In The House Where I Was Born

Another year. Another year and I've come back to the house where I was born. I return every year, just before Decoration Day. Everyone ought to go back once a year to the house where he was born... just to look around and remember, and then go back to where he came from.

The house where I was born is old and weatherbeaten under the gray paint. The old porch is gone. The big bay window where I used to sit and watch the snow on winter afternoons faces right out onto the street now. The wooden steps go right up from the sidewalk to the big double front door.

The house was painted red when I lived there, red with white trimmings. There was a big caladium plant in the front yard. "Elephant ears," my grandmother used to call it. My brother and I used to pull them up and make umbrellas out of them and grandma would jaw us until our ears hurt. Today you can't even tell where the caladiums were. Then there's the old woodshed that two generations of us carved our initials on... that's gone, too. There was a dog, a little brown and white fox terrier. Her name was Trixie, wasn't it? So many years ago.

Here was the living room, the front room as we called it. There was the round oak base burner with the Isinglass in the doors where the coals glowed red on a winter's night. There was the couch in the corner, the table with the cracked marble top where the lamp sat... the round lamp, yellow silk shade with the fringe. There was my brother and I reading the highly moral stories in "Happy Days" and wishing that we, too, could be big league baseball players like Fearless Frank in the woodcuts.

On a spring night like this, just before Decoration Day, there was mother. She was sitting at the rosewood organ under the picture of Pharaoh's Horses, playing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." The Spanish War wasn't so long ago, and my father that was battalion sergeant-major hadn't come back from Chickamauga. There was the scent of white lilacs coming in the windows. The white lilac bush that was her pride is long gone now, but I can smell the white lilacs tonight.

I can hear the clopping of horses' hooves on the pavement outside, the pavement they put down the year I started at school. In the shadows of this bare old room a glow comes slowly to life, and there is the old lamp beaming cheerfully across the brussels carpet. The organ is playing. I'm the little boy that looks up at her and plucks at her dress and begs: "Mama, tell me a story."

She stops playing and turns to me. "Story, mama," I repeat.

"What shall I tell you about tonight, son? Isn't it almost time for bed?"

"Story first, mama, please."

"Well, let me see." She gives it a moment's thought, then recites from memory. "The stag at eve had drunk his fill / Where danced the moon on Monan's rill / And deep his midnight lair had made / In dark Glenartney's hazel shade."

"What's Monan's rill, mama?"

"Why, it's a little brook," she explains. "A little creek way up in Scotland where Roderick Dhu lived."

"Well, why do they call it Monan's rill, mama?"

"Why, I suppose it was named after somebody named Monan, son."

"Oh," I say, but I'm not satisfied.

"I suppose it's a very tiny little brook where the water is ever so cold," mother begins. "It comes down from the tops of the mountains, through the glade, to the places where the stags live. I suppose not very many people know where Monan's rill really is because it's very probably guarded by the little people and the fairies. I don't think they like other people to come and drink at their rill. But they let the stag come every night if he wants to, and then he goes away. The little people ride on his back wherever he's going. Then they wake him up in the morning, and he takes them back to the rill."

"Does Monan come there, too?" I ask.

"No, no, I don't think so. Monan's gone from there ever so many years ago."

"Doesn't anybody ever see him? Doesn't anybody know him even?"

She hesitates. "I guess not."

"That's awful."

"Yes," she replies thoughtfully. "It is, isn't it?"

"That's just about the awfullest thing that could happen, not having anybody know you."

"Why, I hadn't thought of that, but..." she trails off.

"Sing to me, mama."

"Oh, I'm getting sleepy."


She looks at the clock, back to me, and smiles. She sings. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightnings of his terrible swift sword / His truth is marching on..."

Mother's song fades. The light grows dim. I'm in darkness again in the house where I was born.

This house where I was born is in a great city. The wide streets are filled with crowds of people, and I remember again... so many things. The thunder of the elevated railways overhead on a warm afternoon in the spring. The open streetcar clanging its way up the street. My father, pointing and telling me that it's the first trip of the open streetcars up Broadway this summer. The friendly policemen in a round-topped helmet, spanking me jovially with his nightstick as we cross the plaza on the way to the Central Park Zoo.

The house where I was born.

Weary and happy in the cool evening. Climbing the brownstone steps into a high-ceilinged house with a fireplace in the front room. A great stairway. The long, inviting banisters. A cat with a blue ribbon for a collar and the longest, sharpest claws in the world. A telephone that you could talk even to Brooklyn with. The house where I was born.

Now a sign on the front alongside the tall doors, a sign that says "Swedish Restaurant." Still in the concrete sidewalk at the foot of the steps, the prints of my two shoes -- that I could span with a hand. I can see my initials, and the date: nineteen hundred and one.

I turn away from this house where I was born, for I'm not done with my homeward journey yet.

In the house where I was born, there is not one stone upon another. The path of war led across its dooryard and destruction followed for all the people who dwelt in it. Yet the scent of lilacs is strong in the evening air even here, and before my eyes the scene of desolation dims and the house where I was born lives again.

It's a spring evening and there seems to be music in the air. I feel happiness again, as I felt that night when I first brought home my bride. What was her name? Have I forgotten?

I hear her voice: "Carry me across the threshold, my love!"

She giggles as I carry her inside. "Darling," I tell her, "this is home! My people have lived here since the--"

She interrupts me: "Since the Thirty Years' War! You have told me that."

I chuckle. "Well, they don't build houses like this anymore, my love. See? The walls! And the mortar! There's my great-great-great-grandfather's blood in that mortar."

She laughs. "I know. He drew blood from his own arm and spared it into the mortar so that there would always be something of him in the house!"

"How do you know so much about it?"

She laughs again. "You have told me so many times!"

"So I have!" I laugh also. "And then there's the stove, with the hand-painted tiles. There's not another one like it in the whole village. We'll take it to America when we go."

Her festive mood is dampened. "Do you really want to go to America?" she asks.

"Of course I do," I tell her. "Don't you?"

She looks sad but hopeful. "Could we not be happy here, we two?"

"We could be happy anywhere. But, in America--"

"I know," she says. "We will be rich and I'll have two dresses and someday we'll have a motorcar even. But it's so far from this house where you were born, and where I hoped our children would be born."

The scent of lilacs is strong again in the air as the voice of the beloved woman fades away into shadow and forgetfulness. The house where I was born is swallowed up in the night. I am alone again.

The house where I was born is an adobe shack somewhere in the Texas panhandle. The wide plains of the west stretch away endlessly beyond it.

Now the corral gate is broken, the bunkhouse roof is gone, and horned toads squat on the decrepit porch where I played cowboy and Indians. There's a dry, dusty smell about the place and an echo of almost forgotten songs quivers on the air. The Chisholm Trail went right past our place, all the way from Belton up to the north fork of the Canadian and Abilene. I've seen white-faced bawlers by the thousands go past our gate and heard the riders' voices in the hot noons and the long, moonless nights.

The long, slow song of horses' hoofs was music to the ears of a lost, forgotten Texan who'll never come back to stay at the house where he was born, or to lay flowers on the grave up beyond the little hill under the cottonwood tree.

The house where I was born is a sod-roofed cottage in the peat bog country of Ireland. I am nineteen, and return for a visit with the old folks after three years in America where I've become all Yankee. My brother and I sit before the door and talk about the strangeness of the new world and its customs, and the customs of the other people beyond the various seas. It's this very day, thirty-five years ago, in nineteen hundred and fourteen.

"I'm betting you," my brother begins, "there'll be war in Europe before the year is out."

"Ah," I reply, "that's just talk."

"It's just talk that started every war the world has ever seen. The Kaiser is just waiting for somebody to set the world alight, and it's many a good lad who'll come to his end putting it out."

His words unsettle me. "Well, we'll never get in it."

"You mean the Americans? Heh. I don't know about that."

"We're too far away," I answer dismissively. "Let the English and the Germans fight it out."

"All very well to say, but you'll see."

I left the house where I was born -- the smoky, damp little hut beside the road to the sea. I have not seen it again save when it comes Decoration Day time, and I go back, unbeknownst to my brother, and look in at the door to where he sits as an old man puffing his pipe alone by the peat fire. Once, long years ago, the village priest sat with him and I heard my brother speak of me: "Aye, could have been very different, Father -- if me brother had come back from the war. Ah, he was a fine young lad, Father. Him and me, well, we could have done something with the place... but it's too late now."

There was a day, on the ranch in the Texas panhandle, when a tall young man in Levi's and high-heeled boots saddled and bridled a horse and said goodbye to an old man, shook hands with half a dozen cowhands and a Mexican cook, and rode away toward the railroad that was to be the first lap of a long, long journey. I remember I turned and looked back at the house where I was born.

Here again, in the house where I was born, I stand beside the walls of stone mortared with the blood of my great-great-grandfather. In my arms I hold a weeping woman.

"Don't go," she begs me. "Don't go and leave me here."

"Only until I can earn enough money to send for you. It will be such a little while. You will come to America and we'll be so happy, and so rich. It's such a little time to wait. You know it is."

"I love you," she says. "Kiss me."

I kissed her. I went away. I have never again seen the house where I was born, except in dreams such as this dream tonight when the ruins lift and form themselves for a little moment in the darkness.

She came to America. The day she arrived, I was drafted. I was never able to find her again.

In the house where I was born, there is no memory left of me. Only the two prints of a child's shoes in the concrete remain as a memorial that I once lived.

The house where I was born, where my little brother and I played in the caladium bed, has almost forgotten me too.

There's a pack of yellowed letters somewhere in the house, lost behind a beam in the attic maybe. It's a pack of yellowed letters with "Soldier's Mail" in the place where the stamp should go, and my name and an A.P.O. number in the other corner. The letters are full of names like Albert... Le Somme... Chattancourt... Dead Man's Hill... Consenvoye... Brabant. Names like the faded letters on an ancient palimpsest, obscured by newer names written over them: Omaha Beach... Bastogne... Okinawa. They're all names of places where men have died. One day, they'll all be forgotten -- please, God.

I remember one of those names, those first names. I won't tell you the name of the town. A clean little town it was, with red-roofed houses. A dirty shambles in October 1918.

I couldn't hear the shells from the seventy-sevens bursting in the streets. I couldn't hear what the chaplain was saying to me. I could just see a dirty-faced man in a helmet moving his lips as he bent over me. It was very quiet, and very lonely. I didn't even hear the shell that killed him and the other man that was standing alongside him.

It was quiet for a long, long time... then I heard a little boy's voice. I said to myself, "Why, I'm home. That's my voice, that night before Decoration Day so many years ago."

"Mama," I heard myself saying, "tell me a story."

I heard my mother: "What shall I tell you about, son?"

I heard a cowboy singing: "As I walked out in the streets of Laredo / As I walked out in Laredo one day..."

I heard my love: "Don't go. Don't go and leave me."

I heard my brother: "Many a good lad that'll come to his end putting out the blaze."

My own voice again: "It's just about the awfullest thing in the world, mama, not having anybody know you."

They set a marble tomb above my shattered self, seeking to do me honor thus, to recompense the searing days and the crawling nights I died in. "He lies here deep," the graven letters say, "unknown to all save God."

Sweet it is, they say. Sweet it is to die the battle death. Yes, it is sweet. As gall is sweet, and wormwood, so is death.

I died. I felt the bitter fire, the cleaving steel, the pain. I am content. Yet I am weary in my sentiments. The sleep of death is not so very deep.

Lately the spring has come, and yesterday a tiny root of some green thing has split the stones apart wherein I lie. Its tender, questing fingers seek my hand as mine sought flowers on some yesterday forgot.

Above my head, the hushed clang of arms and the measured tread of sentinels that guard my bed forbid me sleep.

My face is dim in eternity now. Once, you knew me. Perhaps you wept to hear that Sergeant Death had spoke my name. Is it you that I hear through the dust, my brother? Is it your little song that I hear, my mother?

I, in my tomb of stone... I am the chief of them all. I am the chief of the dead.

I died, and in dying became a mystery. To every mother, her son. To every brother, his brother. To every soldier, his comrade. I, the chief of the dead.

I was content to lie here, masked in uncertainty, having the homage of all of you here in my marble tomb. I was content, I say. Yet now spring comes again as I saw it once before that day I died. Is it your hand that rests on the stone, my sister? Is it your tear that falls on the stone, my wife?

I hear the trumpets now. The volleys sound. The sabers flash against a sun I may not know.

I may not rise. I have my duty, here, alone. I am the chief of them all. I am the chief of the dead.