Keeton

Jonathan Keeton: Elm & Pleasant Street, 2012, watercolor on paper, courtesy the artist

Last Sunday’s New Mexican included a feature about doorbells. The various doorbells pictured got me to thinking about how they serve to announce all manner of news to a household; happy, sad, warm, annoying, interesting and devastating. One of the doorbells pictured was just like Grammy Schick’s.

Ana Mae Schick was a widow. With requisite spectacles and snow-white hair, she looked like Santa’s wife. She was noticeably stooped, as befitted a person who had carried a great load in life. She was full of love.

Grammy’s old house commanded the corner of Madison and Elm streets in our upstate New York village. Giant, leafy elms formed continuous arches over the village’s residential streets, making it easier to ignore the sprawling factories that made boxcars and pianos just blocks away. This town didn’t send its sons to Ivy League colleges.

Grammy’s place was to become the center of my childhood play life; a warm and welcoming place throughout my growing up years. I played here with her grandson, Richard, an only child, who lived in a small apartment upstairs with Grammy’s daughter, Mary Lou Tucker. Richard’s mom was something called a war widow. Richard was a year older than I and he was to become my “big brother” and best friend. He’d later become my cousin, too, when his mom married my uncle, Tom McShane.

Grammy’s house was a three-story American Victorian, with a full, covered front porch that faced the street. An American flag always flew from a pole on one of the porch pillars. The front door was reached by climbing five wide wooden steps to the porch, and to the left of the door was an ancient bronze mechanical doorbell that required twisting a paddle key to operate. For my very young hand, it was difficult to turn, but I liked making that grinding, jingling sound, and I was always surprised by how loud that bell was. Even though Grammy was quite hard of hearing, the bell almost never failed to bring her trundling to the door with her characteristically loud and warm welcome. For me, twisting the doorbell was Pavlovian. Ring the bell; get smothered in hugs and exclamations of affection.

Warm as Grammy’s home was, however, I made it my habit not to look into the small parlor on the right. That’s where, at age six, I saw my first casket. I remember that it was covered by an American flag. It held Grammy’s youngest son Paul. Like his brothers, Jack and Robert, he’d been a Marine in the Pacific and he had survived to serve again in Korea. Now he was home, finally. Not long before my parents took me down the street to Grammy’s house to pay our respects, two men in uniform had climbed onto Grammy’s porch and they had rung her doorbell.

In winter, the big porch was our fort, from which we’d launch fusillades of snowballs at rival playmates and unsuspecting drivers who dared traverse our territory. On summer evenings, we’d repose on the porch steps, while recounting the latest war movies we’d just seen at the Rialto. As we grew into our teens, our favorite subjects became sports and girls. Predictably, Grammy would pop out the front door to ask if we’d like some cookies. I began to harbor a suspicion that Grammy liked to eavesdrop on the banter of young boys on her porch. Of course, she’d heard it all before, when her sons Jack and Robert and Paul entertained their buddies on these same porch steps. That was before Grammy’s doorbell had been rung by uniformed strangers and her front window had those two gold star decals affixed.

Sometimes on a rainy day we’d sit in Grammy’s den and watch a movie on her tiny black-and-white TV. The small room was a shrine. A table held pictures of Jesus and each of Grammy’s boys. In the pictures, all three wore Marine uniforms. Jack, the eldest, never came back from the Pacific. His was the first loss to be announced by the grinding jingle of Grammy’s doorbell. I recognized Robert’s picture because I saw him almost daily. He’d been seriously wounded and, of course, his condition was announced by delivery of a telegram with the twisting of Grammy’s doorbell. Richard’s young father, Eugene Tucker, was also a Marine. He was killed in a kamikaze attack near Okinawa. This time the doorbell rang for Grammy’s daughter, Mary Lou.

Years have passed, and Grammy is with her children. Another family answers that old doorbell now.

As I enter my eighth decade, I find that memories easily emerge from the depths of long storage. Last Sunday’s paper had a feature about doorbells. One of those pictured was just like Grammy’s …