Tag Archives: staircases

Half-Remembered Rooms

From my sweet mother-in-law I learned that dinner could wait. She taught me by example how to fix the meal ahead of time and leave it on the stove to stay warm while we sat down together in the living room for some drinks and conversation.

On the farm and in my childhood home we ate when dinner was ready. My parents had parties that must have involved alcohol, but before a regular evening meal we never sat down in another room so our mom and dad could have a cocktail or a glass of wine.

Drinking on the farm was reserved for hired men, and my mother and her sister, sleeping in their bed in the room called Siberia, were sometimes woken up on weekend nights by the sounds of the drunken hired man stumbling up the back stairs to his room singing “Barney Google.” My mother had a life-long fear of becoming embarrassingly tipsy and accepted drinks with reluctance.

I have only vague memories of the two rooms at the top of the back stairs. The bedroom on the left we called “Charlie Warren’s room.” He was the hired man of my childhood, and, as far as I know, he neither drank nor sang. It frustrates me that I don’t have a mental image for either his room or the one at the other side of the landing. When I went up the back stairs I was mainly focused on the bookcase in the hallway. The two bedrooms were male territory. The boys and men who slept there over the years were my brother, cousins, uncles, great-grandfather, and the hired men.

Since I’ve found no photographs of this part of the house, I drew a picture of how I remember the upstairs hallway. I imagine this interior looking like a drawing by the artist James Castle, who used sharpened sticks dipped into a mixture of soot and spit to make depictions of his home and family. He drew on whatever surface was handy – an envelope, a piece of cardboard, a scrap of newspaper, the page of a book. His drawings evoke for me not just a rendering of place, but also the feeling of a memory not quite formed – a memory like my own of these half-remembered rooms – a smudgy suggestion of what might have been.

"Upstairs Hallway,"Carol Crump Bryner, pencil and charcoal on flattened cardboard box - after James Castle, 2013

“Upstairs Hallway,”Carol Crump Bryner, pencil and charcoal on flattened cardboard box – after James Castle, 2013

On Wednesday:  Berries

The Back Staircase

My mother didn’t like me to read too much, especially when there were more active things to do. With a shake of her head she’d say to me, “Carol, you’ve always got your nose in a book!”

I loved having my nose in a book – especially books about Nancy Drew. She solved mysteries, and I was fascinated by mysteries. Again and again I read the books in which Nancy Drew discovered secret rooms or passageways.

Cover of "The Hidden Staircase" by Carolyn Keene

Cover of “The Hidden Staircase” by Carolyn Keene

My grandparents’ farmhouse reminded me of houses from these books. It had endless doors, strangely shaped closets, and stairways that we were not always allowed to use. The main staircase, just beyond the front door, was wide and light and had a beautiful banister and landings at the top and bottom.

But the back staircase – behind a door in the living room, was different. The closed door made it seem almost like a hidden passageway, and I was sure there must be a secret panel somewhere in its dark walls. We were discouraged from using this stairway because the painted wood steps were steep, narrow, and slippery. A knotted length of rough and scratchy rope served as the only handrail. My grandmother grew nervous when we wanted to go up “the back way,” and now that I have grandchildren of my own I can understand her fears.

To discourage their use, the door at the bottom of these stairs was kept shut, and when I got permission to climb them I had to go up two steps in order to reach the latch that opened the door toward me. This pushed me back down a step before I could get over the threshold and begin my ascent. The staircase led to three of the five upstairs bedrooms, the landing, and a bookshelf-lined hallway. On the shelves were storybooks, comic books, atlases, and nursing textbooks illustrated with drawings and photos of horrific and fascinating wounds and diseases. (My grandmother was a nurse before she was a farm wife.) My brother claims there were Playboy magazines hidden there too, but I never saw them.

I wanted to climb the back stairs for two reasons. The first was to find a hidden panel. (I never found it.) And the second was to sit on the floor in the silence of the dimly lit and almost hidden hallway and spend the afternoon with my nose in a book.

"Door to Back Bedroom and Door to Stairs," Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2012

“Door to Back Bedroom and Door to Stairs,” Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2012

On Wednesday:  Gardens

A Window on the Landing

The Hall farmhouse on Whirlwind Hill set the standards for all the houses I’ve lived in. Its staircases, wallpapered rooms, tall windows, wood plank floors, attics, odd-shaped closets, and paneled doors with round knobs formed my notions of the way a home should look.

In 1973, after living in Alaska for several years, my husband and I were ready to buy a house. Expecting our first child, and eager to start nesting, we were dismayed by how few houses were for sale in Anchorage. Finally, through a friend, we found a downtown house about to go on the market. It wasn’t pretty – certainly not by Connecticut standards. This big pinkish box with brown shutters had a cement front stoop whose left side sank into the ground. But when I walked through the front door I came face to face with a center staircase leading to the second floor bedrooms.

As I walked up the stairs I pretended not to notice the red shag carpet, lumpy plastered ceilings, and shiny black louver doors. I was hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I wasn’t. On the landing, at the top of the stairs, the afternoon light shone through a tall window and cast patterns and shadows on the walls and floor. The bedroom doors were paneled, and they had old round metal doorknobs. It felt like home. We bought the house, and a few years later I did a painting of the landing window. I still have everything in the painting (yes – the plant lives!) except for the window, which, during a 1982 remodel made way for a door into a new bedroom.

"Hall Window," Carol Crump Bryner, oil on canvas, 1978

“Hall Window,” Carol Crump Bryner, oil on canvas, 1978

In the farmhouse, at the top of the back staircase, there was also a landing with a wood floor, multiple doorways, and a window. I have no pictures of this window from the inside, but I do remember the importance of having that light at the top of the dark, narrow stairs. I also remember the view, which in my great-great-great-grandfather Aaron Hall’s time would have been to Muddy River and his farm’s pastureland. From the outside the window is not striking, but like much of the rest of the house it was on the inside where the memories and the views were made.

"Farmhouse Window from Outside," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

“Farmhouse Window from Outside,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

On Wednesday:  Wildflowers