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Childhood Memories

Milestones Vol 31 No. 1

by Peggy Townsend

Editor's Note--Peggy Townsend was a member of BCHRLF for a number of years. She was a proofreader of Milestones since 2001 and often contributed stories to the magazine. She went to be with the Lord on Jan. 30 2006. Over the years she wrote or edited various books including The Alaska Gold Rush Letters and Photographs of Leroy S. Townsend, 1898-1899; the novel, Emma Kelley; the History of South Beaver Township; Milo Adams Townsend and the Social Movements of the 19th Century; Lime Kiln Hollow Farm Biographies 1757-1950 in ten volumes. The following article was a favorite and captures a moment in time that was important to her.

In the 1930's 1 found a magic world in the upstairs apartments of the warm red brick building at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Twelfth Street in Beaver Falls. Aunt Lide, my father's great aunt, lived for years on the Twelfth Street side of the building; and during her winters in Florida, my mother, father, and I occupied those enchanted rooms.

To gain admittance for our frequent visits to Aunt Lide, my father always touched a button by the door on the side of the building, and then we waited. First there was the subdued screech of a window being opened, and soon after we could see Aunt Lide's smiling face as she gazed down upon her nephew and his family. To admit us, she pressed a button; there was a buzzing sound, and my father opened the door.

We entered a dim, brown entrance hall from which in the mellow light ascended a dark staircase. Eagerly we hurried upward; and soon we were with Aunt Lide, that best of aunts, who seemed always to know what would please me. It was seldom long before she escorted us to the sunroom with its view of trees and the tops of houses. Then from one of several low cabinets beneath the windows would appear a box of dark gray stone blocks. Smooth they were and delightfully cool. I sat on the brown and red ceramic tile floor with its small, intricate geometric designs, while under my hands a gray castle rose; and in my imagination a brown-eyed princess, long imprisoned in its high tower, gazed longingly from a round window no larger than a sunflower head.

Then there would be one of Aunt Lide's famous crumbly yellow cakes with white icing and, wonder of wonders, green tea. No one else I knew ever served green tea. It was golden, and the aroma resembled the fragrance of four o'clocks, which do not open their blossoms until teatime.

Most of the magic and adventures, however, waited until we were living there.

First there was the brownie. No one knows about them now. Everyone believes that elves are Santa's helpers. Far from it, at least in Beaver County during the 1930's. It was brownies, little stocky men dressed in brown (hence the name, I suppose), who worked for Santa Claus. Their job included surveillance of children's behavior. They constituted Santa's private KGB. Unlike the KGB, however, brownies were never nasty; they merely visited the homes of children all over the world to report, with perfect accuracy, on their behavior. This, of course, was of considerable concern to me, for my behavior would not bear much scrutiny.

Then, one day as I was running into the dining room, I beheld a brownie standing near the tall, narrow window by my father's Mission style desk. Scarcely pausing, I rushed on to the living room to report breathlessly to my mother and father. I expected sticks, coal, and ashes in my Christmas stocking. That had happened to my grandfather Townsend when he was a little boy, and the thought of it still brought tears to his eyes when he was a grown man with a son of his own. However, I concentrated on being especially good, most notably in picking up my toys; and my Christmas stocking was a joy with its oranges, little bisque people from Germany, and woolly sheep with matchstick legs.

Months later on Easter morning I awoke to find beside my bed a little wooden cart loaded with blue and red eggs, yellow marshmallow chicks, and jellybeans on a bed of green paper hay and all drawn by an attached wooden rabbit. The Easter Bunny had been that close to me while I was asleep! Had he mistakenly left it there, intending to come back and hide it? Not quite certain what to think and not wanting to embarrass the Easter Bunny if he had made a mistake, I first searched the apartment for other colored eggs and Easter baskets before returning to the lavender cart drawn by a yellow bunny. How I cherished that bunny cart!

One day neighbors reported a rumor that robbers had been seen in the apartment, which was across the hall from us. The keys had been left with my father so he could check the place from time to time, for it was filled with valuable and exotic weapons, art, and ornaments. I accompanied him into a truly enchanted world where on the walls hung swords, battle axes, and tapestries while low tables supported oriental deities; and a full suit of armor stood in one corner. Perhaps there was really a knight in it, and maybe he would rescue the princess from the tower of my block castle.

Even the most ordinary affairs were for me somehow magical. I sat on a window seat in the living room by the hour watching Saturday crowds on Seventh Avenue and listening to small newsboys shouting for people to buy the Press or the Sun-Telly.

A huge ebony table inlaid with mother of pearl flower and leaf patterns stood just inside the living room door, occupying a large portion of the room. In China it had held a Buddha and had been brought to Aunt Lide's apartment by one of her sons, the adventurer. Slowly I would walk the length of it, stroking the smooth mother of pearl petals that shone in the light from three windows.

One day there had appeared by the living room fireplace a white balloon animal with black ears, mouth, nose, and eyes. It came soon after I had cried inconsolably, having lost a white balloon on Seventh Avenue because I did not know it would grow up to be a white cloud in the sky if I failed to hold it tightly. The pharmacy where my mother had purchased it at my request had had no other white balloons, and my parents could not find one anywhere, so the white balloon animal came to live at the apartment. It was sturdy and soon joined Raggedy Ann as a favorite.

We stayed in that apartment one or two winters, yet I remember it more vividly than many another places that I have lived, for it was enchanted. The gate to faerie opened here more frequently than it did in any other place except the farm.

On April 30, 1991, I returned to the site. The venerable bricks had been imprisoned behind dirty white paint through which the red beneath still glowed dimly as though the drab paint blushed to hide such beauty. The door to the entrance hall and stairs was gone. The new owner, who was remodeling downstairs for a Chinese restaurant and upstairs for her own apartment, was very reluctant to let me go upstairs; but she finally relented.

Where Aunt Lide's enchanted apartment had been there now existed the utter chaos of half -finished remodeling. There were no built in cabinets under the sunroom windows, and there was no castle with its brown-eyed princess. The bedroom floor was a clutter of builders' supplies - - five gallon buckets of plaster, bags of some dry compound, a large cardboard box with Artesian printed on it, a partially collapsed folding bed enclosing a blue and pink flowered mattress, an electric hand saw, scraps of cheap paneling-- while against one paneled wall leaned four six-foot boards. In the dining room I found nothing but paneled walls and the window beside which the brownie had stood.

The living room was bare except for cut off electric wires where the window seat had been and a rusty radiator. The windows had all been bricked over on the outside and poorly plastered on the inside, even the outlines of the frames still being visible through the smeared mess. Around them, chipped and smudged here and there by the plaster, the walls were a very dark green.

In the whole of that magic apartment, nothing remained from those enchanted days except the baseboard in the living room, the trim around one doorway, dimly seen ghosts of the living room windows, the bricked up outline of the outside entrance, the round arches above the windows as seen from the street, and the roseate glow from the old, warm red bricks of the building itself.

But the new owner is Chinese, so perhaps some Oriental magic will come to the apartment with her, and it is just possible that in a few years her baby will find some of the mystery that I found here when I was a child.