To the Attic
August 5, 2013
In the ceiling of my grandmother’s closet, a roughly cut rectangular opening led to the attic. A swatch of flowered oil cloth covered this dark hole, held in place by thumbtacks at the farthest point of each corner in hopes of preventing any wisps of frozen Dakota air from traveling down into the rooms below.
After my grandmother’s death, Mattie lived on alone in the small house, which sits on the east side of Bismarck. Now surrounded by a subdivision, years earlier, when I was a child living there, mostly unbroken open prairie lay out the back door. I remember blizzards and sub-zero weather starting in November and lasting through April, sometimes longer.
After the death of her husband, Henry, my aunt LaRue lived in an equally tiny house about ten blocks away.
These years, when LaRue and Mattie were in their eighties, I used to visit them every August. Before my arrival, each jotted down a list of things they wanted me to do while there.
One summer LaRue’s list looked like this:
Buy beer for Jake
Go to O’Conno’s
Jake was her neighbor and handyman. She didn’t like to go to the liquor store alone, a woman approaching ninety. Jake traded lawn mowing for beer, and by the time of my visit she owed him almost a whole summer’s worth.
I had no idea what O’Conno’s was, but I was game.
Go to attic
Fix glass doorknob
Read letters, look at pictures
Mattie was the family archivist and historian, and she wanted to pass these duties on to me. (As you can see from this blog, I took them on.)
I pointed to “Go to attic” with raised eyebrows.
“So we can say we did it,” she said.
I had a hunch Mattie wanted to have something to report to Alice, that is, something other than reading old letters, when her sister called from Iowa to check up on us later that day. Of course, if Alice had been there, the journey to the attic would have been laughed aside and we would have been put to work helping her clean and organize the rest of the messy household. We both knew this, but we didn’t say it aloud. Alice was far away. We were on our own.
As a child who had both lived in this small house for my first five years and visited it every summer through high school, I had joined my brothers in exploring every inch of it: the basement where my brother Michael and I insisted a rattlesnake lived, the garage, the top of the garage, under the porch, and into every cupboard and corner, but never to the attic because our grandmother’s closet was filled with her clothes, mostly jersey dresses (a slithery material covered with prints of everything from sailboats to daisies to fluted vases) and the sturdy shoes that helped her keep her balance, all things we children knew we must not move.
The morning after I arrived, Mattie and I entered Martha’s long-abandoned bedroom. When I drew back the curtain that served as a closet door, the rod screeched in protest. Mattie said she hadn’t looked inside for many months, maybe a year.
Martha’s clothes and shoes were gone. Some old wool suits and dresses Mattie had worn to her job as a children’s librarian hung limply, covered in dry cleaner’s plastic.
Beneath the work clothes three steps led up into darkness. Each held blankets, bedding, boots, coats, sweaters, and piles of The Carson Press, the weekly newspaper for the little town where Alice and Mattie and their siblings had grown up. In front of the steps stood a treadle sewing machine.
On top of the sewing machine’s long cardboard box of bobbins and various metal innards lay a large brown Pioneer Memories book containing photographs of grim-faced sons and daughters of various Old Countries: Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Norway, all trying hard to look at home in the towns and on homesteads raised up out of prairie dirt at the cost of what appeared to be any trace of whimsy or fellow feeling.
Mattie suggested I take everything out of the closet, and then she left the room. As I finished stacking all the items onto my grandmother’s bed and the floor, my aunt returned, a small woman slightly bent by osteoporosis, half dragging, half being dragged by a wooden ladder that looked tall enough to reach the loft of a barn.
“You can prop this against the back wall and climb up there,” she said. She pulled a flashlight from under one arm and handed it to me. I stuck it into the back pocket of my jeans.
We muscled and pushed and finally rearranged the room to get that ladder into the closet. I argued that it was too tall to prop against the closet’s back wall, but she turned out to be right. It fit tightly, but it fit.
I climbed up and pried the thumbtacks from the oilcloth, breaking two fingernails trying to gouge them out of the plywood ceiling. This house had been part of an army barracks once — nothing fancy or finished about it. Alice and Mattie and Martha, with the help of a couple of uncles and Alice’s old boyfriend, Oscar (who was married at the time of the renovation, by the way, to someone else) had worked night and day to make this harsh place habitable for a family. I have no idea where my father was but, in any case, it was Alice, not Roger, who was handy.
A stiff piece of plastic provided a back-up cover for the oilcloth. Once that was free, I draped both flimsy barricades over the ladder’s top and stepped up higher so I could wriggle my head and shoulders up into the dark space where I gulped ancient, wet, steaming air.
My eyes tried to adjust to the darkness. Something tickled the back of my neck and I swatted at it, certain it was an attic spider furious at being disturbed, but it turned out only to be a rivulet of sweat that had formed from my closet-emptying labors and the extreme heat of this long unexamined attic.
Luckily, I remembered I had a flashlight. “Okay,” I heard Mattie say far below me, “tell me what you see. Do you see any squirrels? Is the mangle there?”
The mangle was there. It looked like this:
I remembered Alice working at the mangle to iron the family’s sheets. She sat with a messy mountain of bedding on one side of her, a mounting stack of neatly folded white squares on the other. There had been so many of us living in this little house long ago, our family (of five, at the time), Martha, Mattie, and various other aunts and uncles and their children who were between jobs or on their way some place else and needed to come “home” to stay for a week, a month, a year. Nothing made all of us cousins happier than to be all chock-a-block together.
Now the highly serviceable mangle lay adrift in pink waves of scattered strips of insulation. I pictured one of my uncles popping his head up here in January, tossing the stuff around, hoping for the best, and quickly dropping down through the opening before his nose froze and broke right off his face.
“No squirrels,” I called down. “The mangle is here.”
“The mangle is there?”
I prayed she didn’t want me to haul the heavy thing down the ladder. “It’s here! Yes!”
“Okay, come on down.”
I carefully pinned plastic and oilcloth back into place and climbed down, glad for, if not coolness, breathable air.
We dragged the ladder into the hallway and returned to the bedroom. Mattie nodded at the things on the bed and the floor. “Let’s put this stuff away.”
And so we did, trying to create a neater look to the closet steps than when we’d started, but the odd assortment of items made neatness nearly impossible, and neither my aunt nor I had a talent for neatness anyway. We did the best we could and at last yanked the dusty old curtain closed once again.
“There,” Mattie said. “We got that done.”
We walked out into the hallway and hefted the ladder. Once we got it put away in the garage, we would descend into the coolness of the basement, complete number two on the list (fix a glass doorknob), and then we could treat ourselves to number three: looking through old pictures and letters, the only thing either of us really had a passion for.
And here she is at the time of the attic visit. She’s reading “Lottie’s New Beach Towel,” written and illustrated by Petra Mathers, a gift to her from the author. (The beach towel arrives at Lottie’s house as a present from Aunt Mattie.)