The house remained embedded in a group of tenements but for as long as anyone could recall, no part of it had been rented to anyone. Today you might consider it a vertical compound. I believe that had been the intent of my ancestors who laid brick to mortar so long ago because they built it to last. Even so, the five-story walk-up had the look of a place where each floor had been rented, because successive generations of the same family occupied the building. A succession of grandparents or great grandparents lived on the bottom floor. Today it’s as it was then — grandma’s home because she has difficulty climbing stairs. Her eldest son, known to all by his nickname, Corisco, and his family above her, and so forth until you reached the top, five levels and four generations. Above them a water cistern that caught rain water on the roof, which flowed down and everyone in the house used from time to time. The family home dated to before the Napoleonic era when there was no piped city water and the cistern provided the only water that the building received. Today there are water pipes discretely running up the outside of the building and sewer pipes running down. Successive generations and renovations have tried to keep current without destroying what makes it our house.
The smell of the mechanical era is not earthy as in the era when the yard had been home to pigs, sheep and horses. Today we keep chickens for fresh eggs and fryers. The morning call of the rooster rouses all of the generations that live in the house. My grandmother fixes breakfast for the men who descend the stairs in their work clothes — some fancy, some not. Today there are croquets stuffed with chicken, fresh eggs poached in boiling water with a bit of vinegar to bind them better and bread, fresh from the oven. She does not churn the butter anymore, but it comes from the neighborhood store and it is good enough. Fresh honey for the bread is exchanged for the eggs that our chickens lay.
When the men leave, the children in their school uniforms are met with a grandmotherly kiss, a bowl of oatmeal and a boiled egg. On special holidays there are crepes with fresh blackberry jam.
There is a patio in the yard that is reserved for adults. No child may enter without an invitation. It is said that the rule extends back to the days before the arrival of the steam engine and it is still upheld with religious fervor. The yard is for the children to play in and the patio is for adult conversation. My uncles and my father sit there when they return home in the evening. It is a place for after dinner, and the drink is sipped gently as cigars are carefully lighted. Politics, work, who in the neighborhood dallies with forbidden love and the mechanical problems associated with automobiles are all probed. Problems are solved.
In the vast kitchen (the dimensions of which are not at all common in the neighborhood), the discussion between my aunts and female cousins goes in different directions, but they just as weighty as the men’s. Which butcher doesn’t cheat you with his thumb on the scale, where to buy the best oranges and who in the neighborhood dallies with forbidden love. Which women have female problems, why are our family’s children superior to the children born of others, and matchmaking the young, which is always an exercise in futility. During these discussions, the children are sent into the yard, safely surrounded by an insurmountably high stone wall, mostly covered by green moss as it had been before electric lights, telephones or police car sirens.
Such is the nature of A Home.