A Mighty Portal

That door at the bottom of the stairway. It was the secret to the kingdom of all adults and it kept me at bay. It was a major entryway that connected or separated most of our house’s two-story spaces from more public areas. The other nearby two doors joined kitchen and dining room, then stair landing (with small hallway) to a den. The main one in question opened into the living room. The areas were generally available to anyone not still a small child, which pretty much meant everyone in my family. And their ever-enlargening circles. As the youngest,  a “leftover” following two pairs of boy and girl born ahead of me, I wasn’t granted full access to all goings-on. But the primary barrier seemed that living room door. After all, I joined the others each day around our large mealtime table. No, it was the pale sage green door that stalled me out when skidding to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. It sometimes provide a harsh wall to any flying bodies, thus stymieing  decent progress into the main house.

I made it my mission to find ways around and through it. If I couldn’t manage that, I pressed ear to wood, listening hard, or spying through the sliver  of a view via a tiny crack created by a stealthy turn of beveled glass and brass doorknob. Voila, entry, of a sort.

It wasn’t always shut, certainly. There were times when we ran or jumped down the numerous steps (that included a halfway landing which served as a sort of springboard)–only to find it stunningly open despite the appearance of otherwise. In which case I, less practiced than the others, would ram into the substantial upholstered rocking chair that was just inside and to the left of said door. If someone was sitting there it would elicit a frown at least or an exclamation of disgruntlement and an admonition to be more careful. Or a punch to the shoulder. I never assumed any blame for this, however, since the door was either supposed to be clearly open or closed tightly. There could be a small sign that indicated my father was teaching his stringed instrument students, as if we couldn’t hear them sawing away: “Lessons in Progress”. Judging by the schoolbook perfect penmanship, it was my mother’s reminder. I must have been a bit noisier those days or my father–or mother–was more sound sensitive for an unknown reason. It was true that although she had great affection for music and much more for my father, she liked to close some doors at times to savor a moment or two of restful quiet.

The open or closed door: it was instrumental in defining much of my childhood and youth. The living room wasn’t overly big yet multi-purpose in a way that some may not understand these days. There was no vaulted family room with big screen TV or towering stone fireplace. (We didn’t own a TV until I was 13; even then it was not close to a top pick for entertainment.) No completely refinished basement; no wraparound, screened-in porch. With seven family members, all claimable space was at a premium. Closing that door meant well over a quarter of the first floor was forbidden for play, lounging, studying, reading, practicing my cello or noodling about on the baby grand piano pretending I was a famous singer and pianist.

I liked especially to play with my Barbie doll or two out there–to build her house with pillows and scarves, books, blocks and various decorative odds and ends– perhaps because she had more space, too. The area beneath the baby grand provided additional awesome real estate. She and I, after all, shared a bedroom with my two older, often bossy sisters until I was six, then with one other until I was 12. My older brothers harassed us from across the hall. Downstairs created an illusion of more equity, and there was an ease of a clan’s shared space. Access to greater parental mediation was a boon.

I wanted to come and go without restraint. For the most part, I roamed if  not engaged in study and other pursuits. I spent a great deal of time outside, too, in our tree-lined, very private, welcoming back yard. A neutral zone. Freedom reigned. But even then, the main room access seemed crucial, as it was comforting refuge from Michigan’s sharp cold of winter, autumnal blustery winds, dangerous spring storms and summer’s sweltering heat.

So to be even semi-trapped behind that door was a trial. Especially if the kitchen was off-limits as well, for purpose of undisturbed cooking or phone calls (it hung on the kitchen wall awhile) or private before-dinner updates with my father. What lay behind that living room door depended on the day of the week, the very time of day. The different occasions. Confronting its closure gave rise to the question of what was really going on this time. It could mean many things. A boyfriend visiting a sister; a girlfriend visiting a brother–always a curiosity to me. The music lessons–boring and a nuisance. My mother’s millinery or dress design or alterations business (on top of her school teaching) bringing in a customer. My father’s musical instrument appraisal, repair, buying and selling business, ditto. The business parts were fascinating to me and I watched from corners if at all possible. Thus, the living room–and dining room, to an extent, as they flowed into one another via an archway–received all people. Except the meter man and repairmen–“dirty shoes and you just never know,” my mother informed me. The shoes I got. We all had to enter and take off dirty shoes at the back door, but the you just never know part I wasn’t clear about.

Our household was not quiet, not at all isolated from the outside world. People frequently rang the door bell or knocked. Called out our names if the heavy, rounded wood front door was open to a screened door. People from church or my parents’ work came by for a consult. If friends saw the car in the driveway, they might just stop for a chat. If the living room door was shut it could mean there were  only full grown adults engaging with just others of their sort. Or something more mysterious.

My parents often invited to our home their friends and visiting artists who’d given concerts at the performing arts center. It might be a casual luncheon, dinner served on china or a later coffee and dessert affair, the cut glass dessert plates unearthed for just such an occasion. And we children were expected to be present, to converse if we had comments intelligent and respectful to offer. As a small child, I was not let off from this duty. But otherwise, gracious repose was the order of things, as well as a hand in the kitchen, with serving if requested. I knew how to handle and offer a tray of cookies or coffee service long before I entered adolescence. We all knew how to properly set a table, how and when to pass around each serving dish, when to ask something politely or keep our thoughts to ourselves. How to be mannerly, I suppose, or “civilized” as my parents might say. It seemed the natural behavior to me.

But when that door at the bottom of the stairs forbade entry, it meant it. It could be that this time no one other than my parents were allowed access. It indicated: 1) a significant importance of the visitors 2) there was a bridge party going on and a kid was not allowed to interrupt unless called forth for a task 3) aforementioned music students or customers or church people or perhaps the life insurance man were engaged 4) there was something serious, even bad, happening and we could not know about it until later, when summoned. The way one knew for sure there was a high level conversation going on was this: there were three doors at the bottom landing of the stairway, one to the kitchen on the left; one straight ahead to the living room; and one on the right to the parents’ room (later becoming den/office, at which time that door changed its meaning). If all three were shut it meant: No Admittance. Silence.

I had ways around this barrier, this being excluded, however.

I could feign sickness with a pitiful calling out and weak knock. That would always bring my mother to the door and when she opened it I got a decent view of who was there and what was happening. But it was too brief and thus unsatisfactory. If I was really sick the door was finally irrelevant, of course, and my mother would take me to bed, administer to me appropriately.

I could listen with ear pressed just so–it took some fine-tuning to hear well– against the door. If that didn’t work I could also eavesdrop through second floor heat registers. I might manage to sneak through the first floor room(s) on the pretext of needing  sustenance or to access a way outdoors to visit a friend or attend a figure skating or swim lesson, for example. But I had to knock first and then quietly plead my case. Or if a sibling got through, I could make like a shadow, slip in behind them.

But I became reasonably proficient at cracking open the main door, sneaking through a slight opening, then crouching, then crawling behind the big rocking chair and lamp table. Or even lying flat on the floor and slithering toward the baby grand, finally hiding, breathless, beneath the piano where no one noticed me if I was lucky. From there I could usually make out who the characters were and what the story line was. If I knew them and okay with the topics, I might stay without concern of reprisal. But I might need to reverse order of action fast if someone caught me. If all this was too risky, I would only huddle behind the rocking chair and quickly gather intelligence–at least until my breathing was detected or perhaps my feet and then sent brusquely back out. The trick seemed to lie in becoming as invisible as possible.

Of course, this worked only so long. I grew. Slithering unseen was not viable. The only thing I could do was wait on the bottom step of the stairs before the closed door. Or forget about it and hike back upstairs or leave by the back door. By the time I was an adolescent, I cared less about what others were up to–I had my own important activities, ideas, mischief-making, worries. My older siblings had all decamped to college; I was left to my own devices. I had my very own door to close tight against nosy inquiry.

But I will not forget that stairwell door. The power it had. The importance of its changing status. The meaning it gave to the day, the very moment. And there were many times when I–along with friends or siblings–burst through the door into the living area and then through the one leading to kitchen and from there to the stairway or what became the den. Endless circular tag. We were thundering wildebeest children, screeching, teasing, laughing, fighting. Doors slamming shut, being pressed open. Doors that meant nothing more than access points in a silly game, a way around the circuit. I can still see my mother in the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel, ordering but with a laugh, “Outside with all that!” Our smallish house, after all, was a place where things needed to get done in more manageable ways. We were many. We needed to cohabit with minimal disruption. A basic calm and order encouraged creativity, hard work, prayer and caring. We dwelled within a set of rules; we (hopefully) evolved and matured.

Another version of the closed doors, though, was when one of us became so angry after being told to go to our rooms for a while that we’d enter the stairwell area, slam all three doors shut and sit on a step to cry out loudly against the cruelty of our parents. But not for long. They’d issue further warnings and off we’d go to our punishment.

It was just that time of doors shutting and doors opening, those growing up years. There were twelve doors to, or within, that house–not including the basement’s three, the attic’s one and several closet doors. Which all held their own meanings.

The fruit cellar was cobwebby, dank and dark, stocked with canned fruits and vegetables arranged on shelves, but for some reason I liked it okay. I was appreciative of that actual door, cut low and small for littler people like me, with a latch that opened or closed the compact room. And it held good things. It could be a sheltering place when tornado warnings blared. The folding door to the recreation room and another narrow one to my father’s instrument repair workshop were rarely closed. They, thus, seemed invisible.

The attic door was a magic passage into a stuffy, low-ceilinged, treasure-laden expanse along the front of the house. It contained distractions as well as history: boxes of old books and photographs and records; colorful canisters of wonderful buttons salvaged over decades; pretty and worn packs of playing cards; stacked board games to pull out; woolens in zippered bags, protected concert dresses belonging to primarily my mother and oldest sister–also my father’s tuxedos; old cigar boxes my brother made into trick boxes (for hiding things) that were the devil to open. There was so much to dig into and enjoy. I easily spent an hour rooting about there, now and again.

But the door that informed me that I was well on my way to young adulthood was that door to the front of the house. The door at the landing, right across from the last step of the stairway we took up to bed each night and descended each morning. The one I spent untold moments staring at, willing it to open. With three doors that also closed on the small landing at the stairs, it was easy to feel excluded. When all were open, it was whole different house, one that allowed air to freshen passageways, one that encouraged roaming, that allowed many voices to be shared. That invited your very own presence. When I could confidently enter that main door no matter the event, even during a crisis, I knew I was on my way to being an adult. It no longer forbade me entry. But it also no longer protected me. I had crossed one threshold from childhood to beyond.

Such is the magnitude of doors in one’s youthful home.

I have fewer doors where I live now. The living and dining area flow into one another and the kitchen is open to both. There are bedroom and bathroom doors but that is about it, other than the  ones that open to the outside. There are many windows in every room. The pale gold light that streams in as I write is warm, gentle, and it encourages me to look away from the keyboard toward mature trees and dwellings that surround us here. My desk and computer are within reach of the dining table. I am alright with that; I like being a part of the whole space, not ever shut apart as a child. But, too, I write, the space widens and lengthens within until I about disappear. Doors are flung open to the greater universe and earth’s clock stops. Doors seem more important when viewed from here, looking back at that place I no longer live. Now all the varieties I encounter, pass by and move through simply entice me, tell me things, and whether or not they open to me is neither here nor there. I can appreciate a door’s existence for its own sake. There are more out there than once imagined. But valuable doorways exist here, deep within me. I will enter any of them or not, as I choose.


5 thoughts on “A Mighty Portal

  1. A great device for a lively autobiographical sketch. I can hear the pitiful cry and the weak knock. I was two years older than you when we got our first TV. I made a painting based on Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters of the family sitting round the set.

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