My parents built a house in the years just after World War II, working weekends and evenings digging the foundation by themselves with shovels. It was set a hundred paces off a one-lane country gravel road that was expansively named Broadview Avenue. The three acres of flat land in front of their site were separated from the back seven acres by Deer Creek, a narrow stream running just behind the house.
As they worked, my father and my mother, recently married at ages 26 and 25, moved into the only building that had come with the place. It resembled other houses in fields around their land: a four-room, tar-shingled frame cottage with wooden steps up to the front door, wooden steps down from the rear. An oil-burning stove sat in the living room, fat and black, too powerful for the small space. Outside was a privy.
Except for that cottage, a narrow slat-wood walking bridge over Deer Creek, a tilting cow shed deep in manure on the back land and an old chicken coop tangled in vines just north of the creek, that is how the land was when, for a small down payment, the couple moved from town to a place where working people could build a life one season at a time, as money allowed.
It was a different era. Dollars were borrowed at about 4 percent interest, and veterans like my father got special treatment. But unemployment was rising, fear of depression abiding. My parents had lived through a war, and they expected unwelcome surprises from life, knew that what occurs this instant may be the best or the worst ever. Their expectations were modest, their outlook optimistic.
Young people today are less likely ever to own a home. We shall reach old age and be poor, not retired. Fewer of our children will go to college. We'll bleed to buy a new car, to heat our homes. All of these things, which we thought we had been promised, are the little surprises of our generation, and adjusting is the only real issue of the day.
The lives of my parents-- and others of their generation --mapped the economic turns of 35 years ago. They also offer a modest message for us today: Hard work, decency and an enthusiasm for living--in good times and bad, now and before --are not an economic investment, but a way of life that is itself the satisfaction.
The American Dream--a personal image of the items and status we must acquire if we are to feel worthwhile--is a dangerous seductress, for it masquerades rewards as achievements and success as self-mastery, which they are not. That is as important to remember today in the face of implacable change as it was more than three decades ago when my father checked out a batch of library books on how to build a house and, with my mother, set to work, shaping as they went the value of their own lives despite unpredictable contours.
My father's mother soon joined my parents on the farm, after her landlord decided suddenly that one of his own children should live in the beautiful Victorian home my grandmother had rented for more than a decade. I remember her as a large, stern woman with ashen hair swept up from forehead, temples and neck in Gibson girl fashion. She had powdered elderly skin, piercing snake eyes, deep furrows in her marble brow and thick, dry lips that guarded a deep voice, which gave clear, clipped commands in the form of declarations, questions or answers. We called her Big Gramma with affection.
She was sometimes severe in conversations, but laughed when she told stories about my father, such as how he used to sit on the front steps of their house as a boy and tell the neighborhood kids what to do.
"He was quite a corker," Big Gramma said.
My mother was a slight woman, milk-skinned but with natural pinkness in her cheeks, silken black hair, placid laughing eyes and delicate lips that always creased her face with the trace of a smile. She was fair and decent and knew little about things. She found Big Gramma domineering, and my father soon built his mother a house of her own on the farm.
When my parents finally moved into their home, the walls were two-by-fours, still gathering flesh on weekends and evenings. A tractor that had come with the land--and sat like a stone through harsh midwestern winters before my parents' arrival--was eventually started, and the field grass was trimmed. Red geraniums and pink cockscombs were posted in senatorial rows along the drive to the brown- trimmed, white cinderblock home with flower boxes beneath the windows. A greenhouse was attached to the rear. My father hunted rabbit and pheasant and taught himself to paint the seasons of his land.
"Squint your eyes, and you'll see it as I paint it," he said.
He grew a flower that blossomed only one night of the year, and we stayed up late to look at it. My parents raised turkeys, chinchillas, chickens, goats, a milk cow named Suzy, and two crows, Amos and Andy. The only neighbors were old Mrs. Potts with the cats; the Denkses, whose voices could be heard hundreds of yards away on a calm night; the family around the bend, whose little dog was killed instantly by my father's big collie when it snapped at my sister's heel; and a few others. My parents' pork rib barbecue and my father's garden club flower show highlighted every summer.
It was in the late 1950s when the suburban revolution and the modest dreams of others intruded on my parents' world, and the houses went up in the empty field across Broadview, their foundations dug quickly with backhoes and bulldozers. The houses weren't so bad, except that the septic tanks never worked. After a summer storm, when the fragrant evaporating moisture was held in the lungs, and the sound of water pouring from spouts and dripping from upturned leaves seemed amplified a thousand times, and the birds resumed their sounds, and the sunlight suddenly shot from a prism, all you could taste were the homes across Broadview.
Those were the days of unbridled growth, before strict pollution laws; after several years, my parents gave up the fight to cleanse the neighborhood, sold the farm and rented a place in town. My mother was unhappy because it seemed so unfair.
"Things change," my father often said.
Big Gramma, who was the kind to live forever, moved into the extra bedroom. My father eventually began painting oil portraits that he sold for $50, raising tropical fish and writing poems he carved into animal gravestones. The words are lost, but they might go something like this: "Here lies ol' Teddy/The hound always ready/To meet Butch, Babe and Freddy at the bus/To walk them home safely to us ..." Things like that.
They soon built another house in town, although this time they decided to hire a contractor, having made some money on the first place. The contractor my father chose had two reputations, one for good workmanship and one for greed.
My parents toured dozens of the circa-1960 houses then going up one wall at a time on farm land everywhere, and they finally decided to design a home of their own. It had three bedrooms, a huge sitting room with a 17-foot ceiling and balcony dining room, a recreation room, a finished basement apartment with private entrance for Big Gramma and, of course, a greenhouse. They splurged on a corner lot in an old neighborhood of brick ranchers, white Colonials and clapboard bungalows, a neighborhood where people worked as high school principals or factory managers, or perhaps they owned a dry-cleaning store. The lot alone cost more than $4,000, which was plenty then.
My father painted his house yellow with turquoise and brown trim. The place looked like a castle. But the neighbors were in a buzz about it, which delighted my father and embarrassed my mother. My father checked every order of supplies and every meuasurment each day. When he caught the contractor substituting cheap tile and fixtures in the bathroom, he made him rip it all out and start again.
The house cost about $30,000, and, even with the money from the farm, that was a lot. My parents had three children then. But carrying as large a mortgage as a family income would allow was recommended in the era of inexpensive money and rapid property appreciation, so they stretched. Besides, my father, who was a milkman, had the biggest route at the dairy, and while the home milk business, like home bread delivery, was dying, routes and jobs dwindling by the late '60s, he had enough new customers to make up for those who quit. My father was hard to quit.
If my father thought, say, an old wagon wheel would look good in front of a house, he'd look around until he found one in a junkyard, clean it up and drop it off. When the '67 blizzard dropped 24 inches of snow, and the milk trucks were stranded, he drafted me, and we spent the day's light trudging through snow drifts, delivering bottled baby formula to the few women he knew would need it.
He bought an old mimeograph machine and for his customers published a newspaper, which my mother typed. Between the ads for milk or cheese or fruit pops, my father introduced the family: He sketched me as a basketball player, my older sister as a college student, my younger sister as a playful child. If we were planning a family camping vacation to the Indiana Dunes National Seashore, as we once were, he might report that a college boy would be delivering the milk for awhile, so please bear with him.
Camping on wheels was the fashion when gasoline was easy, and my parents liked the Indiana trip so much that they eventually decided to buy a trailer of their own. When my father looked, though, none of them were right. The toilet or the kitchen might be in the wrong place, or perhaps the drawers for the sleeping areas were located awkwardly.
So my father had one custom-made, the first of a new commercial line based on his design. People said he should have been paid for that, which tickled my father no end. My parents took to getting away in the trailer and decided that when the kids were gone they'd sell the house, which was worth nearly $100,000 by then, travel for a few years, find the right place and retire.
But things change. After 25 years the dairy closed, even though my father's route was still healthy. He started driving a truck for a fuel company and selling garden equipment at Montgomery Ward, which he liked, except that the money wasn't so good.
You know what happened to gasoline, a quarter a gallon when my father--and millions of others--bought a trailer and a specially equipped Ford to pull it. You also know what it is today to own a $100,000 house that you stretched to pay for and that is part of your life savings and retirement. You can't sell the place for near what it is supposed to be worth.
Big Gramma is dead, and all of this seems unfair to my mother. But my father still retired, and he and my mother hope interest rates will fall so they can sell the house and travel, ending their lives as they had planned--with the triumph of predictability.
Yet in the end, as in the beginning, my parents will not change the world but accommodate it without bitterness or self-pity. Remember the fine print of the American Dream: Hard work, decency and an enthusiasm for living do not always translate into homes, cars, college educations and dreams realized.
My parents built a home and life in the country and left it. My father built a career delivering milk and lost it. He designed his own camping trailer, which is now too expensive to pull. He and my mother invested their savings in a home they cannot sell. Their vision of retirement has evaporated. They were made promises that have not been kept, and they are not alone.
My parents, however, had their accomplishments. They dug a foundation themselves with shovels, posted red geraniums and pink cockscombs, irked the neighbors with a yellow castle's turquoise trim, made the contractor start all over again, carved poems into animal gravestones, delivered baby formula to the few women who needed it, watched a flower bloom just one night of the year.
And when all else has changed--when the homes and the cars and the college educations are forgotten, the interest rates have fallen and risen, fallen and risen again--these things of grace and strength, eccentricity and resilience will always remain. They are my inheritance.