John Irving’s Door in the Floor brought to mind a single but most memorable aspect of Grandma and Grandpa Diedrich’s house in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The rug under Grandma’s treadle-driven sewing machine etched tell-tale evidence of a hinged door. Proof of the fact, my mother moving said items aside, prying loose an iron ring, and ripping a section of the floor large enough to swallow her, which in fact did happen.
With a business-like tone, she said, “Don’t come close; there are some bad things down here,” and her body disappeared feet first.
A dragon or ogre or troll I could visualize from stories, but unimaginable bad things could as easily burst the door open from below, sending both sewing and rug skidding across the room. It could grab me and my sister as we slept on the sofa-bed an arm’s length from the door-in-the-floor.
On the side opposite the sewing machine, a lead pipe rose from the floor and right-angled into the wall inches from our pillows. From it, a low-pitched hum followed by a splash and/or various water-in-motion sounds disturbed our sleep whenever someone opened the tap in the kitchen, only cold water delivered to kitchen and bathroom. A toilet flushing delivered vibrations, nearly to a rattle, and ended with a muffled percussion.
With the cacophony of street noises; brakes screeching, horns honking, and an occasional droning whistle from a distant train or shrill whining of an emergency vehicle, daylight became a sought after and welcome relief.
Grandma’s telephone, a shiny black object, sat on a small table, and Grandma talked into one end with the other fitted against her ear. Our telephone, a wooden box with projecting mouth piece, a cup-like part pressed to your ear, and a crank to get the operator’s attention. Grandma’s ‘operator’ answered just by picking up the hand held part.
My one chance to test it, a voice repeated, “Operator,” a couple of times before Grandma grabbed it, and apologized into the mouth piece. “We’re sorry. My grandson….” Stopping in mid sentence, she placed it back onto the cradle. “You mus’nt touch this or the operator will stick you with pins.” In person or through the phone left to my imagination. Grandma’s creative threats had a direct connection with her alteration job at J.C. Penny’s.
Despite nocturnal disturbances and threats of stick-pins, any planned visit to Grandma’s house—my parents never granted Grandpa shared-ownership—brought eager anticipation.
My mother’s parents occupied the lower level of the brick two story house with a mysterious old man hiding upstairs. Following an unaccounted-for toilet flush rushing through and slamming the plumbing, Mom would say, “I guess Scott still lives up there.”
Grandma’s main entry centered a two step-up front porch with a three sided wooden railing topped with a 2×4, fun to sit and play cowboy. Grandpa threatened to line it with upright spikes. He didn’t say I couldn’t sit there, but I took the hint. Duplicated around the corner of the house, a screened porch with an entry door to the kitchen. In summer, Grandma did her laundry out there.
Weather permitting we would find Grandpa lounging on the front porch smoking his pipe, but mostly he preferred the stuffed chair in the corner of the front room. Rose and Matt Diedrich had established patterns intended to irritate each other, his non verbal to her ranting.
Mom joked, “Dad just turns his hearing aids whenever Grandma scolds.”
Grandma played solitaire. Mom claimed she cheated.
A lifetime of bad financial decisions that climaxed with a nine month prison sentence for moon shining had broken Grandpa’s spirit. Grandma took control of their lives but harbored resentments.
“Sometimes I want to dig him up and scratch his eyes out,” Grandma blurted during the short time I lived with her while attending college.
With a different tone, she also described their honeymoon, the pleasant train-ride to meet his folks in Wisconsin, not yet having consummated their marriage. Also, miscellaneous not-so-pleasant memories, his lying about his age, receiving a bill for a wooden cask of whiskey from a failed enterprise before their marriage, and trading their home in town for a farm despite her objections.
One anecdote revealed a human side to their relationship. On his back one night in bed he threatened, “I’m going to spit at the ceiling and it will fall right on your face.”
Grandma said, “I slid down under the covers.” A slight giggle. “Matt had farted!” She also admitted that she’d never go to bed if any of her children were still up. “I didn’t want them to think of me crawling in bed with a man.”
After a few beers with my dad, Grandpa admitted that he never saw his wife naked.
Both of Grandpa’s favorite chairs had been unoccupied one memorable visit when I was five. Mom, Joelle, and I had spent time with Grandma at J.C. Penny’s where she did alterations, and we came to pick up Grandpa and take him home with us. Our family needed his carpenter skills to remodel half our enclosed porch into a bathroom, and in his spare time, help Santa Claus by building a toy box and a desk for our Christmas presents. Joelle still has the desk.
Mom led us through the empty house toward an eerie and penetrating screech—screech, like fingernails on a chalk board magnified. On the back wall of the kitchen opened a door to Grandpa’s tool shed, originally an addition for storing firewood before gas and electricity. (The bathroom, too, had been a bedroom closet before modern plumbing.)
Rays of light penetrated cracks and knotholes in the sideboards and gaps between them cast a glow to wispy hairs on Grandpa’s head. Like the pendulum of a clock, he brushed a file over tooth-after-tooth on his hand saw gripped between jaws of a vise, the source of the horrible screeches.
Mom yelled, “Pa!” but Grandpa, unlit pipe clenched between teeth, had retreated into his soundless world humming his favorite tune, If My Heart Was Made of Glass. Her gaze remained fixed until Grandpa straightened, placed the file in its space between others, and pocketed his pipe. With both hands, he grasped the handle of his wooden tool box.
Mom said, “I’ll get that for you,” and he stepped aside.
Grandpa reached out, and pulled us kids close to him, the pipe stem protruding from his vest pocket emitting the sweet and familiar aroma of Prince Albert tobacco. “I’ve been waiting for you guys.”
We passed back through the kitchen, hurried past Grandma’s sewing machine lurking alongside the sofa bed, and paused for a pleading gaze at the box of red and blue building blocks in the corner opposite the door-in-the-floor.
Mom said,” We don’t have time to play, but maybe Grandpa can make you some blocks with the boards left over from the bathroom project.” She faced Grandpa. “Isn’t that right, Dad?”
Oblivious to Mom’s request, Grandpa had already begun our bathroom project or was revisiting something from his past. “Got your hearing aids on, Dad?” Asked twice more, Grandpa nodded, and we proceeded to the living room and out the front door, pausing to lock it, something never done at home. Mother stacked the carpenter tools in the trunk, Grandpa on the passenger side, us kids in the back seat for the thirty-mile trek to Pierz.
In the midst of the bathroom project, Grandpa needed some additional supplies. “Can I go to town with Grandpa?” I might have asked, but she probably volunteered, “You kids stay here. Grandpa doesn’t need you distracting his driving.” I hate to think my hiding on the floor in the back seat violated her direct order that I couldn’t deny hearing.
When the bathroom project was completed, I pounded a few boards loose from the outhouse to build a hutch for my rabbits. Mom enhanced the story. “Roger kept asking, ‘Is the bathroom done yet?’ When he got to use it, I figured he’d be satisfied. But, no! He proceeded to take our outhouse apart for his projects.”
I love you, Mom.