I don’t know whether I’ve ever said this here, but I rather think not. I hope not, as I would like to share it now.
When I was 12 and 13 years old, my family lived in the poet Carl Sandburg’s house on the high dune overlooking Lake Michigan. My parents were going to buy this spectacular home, which was priced, in those days (1957-58) at $27,000. We would think nothing of that now, but I suppose then it was a lot of money. But oh, that house.
Unfortunately, they were not able to purchase it, as they were subsequently divorced, but the two years we spent there were wonderful. When I was 12, that was the year my parents presented me with the baby grand piano that I still have. It stood proudly in what we came to call the “music room.”
I would love to describe this house. It was three levels, had 17 rooms, and you can imagine how much fun my younger brother and I had there. I have actually written a NaNoWriMo novel about this, and although it is almost fully-edited, I am reticent about sending it out.
Anyhow, back to the house. Walking up many steps, you enter the kitchen, which was large, sunny, and full of windows. It is said that Carl Sandburg wanted a lot of windows, and there were many. The front door was located on the lake side of the house where there was a long parapet, or patio, but no one really entered there. The dining room ran the entire length of the house, and the living room was large and airy with a white brick fireplace. Opposite the stairs going up was a powder room. Downstairs was the basement, with a safe that again ran the length of the house. Sandburg is said to have kept his manuscripts and his wine in this safe. The door stood open, and my brother and I were cautioned strongly about ever going into the safe or touching the door. We never did, but you can bet our curiosity was high.
There were servants’ quarters downstairs, a mangle (old-fashioned laundry press), and all of this was fascinating to me. Upstairs were six bedrooms, and I got first choice as to which one I wanted. Imagine a 12 year-old girl given this choice!
I chose one of the two bedrooms that overlooked the lake. My parents had the one across the hall, and my brother took the one immediately “behind” theirs. He loved his because it had what he called a secret passage, and for a little boy of 10, this was perfect. He loved to hide out there.
My bedroom had wallpaper of a white background and trailing green ivy. The bed, dresser, and vanity were white, and a window looked out over the lake. There was another to the side toward the wooded area where the steps led up to the house. I’d never had a vanity before, and it had a little stool whose seat was a soft fluffy white fabric. An oval mirror was above the vanity. I loved putting out my combs and hairbrush, hairspray, and the light pink lipsticks that I would wear when my mom wasn’t looking. I had just gotten my flute for the school band and I remember bringing it home and placing it on the dresser. First I set it so it was in the middle, straight across.
Nah, I thought, that looks too perfect. So I offset it, and stood back to look. Much better.
Aside from our three bedrooms (the bathroom was between my room and my parents’ room) there were three others. We used one as a TV room, and the other two turned into our play places and rooms we could offer our friends when they spent the night. Those rooms got good use.
On the third floor were two large rooms with a large bathroom. Our family doctor, a single man, rented the third floor from us. He was an opera buff, interested in history, and he had an eclectic collection of books and record albums that all of us helped him carry up to his “apartment.” He used one of the rooms as his living room and the other as his bedroom.
I remember well the night he came home and told us that a little girl with hepatitis had bitten him while he was giving her an injection, and he said we needed to come into the office for gamma globulin shots. Those were none too pleasant!
Outside of his apartment was the widow’s walk, a porch that ran the length of the house, and 17 steps up from that, on the roof, was a “crow’s nest.” That was basically an open wooden box (this one was painted green) with seats around the perimeter. We were told that this was where the women sat and watched for their men to come home from sea (a rather romantic notion, now that I think of it all these years later).
The garage was a double garage, but the best part was that there was a room above it. Oh, my brother and I had some arguments over how we would use it. But lucky me, I “won.” He would smile recalling this. My friends Andrea and Anita, who came from Chicago, rented a cottage nearby, and the three of us produced the “Birchwood Times,” our little newspaper of the goings-on in our little “neighborhood,” if you will. We had so much fun doing that.
If you were to walk up the hill behind and to the east of the garage, you would find yourself in a field of beautiful wildflowers. I loved going there to “think about things.” Continue on past the field and you would come to the beach stairs, and sometimes we’d go to the beach that way. Most of the time, though, we’d take the 100 steps down the dune in front of the house to go to our own beach.
Once we took our dog, Baby, a St. Bernard, down with us when we went walking on the icebergs. Now I know, of course, the dangers of doing this, and I shudder to think that we did it then. But on this particular winter day, Baby got out on an iceberg near shore, fell through, and was able to paddle to shore safely. Imagine a big, wet, scared dog. He wouldn’t move, and my brother and I had to carry this heavy, soaking wet dog up those 100 steps.
“Never again will I take this dog to the beach,” I said disgustedly to my mom when she saw us.
We loved Baby, but one day a woman came to take the census. She was a friend of my mother’s, and after she’d finished and was leaving, Baby bit her on the bum. Because of that, Baby had to find another home, and we’ve always hoped that he was happy on the farm with the people who were thrilled to get him.
I’ve always imagined Carl Sandburg sitting in his third-floor study (what later came to be our doctor’s apartment) writing his poetry. The fact is that while in Michigan at this house he wrote Lincoln: The War Years, which won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for History.
I have also fancied that somehow, in the far reaches of my imagination, Carl Sandburg has affected me as a writer. I must honestly say that I was too young, and wasn’t doing any writing then as a young teenager, but I do like the idea that I could have been mysteriously influenced by the poet in whose house I lived for two years.
I consider those two years a real gift, and I love driving back to look at the house whenever I can. When I see it I fill up with memories.
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.