A Rectangular Piece of Heaven
In 1958 my parents decided it was time to move from the Mayfield apartment in Baba's house and into a home of their own. Mom said Auntie Heley rushed to our rescue if she heard our cries. Whenever Baba kept an eye on us while Mom finished chores, Baba gave us cookies, and then we weren't hungry for supper. Uncle Bill gave us sour pickles; our scrunched-up faces made him laugh. Jayne and Janet were allowed to play with the little spice jars in the cabinet; their eyes became red and watery. We dug in the gardens with small shovels from Uncle Steshie. Uncle Washo lifted us to reach the juicy grapes on the vine. We returned to Mom, either crying or dirty or with belly aches or rashes. Baba and my uncles never said 'no' to us.
Mom's goal for her house's location was to get as far away from Mayfield's Kiehart homestead as humanly possible. The adjacent town of Jermyn would do just fine. In 1958 there weren't many vacant lots available. Mom suggested Dad build closer to the school in the 'uptown' section of Jermyn. After a moment's thought, my practical dad said, "The girls won't be in school for long; if we build near the church over The Lane, we can walk to the services."
Dad put the word out that he was looking for a building lot. His nephew told him about a rectangular corner lot he had just surveyed. Dad drove by the lot and then to the courthouse to inquire.
Five hundred dollars was the cost for the little piece of land. At a time when three cans of pork and beans cost 25 cents, and a three-pound package of ground beef sold for 89 cents, Dad's weekly gross wages were barely $50 a week. By doing without, my parents had been able to save a whopping $480 over ten years. Dad had steady work at the factory (but no overtime), and Mom earned a little by sewing at home. My parents were great penny pinchers.
That night at the kitchen table, they talked about their dilemma: How could they raise $20 before someone would purchase the lot?
The same evening, a church member came to our apartment selling 50/50 raffle tickets for ten cents each. Mom bought three tickets (one in each of her daughters' names). Mom said she felt guilty spending a hard-earned 30 cents on gambling; she felt less blameworthy when the ticket in Jayne's name won. Mom's winnings would be exactly twenty dollars. The next day, Dad bought the lot on the corner of Walnut and Lackawanna. After ten years of marriage and three children, they were on their way!
Years earlier, Dad assisted a friend with some work on a little house in Mayfield. Dad drew plans based on that house and bought some basic books on foundations and framing and pretty much learned as he went. Post-WWII men rallied around each other in Jermyn; many were eager to help with a building project. I often went to the site and watched Dad, my uncles, and my dad's friends work.
The men dug the holes for the basement and garage by hand; the cinder block foundation was carefully laid brick by brick. Uncle Washo, Dad's oldest brother, balanced me on the cinder blocks; the excitement built. Mom and Dad wanted a house of their own and so I wanted it too, even though it was hard to imagine living in a place away from Baba. Later, Dad pointed to a framed-in room and announced it would be my bedroom. I walked around the freshly cut lumber – the smell of which continues to bring happy memories. Whenever the wind picked up, the sawdust swirled around like snow.
Dad meticulously kept a log of all the men who helped build our house. According to his notes, the men clocked 2,241 man-hours during the construction. They worked some evenings and most Saturdays. Dad also recorded the cost of every window, door, and load of lumber in addition to hours worked by each man (Dad made it a point to repay in kind as time went on). Mom told me they never had to borrow money for the building materials (other than a few small loans from family – which they repaid with interest).
It took about 18 months to get the house into a somewhat habitable condition. A dirt floor basement, no cabinet or closet doors, no garage bay door, no front porch, no interior trim, no sidewalks or driveway. The list of NO's went on.
In 1960 when we moved in, Dad estimated the house's value at $6,000. To my parents, it was their million-dollar mansion sitting on a rectangular piece of heaven.
Word count: 767