March 20, 2010

My Childhood Home: 29 Spring St., Portsmouth, N. H.

Filed under: JOURNAL — carolyncholland @ 11:56 pm
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     The first grader fought the tears damming up behind her eyes. She was strong. She wouldn’t let anyone see her cry. After a moment, she dared look at her knees. Brush-burned, grit ground in, bleeding—and painful. She almost let a tear fall.

     She’d been walking home from school when she tripped over the broken cement on the sidewalk. She would continue on home And she wouldn’t cry. She wanted to make her grandmother proud of her and her strength.

     That first grader was me. My destination was 29 Spring Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where I lived with my grandparents, Albert and May Isabelle (aka Mabel nee Walker) Briskay.

      The three-story white clapboard-sided house with forest-green shingles was nine-tenths of a mile from Whipple Elementary School. It offered my sister Nancy Lee and me sanctuary from the time I was an infant and she was barely two years old. Our mother, Nancy Briskay Cornell, lived there only occasionally. As children, we didn’t know the reasons. As adults, we still don’t know.

     I was reminded of my second home, on Spring Street, this morning when I realized that today is the first day of spring, 2010. Then, at a memoir writing workshop, I sketched some details of that home.

     Looking at the house from the street, on the right there was a small porch. I have pictures of my sister and I in snowsuits, standing behind the protective gate. To the left were about five steps leading onto a tiny stoop where the dark green front door was. Opened, it led into a foyer. To the left was a stairway, to the right of that a hallway that led to the kitchen, and on the right an entrance to the living room. Near this entrance was a chair, where my uncle, John (aka Jack) Walker Briskay would sit when he was home. He was very patient when I would spend hours combing his hair. He looked so gallant in his Navy uniform.

     The living room had a fireplace, although I don’t ever recall enjoying a fire. Across the room was an entrance to the dining room. My grandfather had a favorite chair there, Archie Bunker style, and a smoking stand. To this day cigar smoke brings pleasant memories.

     The living room also holds a negative memory. My grandfather used to discipline my sister and I by making us stand in the middle of the floor, holding our arms above our heads, until it went beyond torture.

     The dining room held a formal dining room set. I used to feel special when my grandmother would allow me to dust her collection of cups and saucers. I would handle them really carefully, knowing how fragile they were. I believe I did break one cup. My house also has a collection of cups and saucers, which I love to use when company knocks at my door.

     The other room on the first floor was the kitchen, with the old style sink. My grandmother would stand at the sink washing dishes, her dish-soap provided by scraps of hand soap in a wire mesh container, which she would swish in the water to make suds. She rinsed the dishes in a water-filled pan separate from the soap water pan. While she was doing the dishes, she could glance out her kitchen window to see what the neighbors were doing. She could also magically see what mischief Nancy Lee and I were making. We believed her when she said she had eyes in the back of her head, although we could never find them. How else did she know when we hid the food we didn’t like on behind the radiator? How gullible and unknowing I was! Later I learned about the mirror that was mounted above the sink.

     A stairway took us to the second floor. We would play games, peeking through the rails, playing with the adults, the cat, the dog. I did the same with my granddaughter when she visited me in a parsonage with a similar staircase.

     My grandparents had a large bedroom that faced onto the street. The window panes had squares of colored glass around the edges. There was a rocking chair near the window that overlooked the small porch and side yard. Once, on what must have been a cold night, I must have had a nightmare. It was one of the few times my mother was with us girls. She was rocking me in the chair as the window frost accumulated. I was fascinated, and stopped crying. She told me that the windows were being painted. If she assigned anyone the task, I do not recollect.

     Nancy Lee and I each had a small bedroom where we slept. The two rooms were open to each other, and there was a curtained linen closet off one wall. One day, when I was sick, I couldn’t make it to the bathroom and left my “cookies” on the curtain and closet contents.

     A few years ago the then owner of the house took me on a tour. When we came to the first small bedroom, I said “Oh, the open area has been enclosed.” She told me it had always been that way, which led to a debate that only ended when she opened the closet door and truly examined its construction. Then she ceded the argument.

     The third floor was a bedroom and attic, where Nancy Lee and I would sometimes play. My uncle used it when he was home.

     The basement held a coal cellar, with cellar doors that opened up to reveal several steps into the basement. There was also a coal chute. Numerous times we watched as a truck came and filled the coal room with fuel for the winter.

     The house is still there today, on the quiet residential street that has changed little. I could tell the gracious owner, the one who let me see it once again, about the house. About the addition that was built on in the 1950s. About the apple tree that no longer lives. About the bees that didn’t sting when they landed on you, as long as you stayed really still. About the garden in the back yard. About our dog, Buffy, buried behind the house addition. About the ice truck deliveries, the milk deliveries. About the home that existed long before she made her claim on the house.

     The last time I visited New England, the house had new owners. A young couple, with two young children, live there. The house continues to make history.

     And springs continue to come.


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  1. I grew up on 30 Spring Street. How old are you now or what year did you move from Spring Street? I moved there in 1957. Interesting…

    Comment by Kathryn — March 22, 2010 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  2. My sister and I moved to 108 Spring Street in 1952, then in 1955 we moved to Buffalo, New York. In 1955, my grandmother died, and soon after my grandfather sold the house at 29 spring Street.
    I believe the house at 30 Spring Street was owned by the Rondeau family when we lived across the street.
    Carolyn C. Holland

    Comment by carolyncholland — March 22, 2010 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  3. My sister Nancy Lee recalls that she slept in the attic for a short period of time. Whenever it was thundering and lightning, she became frightened, because a mannequin stored there took on an eerie look.

    Nancy Lee also recalled that after I had my appendectomy, I could offer to show my scar to people for a penny. She said that if it were her, she would have done it for free. But then, “I’m a romantic.” Then she would think, “But I didn’t save for a rainy day.”

    I’m posting this for her because she suffers from the effects of a stroke and has difficulty typing.


    Comment by carolyncholland — March 29, 2010 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  4. […] My Childhood Home: 29 Spring St., Portsmouth, N. H. […]

    Pingback by Winter Destination: Portsmouth, New Hampshire | Carolyn's Online Magazine — January 20, 2015 @ 1:30 am | Reply

  5. interesting

    Comment by Grace ( & Fred) Wells — January 20, 2015 @ 4:17 am | Reply

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