father gone, and mother praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror of hers last touching his face.
Johnny Igoe came alone at ten and made his way across Columbia (that long-ago name for the land encompassing the original Thirteen Colonies). He got my mother, who got me and told me when I was twelve that one day Columbia would need my hand and I must give. And tonight, I (in Korea in 1951-1952) say, “Columbia, I am here with my hands and with my rags of war.”
As far back as I go, he is there. Perhaps he wrote “The Roscommon Emigrant” that he read to us in the quiet kitchen at night in winter. I am not sure, but he wound the Isle about us, and he teased with his fairies and the names like Ross, Culleen and Clooniquin. “Though adopted by Columbia, I am Erin’s faithful child.”
He had bent his back in mines of Pennsylvania and Illinois, and swung a hammer north of Boston, poled his star-lit way down the Erie Canal, and died in bed. His years are still with me in the wind he breathed, storms he stood against, and earth he pounded with his fist to fill the mouths of his children and my mother. When he was lonely, he was hurt and sometimes feared the pain he could not feel because he knew it and how it came.
To be wise, a man had to think hard and often, he said. Nothing was useless: not a sliver of wood because it makes a toothpick; not a piece of glass broken from a wine bottle because it catches sun and makes us wonder; not a stray stone or brick because it is a wedge or wall-part or corner, as in the foundation of his old gray house that had wide windows and doors that were never locked—especially in fiercest winter when those memorable scarecrows littered our Malden neighborhood, those gassed in the French trenches of World War I, their lives caught in waves of fouled air for perpetuity.
On snowbound mornings, he laughed with us when daylight sought us eagerly and in cricket nights of softness that spoiled kneeling prayers. Sometimes his soft eyes were sad while we laughed, and we didn’t know about his memories of the man down the street or the boy who died racing a train against young odds. His prayers were not an interlude with God: they were as sacred as breathing, as vital as the word. And the politicians never got his vote because he knew the pain they intended, and he hated hurt. Hated hurt.
The floorboards creaked beneath him in the mornings when he brought warmth into chilled rooms, and coffee slipped its aroma between secret walls to waken us. The oats were heavy and creamed in large white bowls. “Go easy on the sugar,” was the bugle call of dawn.
His books had a message that he heard, alone and quiet, singing with the life he knew was near past and yet beginning. He pampered and petted those volumes, like he did Grandma, and spent secret hours with them, and lived them with us rehearsing our life to come and teaching us.
One biting, cold spring day in 1955 soon to become memorial, the sun but snippets, ice still hiding out in shadow, winter remnants piled up in a great gathering, I was bound to a shovel for the tenth day in a row. That’s when I heard of Johnny Igoe’s death in his 97th year. Grass and buds and shoots and sprigs of all kinds were aimless as April. All the vast morning I’d hunted the sun, tried to place it square on my back. But the breeze taunted, left a taste in my mouth.
Sullivan Marino, brother-in-law and boss who loved the shovel, doing the Earth over, walked at me open as a telegram. Sicilian eyes tell stories, omit nothing in the relation. “Your grandfather’s dead.” He reached for my shovel; it would not leave my hands. I saw Johnny Igoe at ten cutting turf, just before he came this way with the great multitude. I saw how he too moved the ponderous earth, the flame of it caught in iron, a young Irishman scorching the ground he walked. He had come here. I went there, later, to where he’d come from, to Roscommon’s sweet vale, slow rush of land, shouldering up and going into sky, clouds shifting themselves like pieces at chess, earth ripening to fire. I saw it all, later, where he’d come from.
But on that day, sun-searching and memorializing, with Sullivan’s hand out to take the shovel away, I could stand no dalliance the day Johnny Igoe died
The tobacco smell still lives in this room. His books still live, his chair, his cane, the misery he knew, the pain. Somewhere, he is.
He might be housed in this computer, for now he visits or never leaves. Or in Yeats recordings, with a voice that to me is my grandfather’s. In the dark asides before a faint light glimmers, it is the perky pipe’s glow I see, weaker than a small, struck match but illuminating all the same. I smell the old Edgeworth tobacco faint as a blown cloud in the air, the way a hobo might know an apple pie cooling on a windowsill from afar. I hear his rocking chair giving rhythm to my mind, saying over and over again all those trusted words he left with hard handles on them for my grasping: “Keep the words a’ boil!”
Tom Sheehan is a profilic, award-winning writer and a great friend of FaithHopeandFiction. Among his many accomplishments are: 33 Pushcart Prize nominations, five Best of the Net nomination (one winner), short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012-2015, and a Georges Simenon Fiction Award. He has published 32 books and has four books in a publisher’s production line.