The Present

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By Pookie

Griffith gave me a book,
I don’t know him.
The book was a present,
left on a shelf
in the house of a dead man
for me to find.
Maybe it was Griffith.
It’s a book of poems
meant to make light of dark days
or to hold down papers.
I think Griffith liked this book.
Maybe he wanted to make sure
it went to loving hands.
Maybe that’s why his name is still there.

Pookie is a poet and proud Ole Miss Alum who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree.

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The Old Man: “I got this”

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With one hand, my nephew scooped the toddler out of her car seat in the World’s Manliest Pickup Truck and slung her onto his hip, whence she proceeded to giggle and admire the world while he asked me what I know about alternators – which is next to nothing.

It seemed that his truck, a snorting diesel beast that is old enough to vote, had a new alternator that he himself installed while in the parking lot of a supermarket two nights before. The new part was not working properly. Investigating the mystery of why would keep us happily engaged for the next hour.

My nephew is not a poor man. Some say he is a cheap man. But I know he prefers to think of himself as a self-reliant man.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was passed on the highway by a far less manly pickup truck, swathed in advertising for a dog poop removal service. Seems that you can pay this company a weekly fee and they will send someone to pick up all of Fido’s landmines from your yard, presumably just before the lawn service arrives. There is apparently nothing we won’t pay somebody else to do.

Cleaning up after your dog doesn’t require any skill (although a subscription to the New York Times is useful, because then you get these convenient blue plastic bags that are perfect for this purpose).

For the household repairs and chores that do require some skill – especially for old homes – if you don’t have an Old Man around to mentor you, and you are bookish like me, I suggest a few old books that I found at yard sales over the years that I think are terrific:

1. Better Homes and Gardens Handyman’s Book. My copy comes from 1951; it’s a red covered three ring binding like the BHGH cookbook. Everything is arranged in tabulated sections with lots of black and white photos showing how to repair practically everything in a house.

2. Manual of Home Repairs, Remodeling & Maintenance. (Fawcett Publications, Inc. 1969) This book adds a lot of depth to various home repair subjects by discussing how they were originally constructed. I think this is so that if you really screw something up, you can rebuild it.

3. House by Tracy Kidder. (Houghton Mifflin 1985). This isn’t a do it yourself instruction book, but it is a great non-fiction account of a young couple having their dream house constructed and of all the drama and tension that naturally arises when you have someone else charged with putting your hopes and aspirations into wood and plaster.

The Old Man: Marrying Stuff

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When the Old Man was much younger, he took a beautiful bride who had many old things. Some of these things were antiques she and her parents had collected and some were heirlooms of previous ancestors.

In most cases these things were odd (five wooden wall clocks from 1900, commemorating the Spanish American War) or cumbersome (an ornately carved pump organ). Other family members had already furnished their homes in particular styles, so these things became our things.

I think many young people are reluctant to accumulate antiques and heirlooms because they fear their ability to choose things for their own idiom might be compromised. Or perhaps they wisely anticipate the burden of a 250 pound pump organ.

We, however, had little to place in our first homes and we were possessed of a romantic – or perhaps simply unrealistic – nature. So the organ first joined us in Winchester, Virginia, and we then took it with us to suburban Chicago, back to Florida, then to Washington, D.C. and finally back to Florida again. Never once, have I been able to play an entire song on it. But great grandchildren of the man – my late father-in-law – who replaced the fabric on the wood treadles half a century ago merrily coaxed low moans from it just the other day.

Some of the other pieces that have been with us our entire lives together include:

•A Victrola that stands four feet tall in a conspicuous place in our living room, and still spins nonagenarian records at 78 RPM whenever the spirit moves us and we want to know what 1924 sounded like.

•Clocks and more clocks, in addition to the aforementioned timepieces from the Spanish American war. These include a small, ornate German clock that used to chime the hours and tick the moments in between for us in our cold and cramped first apartment, an English basement on Capitol Hill.

•A cherry china cabinet with glass shelves and a bowed glass door that my wife helped her father refinish, using Q-tips to reach into the narrow, carved grooves. As young parents we feared a toddler would crash into the glass, and for years positioned furniture defensively around it.

•A maple gate-leg table from the Depression that could tuck into a small space against the wall when we didn’t need it, or be made to expand by means of an ingenious folding leaf into a surface large enough for six and a Thanksgiving turkey.

Call them antiques, heirlooms or hand-me-downs, I think we always felt that these things were a trust, over which we would enjoy stewardship for a time, and then it will be someone else’s turn to live with them. We have added considerably to the collection over the years with many odd and cumbersome pieces of our own. What makes them special is the knowledge that they meant so much to someone long before us, and they have continued to play prominent roles in the accumulated memories of our family for the past three decades.

I hope our kids have big houses.

The Old Man can be found teaching vocabulary to his gun dog in the back yard of the Old House and occasionally typing his ridiculous and profane thoughts on an old Underwood typewriter.

Old Houses

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I grew up in a town full of wonderful old houses. A quick bike ride across the railroad tracks and Calhoun Street would turn into a brick-paved old Florida wonderland.

The Prosser house was always my favorite with its majestic white columns. Pam favored the Victorian homes on Evers Street where she spent summers babysitting. And the homes on Mahoney Street were living tributes to the people who built Plant City either through commerce, agriculture or government service.

Years later when we decided to leave Washington, D.C. and move back to Florida, it was the inventory of great old houses that drew us to Bartow. We spent hours on the internet comparing listings of homes with the square footage and huge lawns we had missed from our 1903 Capitol Hill townhouse—which while historic was just 11 feet wide in places.

Like Plant City, this is a town full of houses with stories. Legendary Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Spessard Holland lived here, not in the big estate on Broadway but just across the street from it in the old bungalow. Down a few blocks in the great wooden house lived a composer who wrote for Frank Sinatra and around the corner from it sits the brick home where the street curves around an oak tree. Here in the “City of Oaks and Azaleas” we do love our trees. Local lore maintains that the lady who lived there sat in a lawn chair with her shotgun ready as the city crews paved the street. Guess who won?

Currently, there are several grand historic houses for sale in town and just like those childhood bike trips, I find myself weaving through back streets to check on any change in sale statuses. Realtors here should really have a disclaimer that no matter how grand your name is, locally these houses will always be known by their old family name.

We have lived in this old bungalow for almost 14 years but it will forever be known as the John Pittas house. A Greek immigrant and successful restaurateur, John lived here for over 50 years until he died at the age of 106. An avid gardener and cigar smoker, we still find the plastic tips of his smokes everywhere; middle of the driveway, under the azaleas; the garage. We never knew him but sometimes when we feel his presence we ask him to telegraph to us EXACTLY where in the yard he buried that jar full of cash we have heard so many tales about.

My husband once asked a neighbor if maybe it was the water here that contributed to John’s longevity. “No,” he smiled. “John never drank water.”

So if you catch me in the back with a shovel and glass of wine, that can be our little old house secret.

My Girl

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“It would be a great ladies clubhouse—couldn’t we put together a consortium?”

A ladies clubhouse? Yes!

Our monthly book club could gather in the front parlor. Weekly brunches featuring inventive recipes could be held on the patio. There could be a card room for those who indulge.

With the pool in the back, we wouldn’t need to drive to the YMCA ever again. The back enclosed patio would be perfect for outdoor hot yoga. No more running into the girls we knew in college with their Barbie-doll legs sticking out of shorts while your sweatpants cling to you in unflattering ways.

We could drink gin and tonics on the veranda, toasting and taunting the start of hurricane season. Garden and Gun would use the staircase for photo-shoots.

This glorious fantasy started yesterday when Cecelia and I were out on our morning walk. Exactly one mile in, we came to the most famous house in town. No matter how many times we’ve passed it, the house always calls for another close examination and talk of all the possibilities.

It was in 1991 that the house gained worldwide attention when it served as the exterior set of the funeral home of the movie My Girl. Although it was based in 1970s Pennsylvania, the film was shot here.

Built in 1906, the three-story house has been a bed and breakfast, a private home and a tea room just in the years since we have lived here.

And now it is for sale!

All we need are a few good friends who share a similar dream …and cash.