December 24, 2018
William & Esther McKinney, hold Lynda, 1943
The Living Room
By Lynda McKinney Lambert
From the book
Walking by Inner Vision: Stories & Poems
DLD Books, 2017
“A baby on its mother’s back does not know the way is long.”
Esther looked forward to one special night of the year when she won’t be lonely in her quiet home. Esther walked slowly through the stillness and then she stopped briefly to look out the large picture window in her spacious living room. She checked once again to see if anyone had arrived yet. She won’t be alone tonight because it is Christmas Eve. Every year Esther’s four grown children returned home with their families to celebrate this special evening together. Esther’s face will be radiant with happiness throughout this evening and she’ll be transformed into the queen of the night. Esther is the lone matriarch of the family.
The elongated living room will quickly fill up with her children, grand children, and even great grandchildren tonight. This room was built with enough space for holding large gatherings for all sorts of family events. Along the one long wall, there is a gray stone fireplace. As she had done for many years previously, it was decorated with her hand painted ceramic angels. The three elegant angels are glazed all over in pearly white. Each carried a different musical instrument. She had accented those instruments with a glittering gold paint that matched the halo on each angel’s head. She always placed cranberry red candles among the angels and carefully arranged boughs of pine across the mantle. The graceful holiday decorations created shimmering reflections in the wide mirror that stretched out the entire length of the mantle behind them. The reflections made the room seem joyful and optimistic as the little multi-colored twinkle lights flashed brilliantly around the edges of the mirror. When Esther’s husband, Bill, was still alive he always made a crackling fire in that fireplace. Now it is bare and unused. She did not turn on the stereo tonight because she did not think about it
For this special occasion, Esther selected her favorite Christmas sweater. She has had it for years. The bright holiday sweater makes her feel happy. It is a warm sweater in bright Christmas red and on the front, it has white poinsettias and golden ribbons woven into the fabric. She didn’t think about what her two sisters will probably be wearing when they arrive tonight. The two elderly women, Fanchion and Bettie arrived early in the evening and as usual, each lady wore a noticeably similar Christmas sweater. The three sisters always shopped together and most of the time, when one sister selected something to buy, the other two bought one just like it. Bettie, the youngest sibling of the trio, complained to someone, later in the evening about it. She remarked, “I pick out this pretty sweater for myself. I found the sweaters first when we were shopping, and the other two had to copy me and buy one just like mine! They do this all the time. Why can’t they just pick out things for themselves?”
The three often grumbled about each other, but the siblings went shopping together often. Shopping helped fill the emptiness of their long days. The sisters each lived separately, in their own hone. They lived about two miles apart. They came from a family of seven children. At this time, only four girls survived. They had lost the two brothers and one sister in the last decade. Esther did not think about them very often any more. Sometime she even forgot they were no longer living and seemed surprised when someone mentioned they passed away. She became agitated; her eyes widened as she said,
“They died? Oh, no! I didn’t know that. Why didn’t you tell me they died? I wanted to see them again! I wanted to go to their funeral. Why didn’t anyone let me know about this?”
Each time she learned again that one of her siblings was dead, she wept all over again. It always happened as someone brought up a conversation about their deaths. Each time it was the beginning of grieving for her.
When Esther’s children look back through old family photos they laugh when they see the three sisters sitting at a wedding reception. Each sister is dressed in a delicate little flowered dress. Very often another sister, Jeanne, is there in the photos and sometimes her outfit looks like the other sister’s clothing. Strange, isn’t it? They all have the same taste.
In the final decade of their life, Esther, Fanchion, and Bettie lived alone and they did many things together. Fanchion’s husband died at a very young age. They had two teen age children when he died. She was on her own after that. She worked in a neighborhood bakery. Everyone in town knew her from the bakery. Her two children left home to go to school in different states and they never returned to the small rural town where Fanchion and her sisters lived. Her two children lived far away. After Christmas each year, Fanchion flew across the country to visit with her son for a month. When she returned from her annual winter visit in sunny California, she spent the rest of the year telling stories about her visit.
Bettie’s name is actually Mary Elizabeth. In infancy, she had a kidney disease and the family gave her special attention because she was so sick. After her retirement she spent every day with her older sister, Fanchion. She worked as a secretary in the local steel mill where she was hired right after she graduated from high school throughout her long life, she told stories about her travels across the country in her girlfriend’s new car. Her long trip to California and her one-time trip to Jamaica with her girlfriends gave her memories to talk about for the rest of her life.
Esther’s husband, Bill, died eleven years before tonight. It happened suddenly one Saturday morning. It was in July. While Esther prepared their breakfast in the kitchen at the opposite end of the home, Bill had left this world. He was in their bedroom and had not yet come out to have his breakfast with Esther. His sudden departure was a shock she never really recovered from, I recall several occasions when she grew silent and it was apparent, she was overcome with sadness as she spoke, I turned my head away for her words were too hard for me to take in. I tried to hold back my own tears as I silently inhaled and held my breath.
“I never got to even say good bye to Bill. I realize he didn’t come out of our room yet, I am in the kitchen reading my morning devotions. I hear him get up and go to the bathroom. Then, I think he should have come out for breakfast by now. Where is he? I walk through the living room and into our bedroom He is just laying there on the bed. All stretched out on his back. His arms are wide open and his feet hang down almost touching the floor. He is wearing one sock but the other foot is bare. I see he was putting on his socks. But he’s not moving. I scream and rush over to him. I shake him, but he never moves. I try to put my mouth over his open mouth, and I try to breathe into him to wake him up. Nothing is working. I leave him and I run as fast as I can run, through the house, out the door, across the lawn to the neighbor’s house. I need help! Bill needs help he isn’t breathing and I cannot wake him up.” Bill left Esther alone at 6:30 am on July 17th, 1988. This is the year they would have celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary on Christmas Day!
Esther was now seventy-nine years old – still a beautiful woman. Her sharp, deep amber-brown eyes had clouded over. They looked like a gray film had grown over the rich darkness of her eyes. She was still tall and looked stately. Her dark raven hair had slowly transformed into a soft, short silver color. She patiently watched out the thick glass window at the end of the living room.
“I am sure someone will be here soon,” she whispered to the empty living room.
Some people told Esther she should sell her house and move into a smaller one. They said she needed one without such a big yard to take care of since Bill isn’t here anymore. Her four children spoke about this to each other and once in awhile one of her children told her she needed to move out of the big house so she would not have so many things to worry about and such a large yard that needed tending. But, Esther’s response to everyone who said something like that was,
“No, Bill built this house, and I can never leave it. And, if I sold this house, we would not have a place for our Christmas Eve party.”
Esther was stoic in her determination to stay in the home she helped build. She managed to hold on to her home because it was built just for her and she loved it. The walls of every room surrounded her with a lifetime of memories. And, it held future possibilities for her Christmas Eve parties for her family.
Bill and Esther did build the house, just like they had planned. When they were younger and their four children were all at home, Esther and Bill dreamed about the house they would build some day. Bill, a good artist and draftsman, entertained the children with his drawings of cartoons and animals. He made sketches of the ideas they formulated and envisioned their new house. Each of the children can recall the many times their parents poured over plans for a new home they wanted to build. Bill even constructed a meticulous scale model of the house they planned together. The model he built was large. It was on a sheet of plywood. Bill spent the long, solitary winter months in the basement working on the model. One of the features they planned so carefully was the spacious living room. It was the most important room in their home.
Now, so many years later, Esther is here all alone inside their dream house. They had worked side by side to build this home. Esther was 38 years old and Bill was 42 when they moved their young family of four children into this house. It is the house where the children grew up together.
Esther and Bill always dreamed of living in a nice neighborhood and in a house that they built. They made their dream come true. It was a little at a time, as they could pay for the things they needed when building it. Bill was a Pennsylvania steelworker. I can remember so many times when the men who worked in the steel mill went out on strike or when there would be lay-offs, and those times were difficult for our family. After they started building the house, there would be several times when all construction work came to a stand-still due to unemployment. Our whole family actually moved into the basement of the house. I was fifteen years old that summer. While our family lived in that basement, the upstairs was being built. In a year or so, we all finally moved upstairs into the newly-finished house.
It was exciting for me, as a fifteen-year-old girl, to be part of this new adventure in our life.
“It is a sultry, warm summer day and the men are here to start mixing up the fresh batches of plasterer. They set up all the equipment outside the front room, right there in the mud. They laid down some boards and they are walking back and forth on the boards, pushing the wheelbarrow. Some of the men are carrying the wet plaster on large boards. They hold the boards up with their arm and balance it on a shoulder, and walk as fast as they can towards the house. They are really strong men and this is hard work carrying all the plaster into the house and to the room where they are putting it on the walls. With each trip into the house the men start to cover the open studding. They are making wet walls that are getting thick and strong. I like to hang around watching the men and joke with them a lot. When they came today, I told them, “I want you to make the plaster lavender for my bedroom.” The man looked at me while he was shaking his head from side to side. “We never made lavender plaster before, but I’ll see if we can figure out how to do it.” I looked at him and offered one final plea for lavender plaster. “I really want lavender plaster in my room! It’s my favorite color and I don’t want anything else but lavender.”
It was not long before the crew began carrying in the lavender plaster for my bedroom. “I do have to share this new room with my sister, Patti, and I hope she likes lavender because that is just what we are getting,” I thought.
I did not mention the fact that once we get the room plastered, Mom said we can go pick our fabric for the new drapes she will order. “I am going to pick out fabric that has black and white abstract print on it.”
Our long-awaited new house was completed over the next week as the laborers made trip after trip from the mixing place outside, into the rooms inside the new ranch style house…
“I have always loved real hand-crafted plaster. The walls seem so solid and give me a feeling that I am safe inside of them. When I rap on a real plastered wall, I can hear the dull thud that does not make an echo. The house seems to have a nicer voice once it is dry and has aged. The older it gets, the clearer it sounds. Handmade plaster sounds soft, and friendly. When I lay my ear beside those walls, I can listen to the men talking as they carried it and slathered it onto the walls. I can hear the men bring in the plaster and the sounds of my two brothers and my sister as we danced about inside the bare, unfinished house. Memories whisper to me and I can hear the many voices from the past. The plastered walls have the power to speak and the voices of our family remain inside the plastered walls.”
One of the loveliest sounds that echoed through the house was Esther’s voice as she sang hymns. She was a strong singer with a ringing alto voice. The living room was her concert hall as she dusted the table tops or washed the large picture window.
Esther Luella Kirker started singing as a small child with her family. Almost her entire family sang or played a musical instrument. Everyone who knew her family always remarked about the music they all made together at the local Methodist church. Esther’s father, James, played the coronet in the church orchestra. Her oldest brother, Clair, was there, too, because he played the tenor saxophone. Sister Jeanne played the Piano. Esther sang along with the family musicians. Her voice was her instrument. Esther sang at church. Members of the congregation often asked her to sing their favorite hymns. She continued singing those old-time heavenly songs by memory her entire life. My Mother had forgotten many things these days, but she never forgot how to sing. She never forgot the words or the melodies of the old hymns. “How Great Thou Art” and “In the Garden” are two hymns that still ring in my memories today. I remember my Mother’s voice.
Around 7 PM everyone began to arrive tonight. They parked on the blacktop driveway at the Mercer Road residence. Cars soon lined the driveway and even down the sides onto the frozen lawn. Our entire family members came bursting through the front door. They called out, “Merry Christmas” and laughed as they greeted each other with hugs and smiles. They carried in holiday foods wrapped up with foil and they juggled boxes and bags of bright wrapped gifts. Each person wore holiday outfits for this special night. Christmas Eve at our house was a grand affair and everyone always dressed in their sparkling new outfits; velvet, lace, silk, and taffeta dresses were on all the little curly haired granddaughters. Their little brothers had slicked down hair and they arrived with small metal models of cars and soft stuffed toys to keep them busy.
Once her family members began arriving with their arms stacked with wrapped gifts and foods, we quickly put out the colorful holiday food on the table Esther had prepared for this feast. Esther served the very same punch every year. It is a fruity punch and we all expected to enjoy it. If she ever changed and used a different recipe, it would not be the same for us. We loved her frothy pink fruit punch. When my father was still living, I brought him his favorite pie, an old fashioned Shoo-fly Pie or a mincemeat pie. For all the others, I baked pecan pies and praline pumpkin pies.
Dad was a smoker most of his life. He used to laugh and say he started smoking when he was 10 years old. When times were hard and the mills were on strike, Dad always rolled his own cigarettes at the kitchen table. Mom just hated smoking. We children liked the smoke rings. Dad sat down in his rocking chair, tilted his head back a little bit, and made his mouth into an “O” shape. He liked to blow those smoke circles into the air. He entertained us with those magical rings of smoke dissipating into the atmosphere of the living room. As he sat in his favorite chair, blowing smoke rings, we giggled. When one of the kids had an ear ache, Dad blew smoke into the painful ear to bring relief. Eventually, Dad did his smoking outside since our Mom didn’t want smoke in the house. He went on long walks in the woods. I think he took those long walks so he could smoke all he wanted to with nobody to tell him he should not be doing it. He had a contrary spirit and he liked to do things that made other people angry sometimes. What I liked best about his walks in the woods was the variety of mushrooms he brought home for us to eat. He soaked the wild mushrooms in salty water to clean them. The next thing he did was put them in a sizzling skillet and fried the sweet earthy fungi in butter. Oh, I can still taste those freshly gathered tasty treats!!
Bill knew the woods and he knew exactly where to go to find the different kinds of mushrooms. How I wish I had learned how to hunt for mushrooms with him!
After Bill’s meals, every day, he made his favorite dessert. It was a “coffee soak” as he called it. He took a couple pieces of bred and put them on his plate. Then, he poured hot coffee over the bread, added a nice generous scoop of sugar to the top. The sugar soaked up the coffee and melted into the bread. Every meal ended with that treat for Bill. The kitchen had a warm coffee aroma as Bill enjoyed his coffee soak.
When the new house was nearly finished, Bill brought some spindly trees home from the woods. He planted them around the house and down the driveway. One neighbor remarked, “Those trees from the woods will never grow.” Tonight, the bare winter branches of the Maple and Sycamore Trees stand tall and strong in the early darkness of a Pennsylvania winter. They were just like my Father and Mother might have imagined them forty years ago. Our Father’s hands were hardened by years of labor in the steel mill yet he carefully crafted this house and surrounding beauty of the yard through years of sacrifice and labor.
Tonight, in the gently beating heart of our family home, our Mother’s swollen arthritic hands struggle to open the gifts we stacked around her. She looks so fragile and seems almost like she is drifting away to another place while we sit and watch her surrounded by her unopened gifts. These days, she struggles with almost everything. She often forgets ordinary things she had done for many years in earlier times of her life. She does not say very much tonight but she keeps on smiling. It is almost like she is part of a dream. She is like a Christmas angel, surrounded by her many offspring. She is quieter tonight. Sometimes she looks lost in the middle of the family celebration in the living room. At times, I watch her and try to imagine what she might be thinking about in the middle of this noisy laughter.
The plastered walls of this living room are filled with our memories of parties, wedding showers, dancing feet, laughing children, praying, intimate embraces, our father’s smoke rings, our mother’s songs, and sorrowful tears.
As I glance over at her, I wonder if she is listening to the walls, hearing the voices from the past years. Esther looks out over the five generations who have gathered here every Christmas Eve. The annual photos record the changes in the family. Small babies who once crawled on the floor now bring their own little babies to squirm through the ocean of wrapping paper. Bill is no longer in any of the family Christmas photos. Esther looks frail, and smaller than she does in those photos.
The living room has now become a witness in the house we filled with laughter, tears and secrets. The living room is part of a conspiracy tonight.
We all know that this Christmas Eve gathering is Esther’s last Christmas Eve party in her home. We will never again be here as a family gathered around together. We are all facing a shift in our life. We will all be going in different directions after this night. While we smile and chat, we are lonely and deeply sad. I wrote a special poem about the house and gave a copy of it to every family member tonight. There are tears behind our smiles. We all feel the meaning of the word “bittersweet.”
The day after Christmas, I took my Mom to the local hospital for an evaluation. As we had all suspected, she was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She lived another eight years but we would never again be in the living room of our childhood home for another celebration… This was the end of all our happy holidays together as a family. Our Mother’s life changed and so did we. Each Christmas Eve, the living room remains the same as we always knew it. But now, it is only in our memories.