My father taught me to love words, and my mother taught me to pray. In his case, it was patient and intentional. In hers, quite the opposite.
The house in which I grew up and in which my first subjective instruction was played out was a determinant in those lessons. Or if not a determinant, then at least a kind of text upon which my memory and understanding have recorded them and to which I have attached their intricacies. This is not to say that the old house was in any way a thing of beauty or even that it could lay claim to any pretensions. It most assuredly was not that kind of house.
Built in the 1920s just before the Great Depression wrought havoc on everybody including the house's original owner/builder, the poor thing was still not entirely finished when my father bought it fifteen years later from the man's widow. The roughed-in, but unfinished, portions of the upstairs that looked out through broad dormer windows onto a line of silver maple trees and then to the street beyond became mine within a few days of our moving in.
"Phyllis's playroom" was the way my mother came to refer to that near-sixth of her new house that yawned, dusty and inviting, at the end of the upstairs hall and just beyond my bedroom door. It was a phrasing that, once she had invented it, allowed Mother to live more comfortably with the notion that her only child was setting up shop on a loose-planked floor and sitting on cross braces nailed to open studs. With or without such euphemisms, however, my mother and I both knew that that unfinished space was my soul's home, just as my father and I knew that so long as I lived as a child among them, the space was to remain unfinished except by my imagination or my own juvenile carpentry. It was a kind of gentlemen's agreement amongst the three of us.
Almost as a result of that agreement, I came in time, subtly but surely, to divide the old house into "theirs" (the downstairs) and "mine" (the upstairs.) I found theirs considerably less interesting than mine for adventures, but rivetingly more absorbing for its revelations about adults and adult ways of living. I spent whole afternoons, in fact, just sitting on the upstairs steps and contemplating the complexities of what was going on below me and what, presumably, I was to become in time. But the house was so laid out that no one seat, not even my favored one on the stairs, was totally satisfactory as an observatory. No, ours was a house that required an inquisitive child to move about a lot.
The floor plan of the downstairs was hardly more imaginative or less phlegmatic than was the house itself. A huge (the most odious chore of my late childhood was having to sweep the whole thing every Saturday morning for the perfectionist who masqueraded as my mother) . . . a huge porch ran the entire front of the house. At the porch's western end was the front door. Made of heavy oak, the door groaned its way into an entrance room the size of most people's bedrooms and that, as a result, no one could ever figure out how to either appoint or use. Ultimately it became a kind of parlor-anteroom that just sat there and, according to my father, used up space and heat. The unruly parlor did serve one good purpose, however; it opened into a living room that was almost the size of the porch and many times more pleasing to me.
The living room ran from east to west paralleling the porch. On its south wall, which it shared with the porch, a bank of broad-paned windows looked across the front yard to the maples trees that, when one was downstairs, totally obscured the street beyond. On its north wall, the room was interrupted in two places. At its western end was the door to the downstairs hall and at its eastern, the double french doors that led into the dining room. The hall, which was far and away the house's greatest impediment to easy living, was a long narrow affair whose only purpose was to connect other necessary spaces in as narrow and dark a manner as possible. It had, I always suspected, been the builder's attempt to conserve the heat and floor footage he had squandered in the entrance hall parlor.
But for whatever reason, the downstairs hall was and remained a domestic bottleneck that led, straight as an arrow, north from the living room to the back of the house. On the way, it opened first onto my father's study--onto that sunny, book-lined room where, as a college professor, he spent so many hours at his desk and where he taught me how poetry could give body to the soul and how the voice speaking words aloud could give life to the printed page.
Just beyond the study door, the hallway accessed on one's left what has to have been the world's largest linen closet and on one's right the landing of the steps to my upstairs world. Beyond the closet and landing, the hall squeezed past my parents' bedroom door, pretended to terminate in their bathroom, and then abruptly bent around the corner past the basement door to actually terminate in Mother's industrial-sized, white-and-red kitchen.
If one wished to come at the kitchen from the other direction, one had to pass through the living room and then through the dining room doors, or more correctly, through the open doorway where they were. (I never remember the doors themselves being shut except on Christmas Day when they hid the coming feast, the better to tease my excitement.) Directly across the dining room from the french doors, positioned in its own kind of arrow-straight alignment, was our breakfast room. While there was no door at all, only a doorway, between the kitchen and that breakfast room, there was most definitely a door between the breakfast and the dining rooms. It was one of those somewhat antique, heavy swinging doors that allow the cook to move easily from kitchen to table while carrying hot dishes and full trays. It was a rule of the house that this door, unlike the glass double ones across from it, was always closed. Always, that is, except from about three-thirty until about four-thirty in the afternoon. That was when my mother prayed.
If we had, as a family, early reached the accommodation of splitting the house by layers between parents and child, so likewise had my mother and father managed early to split it by rooms between his and hers. The study was his, the living room hers. This is not to say that their division was as complete as was theirs with me.
My mother rarely if ever came above stairs except to clean or to deliberately visit for a while. Visiting was a great skill with her, in fact. She was a brilliant and widely read woman as well as a gifted conversationalist, and I remember those times in her company with quiet pleasure to this day. But when Mother came up, it was always purposeful rather than coincidental; and her presence was never actively enough a part of my upstairs life for me to feel her rhythms after she had left or to discover the faint traces of her perfume in my quarters a day later.
My father came upstairs only by my insistent invitation, frequently because I lacked some skill of carpentry that I needed and he possessed or because, almost as often, I needed his sheer strength to accomplish some construction or other. Many of those command visits, of course, were also close to trumped-up excuses; all too frequently I just wanted to show off something I had done and had assumed, in my naivete, that my petite and very feminine mother could never fully appreciate.
In much the same way, below stairs there was a similar kind of arrangement. My mother cleaned and straightened the study very respectfully each morning, and every evening she sat in the rocker beside my father's desk and read or talked or listened as the case might be; but one never thought, even then, that the study was her room. It was his and, while she was clearly the life of his life and his most honored guest, she was still nonetheless in his space. The living room was an almost exact reversal of this pattern.
Though we all shared with laughter and gossip and deeply sensual pleasure the kitchen and the breakfast and dining rooms as well as the gardens and porch and even the cool basement where we dried produce and repaired everything from tricycles to chairs--even though we shared all of this seamlessly and unselfconsciously, it was understood that the parental bedroom was theirs, though I could visit if need be, and that the shaded living room with its cool, papered walls and its wine-dark drapes was Mother's.
Admittedly, when my father came in from the university just at dusk each afternoon, he as a rule came directly from the back door through the kitchen, breakfast and dining rooms to the living room, which by that hour was always empty. His favorite easy chair was there in the corner; and he liked to read the afternoon paper, listen to the early evening news on the Zenith radio, doze for a few minutes in the room's quiet before he began his evening. But even snoring lightly in his own chair, he looked to me, when I would slip in to watch him, as if he were there only in passing, so strongly impressed upon her living room was Mother's aura, her imprint, her perfume.
Just under the porch windows and parallel to the living room's south wall was a long sofa that my mother referred to during all my growing-up years as "a long bench." I always found the term singularly appropriate in attitude if not in absolute accuracy. The piece really was a sofa--velvet-covered with seat cushions, substantial curved arms, and a tripartite design. It was also the most uncomfortable and unforgiving contrivance I have ever tried to sit on. Originally my grandmother's, the long bench must have had some associative or sentimental value for Mother, or maybe it just eased her constantly painful lower back. For the rest of us and for most of our friends and guests, it not only lacked emotional connectedness, but also positively discouraged any lingering. Not so for Mother.
Every afternoon at three-thirty and with little waffling on either side of that appointed time, Mother left the kitchen, went to the bedroom for her Bible, her current magazine, and her manicure kit. The process was so without variation that I knew without looking the exact order in which she would collect these three things and the exact gestures with which she would carry them to the front of the house, set the magazine and Bible on the long bench's middle cushion, the manicure set on its right arm, arrange the throw pillow for her back, turn on her reading lamp, and then move quite purposefully across the dining room to the swinging oak door. This she would push fully open, often even setting a doorstop under it lest the door should accidentally close and thereby disturb her. She then went back to her place on the long bench and sat down. There she would remain for an hour, impervious to every possible interruption or distraction short of an emergency.
She read her magazine first. Never more than one article or story or, should one prove too long, never more than ten minutes. She next did the most astonishing thing of her day . . . or so it was for me as a child, hiding in the kitchen and watching her. She who was indeed a martinet of cleanliness and domestic order opened her manicure kit and began to trim the cuticles and file the nails that had somehow managed to escape the configurations she had laid on them the day before.
That Mother should daily attend to her nails was not unusual, and it certainly wasn't out of character. Not only was she fastidious; she was also inordinately proud of her hands. No, what was so disturbingly out of character was the fact that she daily laid down all around her and on the wine velvet of the long bench a circle of filings and clippings that, before my father's return, she would feel compelled to tidy up with the same Bissell sweeper that, in its pushing, further inflamed her back. Yet even this prospect in no way deterred her from her regimen.
Mother filed and scissored and buffed away for another ten minutes or until she ran out of material on which to work. She then put the instruments back in their case, set the whole on top of the closed magazine beside her, and opened the Bible where, for another ten minutes, she read and pondered the words she was reading. Once, long after I was grown, I heard her say to one of my children that she had managed "when your mother was a girl growing up" to read through the Bible "just in the afternoons" once every ten months. It was, so far as I know, the only time she ever made any explicit mention of what happened on all those afternoons in the living room. Certainly she never spoke of, would never, ever have spoken of, what followed next.
Just as the hall clock struck four, Mother closed the Bible, setting it, too, on the sofa's middle cushion. She turned off the lamp, she crossed her short legs at the ankles, and she went somewhere.
This was to me the most curious of my mother's feats. It was also the thing I would on many an afternoon sneak into the kitchen to wait to see. Her eyes were as frequently open as shut, and I am very sure that had I opened a cupboard for one of my father's knives or even tried to spirit away a pair of kitchen shears, she would have "seen" me, but she was not in the business of seeing her house at that time in her afternoon. She was otherwise occupied.
After I had children of my own, of course, I understood that the swinging door was opened not to monitor my mischief so much as to assure my safety and her comforting presence if needed. Even as a young adult still at home, I understood that her choice of the living room for her afternoons had been dictated by the fact that from there she could hear me if I were upstairs and that only from there and with the doors opened did she have any chance of watching over me if I were downstairs.
I honestly don't know at what age it was, however, that I first began to wonder if my mother were praying on that long bench in the living room; but I do know the morning on which that suspicion was confirmed for me. It was the winter shortly before I was to turn nine.
Excerpted from The Shaping of a Life by Phyllis Tickle. Copyright © 2003 by Phyllis Tickle. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.