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The Venerable Front Door

April 16, 2012

“Reality is a sliding door.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Almost every house in Maine has a front door.  Rare though is the Mainer who acknowledges that the door actually exists.  This willful disdain for the front entrance to the house is signaled in various ways.  In newer-built houses where the mortgage lender and insurer are asleep at the switch, the front door is left to float above the ground without any connecting set of stairs.  In older houses, it is often conspicuously covered, year round, with an insulating layer of plastic.  (The classier homes have said plastic attached with short wooden slats nailed to the frame; the others use the all-purpose and now ubiquitous duct tape.)  In short, it behooves a visitor to the State of Maine to keep in mind that if the windows on the front of the house are the eyes or openings to the home’s soul, then the unused front portal is a tight-lipped closed mouth, stoic just like the inhabitants inside.

In my paternal grandparents’ Stetson home, the front door was adorned with a monogrammed screen door.  At least for part of my childhood, if you could see past the large weeping willows in the yard to spot the door, you would see three small steps leading you to believe, though falsely, that my grandparents used their sun porch for something other than cold storage.  It took a keener eye to spot, through the window of a seemingly functional entranceway, the back of a sewing machine case.  The oblivious stranger, or errant Jehovah Witness hoping to spread his (oft tenuous) knowledge of the Bible, who knocked on this front door would have been discomfited by sounds of struggle, the groan of shifting furniture, the creak of unoiled hinges, and, finally, a flushed red face… my grandfather being the usual Mainer too polite to bellow through what is essentially a wall, “You fool go around the back!”  Of course, the uninitiated would have likely gotten a different reception from Grammy, who after my grandfather’s passing, used to ‘lock’ her main door by jamming a large chef’s knife in to the door and its frame “just in case” she needed the protection!

In the normal course of events, no matter the occasion, a good Maine neighbor will naturally head around back for the kitchen door (and, more likely than not, walk in without knocking).  If a householder wanted to use his front foor, a decision would have to be made about who to and who not to let in by it.  A Mainer wouldn’t want to do that to his neighbors.

Learning that the door on the front of a home is essentially useless is one of the first lessons that a Maine kid gets when heading out on his/her first “bottle drive”.  A “Bottle Drive”, what could that be?  Is it a remnant of the ‘war effort’ of the 1940s?  No, since Maine has a returnable bottles law and all recyclables carry a five cent deposit at the cash register of the time of purchase, people are forced to store their cans and bottles up and take them to a redemption center every now and again.  In good weather, it is not at all unusual to have a truck load of teenagers show up at your door and ask you for the bottles, which they will cash in at the redemption for money to support whatever project they are working on at school.  Every bag full of five-cent containers adds up and has allowed for more than one Cub Scout project to move forward, even in a depressed economy.

My folks, though, have a great sense of humor and don’t mind messing with peoples’ heads a bit.  Rather unlike most homes in the area, my Mother decided that her home would suit her needs, not those of tradition.  My Dad, like his own Mother, is the kind of person who would sit at the front window and watch the “traffic” go by, commenting on the cars as they passed.  Mom didn’t want to put up with that behavior year after year, so she decided in designing our home that she would put the kitchen on the front of the house instead.  The living room carefully tucked away in the back of the house, the two of them could watch television in peace.  This of course meant that the front door was the kitchen door, and how many people stood dazed trying to figure out what to do to enter the home, all the rules having seemingly been broken?

To make matters even worse, the lighted doorbell to my parents’ home also does not face the usual direction—outward.  If you look carefully, it is actually on the inside of the door frame, pointing to the door’s lock, rendering the task of seeing where the key is to go quite a lot simpler.  My brother’s dog, Clyde, who my parents inherited when his college determined that pets would no longer be allowed in student housing, also found the chime well suited to his needs.  My parents would put Clyde out on his rope line and when he was finished with his business, he would stand up on his hind legs and ring the bell to come in, just like any other visitor to the home.  It was a terribly efficient system, which only had the smallest of flaws.  On those days when the dog would go in and out, out and in, it seemed like the doorbell rang all day long.  Margaret Bean, my Mother’s Avon lady for many years, was greeted once with the off-color rant of a frustrated home maker.  My mother had a dickens of a time to explain to Margaret that she had been swearing instead at the infuriating dog, given that Clyde then refused to ring the bell in anyone else’s presence that day.

A couple of years ago, when my dad retired with only his Social Insecurity for benefits, some of the family friends have asked “How are you managing?”  My parents never talk about the fact that they have no debts, own their home without mortgage.  But, since everyone else is sitting a mile high on payment booklets, the neighbors can’t imagine that when my parents would slip up and tell them that they were debt free that it could possibly be true.  My folks are sometimes annoyed by these prying questions, as you can understand.

Well, in Maine, lobster is the same price as steak these days so while my Mom was well, my folks ate lobster once or twice a week.  My Mom’s cat too really loves lobster.  When there is lobster in the house, the cat won’t touch regular kitty food.  She can just sense there is better to be had.  This one time, one of the nosey neighbors asked Dad as he did his shopping in town, “How are you managing?”  Dad said with his eyes scanning the floor, as if in shame, “Well, we’re going to be fine.  Marion and I are having cat food for dinner tonight, but it isn’t that bad.  Really.  Don’t worry about us.”  I get the following morning an email from the neighbor expressing genuine concern for the sad state my parents were in, and asking if I as son shouldn’t be helping them out a bit more so that they don’t have to eat Friskies.  When I replied, “I wish I could be fed like their cat!”  I got a rather quizzical message about my sick sense of responsibility.

Indeed my parents always loved to play along with other’s misconceptions.  When my Mom surmised that I was sexually active in France, she dutifully went to the store, bought me a box of condoms to mail to me in Paris (as if I couldn’t or wouldn’t get them there).  Later that same day, as Dad was returning from work, he stopped at that same store to pick up milk or something Mom had forgotten and the woman at the register says, “Oh, Bob, I am so sorry for what has been happening to you.”  Dad played right along and responds with a sullen, “Oh, what have you heard?”  The cashier continued to tell Dad of all the condoms my Mother had bought and the affair that “she must be having.”  Dad answers dryly, “Yes, it has been tough but we’re seeing a counselor and I hope things will get better soon.  Be patient with us.”  With that he drives home, laughing the whole way, and gets to the house and asks mom, “So why didn’t you tell me you were stepping out on the side?”  Her initial reaction was a more colorful version of, “What are you talking about?”  Dad explained what had just happened and Mom showed him the package ready to go to France–they spent the rest of the night in their lounge chairs of the living room giggling and tee-heeing to themselves.

My folks are great story-tellers, and because of it, are also great story-makers.  Gregory and I attended a local town parade last summer, joining his aunts and uncle for lunch afterwards.  Gregory was telling his uncle, who drives a heating-fuel truck and is alone much of the day, that my Father has never minded being alone very much either.  I mention that in my Dad’s career as a carpenter, he has spent a lot of time sawing and hammering something, all by himself.  Over the years, Dad has learned how to entertain himself.  He whistles a bit.  Hums a tune a while.  Sings songs he heard on the radio.  But what got Gregory is that when Dad was here in Sept. 2007 and was repairing the spiral staircase leading to my basement, Gregory stood at the top of the hole and listened while Dad carried on a pretty lively conversation with himself, cracked his own jokes, and laughed with a full-belly laugh at them, sighed and went back to work.  Gregory asked, “Robert–who are you talking to down there?”  Dad hollered back up the steps, “Just the smartest person I know!”

You have to admire those people who break the rules just a little.  Famed writer Juan Ramón Jimenez said once, “If they give you lined paper, write the other way!”  My Mom and Dad have always been those kinds of people.  If you were to ask my Dad’s best friend, Barbara, why she likes Dad and his work so much, she will tell you, “Because Robert is the only man in my life who never says No to me!”  My Dad lives in a world of endless possibilities and creation.  When my Mother asked him to make the front door the main door to the house, he didn’t question it, he just made it happen.  Reality is what you make of it.  We love visitors so come around to our unpopular yet useable front door, draw a chair up to the kitchen table, and add your two cent’s worth to the confabulation that’s already going on.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mindy permalink
    April 16, 2012 11:51 am

    What a great storyteller you are!

  2. Carmencita permalink
    April 17, 2012 1:08 pm

    Delightful, I love your folks, I see how thier playfulness is in you, too! ~wink! I even laughed out loud!

  3. April 20, 2012 7:12 am

    Normally I do not read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do so! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, very nice post.

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