According to Thomas Hubka, a popular rhyme of the 19th century went, “Big house, little house, back house, barn.” Children played games to the rhythm of it. And so he named his book on the subject for this rhyme.
The big house, in this sequence of connected buildings, was a formal place of silent austere parlors and cold upstairs bedchambers. The bodies of the deceased lay for viewing in one of the parlors. The little house connected to it, on the other hand, was where things happened, constantly. Here were kitchen with pantry, work area, and woodshed. The farm family did its real living here. No formal acquaintance, but the earthy friendship was celebrated here. Sometimes it was called the ell and would connect the formal house with the back house and barn. In summer the breeze blew through, cooling the working housewife.
The back house was an extension of the barn, and a place for storage and wagons. The privy was here, usually nearest the barn. That final most massive structure was telling. In it animals sheltered, grain crops were stored. The agricultural function of the home being uppermost, the arrangement accommodated that business and life. Historically the business of the day was (and still is) food. As ever, nothing in life was more regular and central than the necessity of eating, but back then it showed in the very structure of the house and home.
These connected dwellings were not formed in one explosion of effort. As a rule their sprawling construction took place over time; sometimes over generations. The finished product was a dwelling of function, order and beauty; an example of fundamental tenets of valuable folk culture, as Hubka put it. Every member of the household took active part in it.
While descending past Mr. Bean’s sprawling place, I notice opposite the road yet more maples with buckets. Now comes the valley with marshy spot and then another uphill climb. Raw wind increases, roaring out of the valley of the ponds as I climb. My feet are growing sore in these old sneakers, and my joints stiffening. Wind cuts through the woolen shirt, chilling me. But the climb itself will warm me if I can pick up the pace. Crest the hill to find myself among trees; the wind is broken and I am grateful.
Looking across a clearing and seeing a line of pines, graceful, strong. They have the air of hiding a mansion somewhere in woods behind. Such majestic old pines should hold some mansion. Can’t take my eyes off of them, walking along the road. Yet on I continue, more trees edging close, and soon the large pines are cut off from view.
My mind has been set to dreaming by those pines. They recall an Easter text. It was the day of flesh and blood—first Maundy Thursday—when the Son of Man gave broken bread and wine to his followers. “In my father’s house are many mansions,” the translation being the Authorized or King James version. Scornfully I recall reading of a more recent translation: “in my father’s house are many rooms.” This makes more literal and conventional sense, but the difference in imagery is something with far less imaginative appeal. In “many mansions,” we see spacious vistas—green at the bottom and blue overhead, dotted with fine white chalets, castles, or villas. With “many rooms,” we see walls, floors and ceilings connected by passages, multiplying endlessly upon one another, as in a bad dream.
Did we live undeserving on this road in someone else’s chalet? Undeserving, on gifted moneys? It was the finest home we had ever lived in together as a family save one. Is Earl’s patched together little house a room or a mansion? No matter. I do truly believe he will live in a mansion one day.
An avalanche of entries this week, episodically posting my Holy Week walks as told in “Holy Days and Houses on the Gore Road,” from our Experience in the Western Mountains. These posts, with images, reflect changes in this rural place in transition. Put out by the imprint Resource Publications, they have asked us to paste this notice whenever we quote from the book: Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.