Saturday, January 16, 2010

Slippery Slope

By today the snow is almost all gone, except in shady spots and places where it was heaped into piles; instead, daylight brought a fog that conceals the world beyond our immediate block or two. The state capitol dome, with its blinking red light at the top, wasn’t there in the bathroom window this morning—just the bare trees of our backyard.

The topic today, once again, is the house and its history. I can’t help it that this is a recurring topic, because I’m so often reminded of how rare it is to live in a place where stories abound. Some of them are a hundred years old. All of them are true, nuanced, and richly detailed, because they come from my own family.

Anyone else living here would witness things in this neighborhood and go, “Well, that was remarkable.” And that would be it. But I often observe details around here that resonate with family history. The family stories knock around in my head like a clapper on a wind chimes, dinging and striking chords of awareness, of recognition.

When this happens, the resonance often continues until I either write about it or talk about it—or until something else forces my attention elsewhere.

So here’s an example. Remember that snow we got on January 6? It was a pretty decent snowfall for Central Missouri, and (as such snows usually are) it was lovely and magical, even as it challenged motorists. They called off school the next two days, if that’s any indication of how serious the snowfall was.

Even though I felt horrible with my cold, I ventured out briefly with my little camera to take pictures of the snow, including the photograph I posted of the star in our top dormer window. Sue stayed inside, but like me she was excited to see the snow and started taking pictures out the windows with her much better camera.

While I was out, and Sue was in, a car struggled up Broadway hill. We both saw it; when I came indoors, it was a topic of conversation. Maybe they had old tires; maybe they didn’t know how to drive in snow—or maybe Broadway hill was just darned near impossible that night.

But there were other cars, however, successfully driving up and down the hill, so maybe this poor cuss simply had bald tires.

Anyway, our block of Broadway has been notoriously difficult in bad weather for decades. And this is where the layers of history and stories begin to bleed into my present consciousness.

Both sides of my family have lived in this neighborhood since before 1900, since before Broadway was graded and paved (which actually made the hill less steep). We have a family picture that was taken looking north on Broadway, toward the capitol (the old capitol, which burned in 1911), before the street was paved, and the mud and ruts look simply treacherous. I try to imagine horses and wagons struggling up the hill when it was wet and muddy . . .

But when I witnessed this car fishtailing and slithering up the hill, leaving S patterns all the way up, I thought immediately about a story my dad passed along, about how his grandpa, and later his father, used to set out a shovel and a bucket full of cinders (from the coal furnace) on the curb in bad weather. It was a simple act of kindness for the strangers whose cars wouldn’t otherwise make it up the hill. (“Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man . . .”)

My dad says he never saw anyone use the cinders, but that the cinders did disappear, so people must have used them. Apparently my dad and his brothers entertained themselves on winter days by looking out the windows of the second floor, watching cars trying to ascend the hill, spinning their tires, backsliding till they hit the curb, then bumping and bouncing against it, still spinning.

My father also says that when the hill was especially slick with snow and ice, the city would rope off Broadway at the intersection of Elm Street, right by our house. I can see why—on this block, the hill is steep enough that ascent with most tires of the 1940s would be simply impossible, and descending it would quickly become a dangerous uncontrolled slide.

Of course, once the street was blocked off—and face it, when the snow was that bad, most drivers (especially in the past, when they were more sensible than today) would simply stay off the roads—it gave my dad and his brothers and friends the glorious opportunity for no-holds-barred street sledding.

Before the Highway 50/63 expressway was created and intersected Broadway, the boys could sled down Broadway hill clear across Miller and even back up to McCarty, where they finally had to stop because McCarty was Highway 50 in those days.

It’s a stretch for me to picture this; but when it’s snowing hard enough to silence the world and even the expressway becomes barren, everyday reality recedes and ghosts of the past can manifest more clearly.

I think that anyone else witnessing that car spinning its wheels, struggling up the snowy hill, would have felt compassion for the driver, might have chuckled at his tenacity (or foolhardiness), or might have watched with concern, being ready to rush over to help push—all of which occurred to me.

But I am especially fortunate to have this rare, personalized situation, right here; these detailed images that ring in my head of muddy ruts and horse-drawn wagons, the quiet old bucket of cinders, and the red-faced boys, hooting on their sleds.


Dorothy said...

Enjoyed both you and your father's words. So grateful for your interest and continued effort in the Old Munichburg District. I admire your steadfast work in "the neighborhood" and appreciate the noted memories. While not a native, I moved to Jefferson City area in 1969. Stay healthy and keep sharing your knowledge with us.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks, Dorothy, for your kind comments. I wish there was more time in the day for me to do the things I "have" to do as well as the things I "want" to do. My blogging has been nonexistent of late!

I'm looking forward to having a bit more structure to my life now that the summer is upon us. I have a huge backlog of cool things I need to post!

Thanks again,