Rowhouses on my mind

Michael S. Weaver

August 22, 1991|By Michael S. Weaver

IT WAS a blistering day in August.

Window air conditioners were not around. This was before that time, before the laboring motors that squeezed the heat out of the air. People used fans, or they used nothing at all, except cold water to give the sensation of relief and towels to rub away the evidence of suffering. It was the first house I lived in, back in that summer of 1952. It was a rowhouse, and, like most rowhouses, it contained the details of life, the laughter and the tears.

On that blistering day, a street arab's horse died in front of my door, his hulking body retreating from the labor and sinking to the ground in a mesh of lifeless limbs and harness. Just an infant, I had no way of knowing this except by the oral rendering of my parents. And they related other tales of these houses that continue until my own memory takes over.

That first rowhouse was on Lexington Street in West Baltimore, at the beginning of a perfect-looking block that even today sports manicured lawns and the evidence of people who have worked hard all their lives. It was a rowhouse where my cousins, aunt and uncle lived for many years.

Once my uncle and his brother were painting the house. As they painted and talked, they hit upon a superlative idea, one which was to surprise most of the family. They left in the middle of the painting mission and took another mission, an impromptu trip to the Gulf of Mexico to secure jobs on a fishing boat. As neatly as if they had been kidnapped, they disappeared. My uncle stayed away for a long time. His brother came back sooner. That was a house of chance, surprise and laughter, for my uncle's wife, who was my mother's sister, remained throughout her life a woman who loved laughter, the kind of laughter that set her large frame to rippling with tiny waves of joy.

From there I moved to another rowhouse owned by another of my mother's sisters and her husband. It remains in my mind today as a majestic place. It had a large, stone porch that, when I was 5, seemed like the steps to a palace. I sat up in the living room or the bedroom entertaining myself until I felt I needed to socialize. Then I moved to the top of the stairs and called out to my cousin, who was my first playmate. I thought we were creatures of privilege. I wasn't aware of the place where the world had placed my people. I didn't think I was poor.

Even after we moved to our own rowhome in a mixed neighborhood in East Baltimore, we traveled "cross town" to this palace on the weekends. My mother had her hair "done" by my aunt, while I played outside with my cousins. My uncle had a garage, but he usually kept his yellow, '55 Chevrolet parked in the alley next to the old cemetery that gave way later to garden apartments, miserable substitutes for the real thing, the rowhouse. We played there, and our parents shared the ups and downs of having young families.

Our mixed neighborhood in East Baltimore didn't remain mixed very long. The seemingly interminable rows of identical houses were vacated by the whites in less than two years. I remember one little playmate, a white girl. One day she was there; the next day she was gone. Without warning, she disappeared.

And the identical houses started to take on individual characteristics. People painted the porches in different colors. Some planted trees and shrubs. Some put up aluminum awnings. And nearly everyone sat on the porch, mostly in the evenings. Gradually, the neighborhood took on the soul of a community of people very much like my own family, Southerners metamorphosing into Northerners through their own new experiences and the experiences of their children born in this city of houses connected like the sensitive blocks of vertebrae, forming the nerve of a community.

On Sunday evenings, my mother's sisters visited my grandmother, who lived upstairs in our house for 16 years. They traded stories about their youth in Virginia and their adolescence in Baltimore. They reminded my grandmother of her fallible moments, her funny moments. They roared until they could be heard outside, where we played hide and go seek under the weeping willow. And when my grandmother was dying up there in that room, connected to a whistling oxygen machine, they held a death watch, the only one I ever saw, the kind of thing that brings old, Southern ways out of the past like phantasmic strangers in unfamiliar clothes and haunting voices.

After the matriarch was gone with her silver hair and Native-American profile, after my grandmother went away smiling, children were the dominant energy in the house. I had a child only three years younger than the twins who surprised my )) mother when they were born. They lived and played in the rooms I painted and decorated, the rooms where I studied, the rooms I left in search of my own house. Three years later, my mother died in her house, her weakened body cradled in my father's arms.

In Philadelphia, I have bought my first home, a rowhouse built in 1920. It is detached on one wall from the house on the western side. So there is not that absolute sense of continuity. The previous owner, a former tap dancer in his 80s who now owns a barber shop, was meticulous in the upkeep of the house. So I have no work to do. Already there have been some laughs and some tears. But the more absolute sign of life's cycle was the news I got on the day I went to settlement. My aunt, who owned the first rowhouse I lived in in Baltimore, died that morning last month, leaving me to live in my own walls of laughter, my own walls of tears.

Michael S. Weaver, a poet and playwright, teaches at Rutgers 1/2 University.

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