“The Castle on East Franklin Street,” New Era, Nov. 1983, 44
Everyone in the family loved the house we lived in on East Franklin Street, everyone that is except me. My father called it “the Castle,” and from a distance (it was on a hill) it did look a little like a castle. The Castle was a dream come true for my parents. They’d had it built after nearly ten years of careful saving and planning, and even though it’s been years since we lived there my father still tells of my mother supervising the construction.
“Mama,” he says grinning. “She put her nose into everything. She made sure all of the carpenters put their nails in right and of course she knew more about bricklaying than any mason we hired. Everything had to be just so for her. If anyone did something she didn’t like, boy, did he hear about it.”
He tells that part of the story when my mother is listening. When she isn’t, he tells of how all the workers threatened to quit if she didn’t leave them alone and of how he saved the day by sending her to buy carpets and furniture.
When it was finished it was one of the most elegant homes in town. It was Victorian style complete with spires and a cupola. My mother was especially proud of the windows. Several in the front of the house were made of cut and frosted glass, and another on the south side had the design of a unicorn made with stained glass.
Everyone liked the house but me. The place just took too much work. If my mother and father were the king and queen of the Castle, I knew exactly where I stood—serf.
Painting the house was the biggest job. It was a project that lasted two months, two of the best months of summer, and involved everyone in the family. When we—I had six brothers and sisters—became old enough and careful enough we would be given the honor of doing the actual painting. This honor was bestowed with great ceremony. The night before the painting started, a large bonfire was built and then with the entire family watching my father would tap the shoulders of the honored person with a paintbrush.
“I knight you into the royal order of the paintbrush of the Madison family,” he said in his deepest and most ceremonious voice.
Afterward we celebrated with a banquet of fried chicken, potato salad, homemade root beer, and cake. A feast, of course, fit for a king. Toasts were made with the root beer and songs were sung, all directed to the new knight. It was great fun. The knights being initiated into King Arthur’s round table probably felt no more honored than we did when we became knighted into the royal order of the paintbrush.
Unfortunately for me, the year I became old enough to paint was the summer I became interested in baseball. The day painting started was also the day my team had its first practice game.
My mother wouldn’t let me get out of painting to go to the game.
“The house and the family are more important than anything else,” she said.
I knew my team wouldn’t have a chance without me, so while everyone was busy working, I painted my way to a far corner of the house and made a run for it. I reached a row of trees growing on the edge of our property and waited. I watched for a few minutes. No one was following me, so I hurried to the game.
It was the second inning. The other team, the North Side Wolves, had scored four runs. No problem. My team didn’t have anything to worry about. It was my turn to bat.
I stepped up to the plate, ready to hit the first home run of what was going to be an illustrious career of home runs. The pitcher hunkered down, spit, fleered his lips back, and gave me his fiercest scowl.
I just scowled back at him, swung my bat a couple of times for practice, and then to strike terror into the hearts of the outfielders, I casually pointed my bat at the church which was more than half a mile away. Several of them backed up. The pitcher, his face stone hard, swung his arms over his head, beginning the windup.
Just then a dark shadow came over me.
“Must be a cloud passing in front of the sun,” I thought, concentrating on the pitcher. Then I noticed the pitcher had stopped his windup and was backing up.
It was George, my oldest brother. George is big, six foot four, and he has this mean look on his face, the kind of look you see on a mad zoo gorilla. George makes most guys my age a little edgy, but not me. I knew what my mother would do to him if he hurt me.
“Let’s go,” George said. George never says more than he has to.
“After I hit a couple of homers,” I replied casually. I knew everyone there would be impressed with my bravery.
“Hey, let’s play ball!” the pitcher yelled.
George looked at him again and then tightened a hand into a fist. The pitcher dropped the ball and backed up several steps. His face was pale, just like he’d looked death in the face.
George looked at me, shook his head, and then reached for me. I sat down on home plate.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
George shook his head again.
He reached down, grabbed my leg, and started for home, dragging me behind him.
He let me walk part of the way after I promised to go along peacefully.
My mother was waiting at the house with my paintbrush and a bucket of paint.
“You do your work here,” she said, “before you do anything else.”
I thought then my mother cared more for that house than for anything else, including me. I was wrong, and it didn’t take me long to find out what was really important to her. That winter we lost the house.
Early in March my father called from work and told my mother he wanted to hold a family council that night.
My mother had built a fire in the fireplace and made us hot chocolate. When my father got home, he walked quietly into the living room and looked at us for awhile. Something was wrong. He sank down into his chair and covered his face with his hands. They were shaking. The room was dead silent except for the cracking sounds of burning wood. The room glowed with the flickering orange light.
“Papa, what’s wrong?” my mother asked.
He looked up slowly. His eyes were red. It was a shock to us to see him that way. He’d always been unmovably strong before. I’d thought there was nothing he was afraid of or couldn’t handle. The light from the fire that only a second before had seemed so warm was now dark and ominous.
“I’ve failed you,” he said.
He ran his finger through his hair slowly leaving his hand on his forehead.
“The business—I’ve lost everything.” He took a deep breath and looked directly at my mother. He looked old and defeated.
“Mama, we’re going to lose the house.”
“No,” she said. “It isn’t true.”
He looked at her for a long time and then nodded his head.
“It’s true.” He stood and walked from the room.
The next day my mother sent me and my brothers down to see if we could help my father at work. We found out his business owed a large amount of money that would take him years to pay off. My father told us it would be hard just to make ends meet, and he didn’t know if we would make it, even with the money we’d get from the house. He seemed very depressed.
When we walked into the house that night, it was filled with incredibly delicious smells. We went into the dining room. The table was spread with a banquet. There was a roast goose, my father’s favorite, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, fresh baked bread, rolls, all of it steaming hot.
My father stood in the doorway. His face went red.
“Mama,” he shouted. “What is this? Have you gone crazy? Do you think Thanksgiving comes in March now?”
She smiled calmly.
“It’s a celebration.”
“What’s to celebrate? The world is going crazy, and we’ve lost everything.”
Mama smiled again.
“Papa, we’ve lost nothing.”
My father shook his head.
“Mama, we’re going to lose the house. I found a buyer. He wants to move in next week! I don’t know where we’re going to go or how we’re going to live.”
Mama wasn’t smiling now. She had the determined look she gets on her face when she wants someone to know she means business.
“We’ve lost nothing,” she said. She was glaring at my father. “Nothing that matters. This celebration is to remind us what is most important to us. The food’s getting cold, so shut up and eat.”
For the first time in weeks my father relaxed. The pain he felt faded. He looked around the table at us and then back to my mother. He smiled.
“I married a hard, crazy woman,” he said. “And since Thanksgiving comes in March this year, I think we should give thanks for it.”
He sat at the head of the table and took my mother’s hands.
“Even if the food does get a little cold,” he said and then started a Thanksgiving prayer more eloquent and longer than any we’d ever heard on Thanksgiving Day.
A week later when my mother first saw the run-down house we rented she said, “I think it needs a little paint.” That summer the royal order of the paintbrush went to work again.