Built in 1870, our house survived the Great Chicago Fire. She witnessed from her large bay windows the greedy flames devouring our town after Bessie, the cow, kicked over the lantern in the O’Leary’s barn. Just how close she was in her infancy, I could never be sure, but the sight and smell must have been terrible from any distance as the firemen fought to control the inferno that lasted two full days and raged over four miles — one of the worst American disasters of the nineteenth century.
My plain desk was made of an old piece of wood that stretched cozily over the radiator and pleasantly under the windows overlooking the leafy oak trees on Orrington Avenue. I imagined the move north, the sheer feat of our home’s safe transport many moons later to the corner of Library Place. I pictured a skit large and strong enough to carry a double story, several-bedroom dwelling, as I wrestled plane geometry into the wee high school hours. I thought about shape, size, the relative position of figures, and the properties of space – using my mind’s eye to draw parallels.
Our house was the only one I’ve ever lived in — a great rambler with uncountable nooks and crannies, an eternally creaky staircase and thickly carpeted floorboards, slightly askew walls and ceilings, and a basement that sported cave crickets, or popping spiders, as we called them. They sounded like bubble gum when we accidentally stepped on them on our way down to the laundry. My room luckily was tucked above and behind the front door entrance, and from my sill under the second set of windows, I could practically reach out and climb the trees– and delight in the chirping of real crickets from the branches.
She’s still there – intact and perhaps too easily found through Google. It’s strange to see the change in color from honeydew green to dull amber on her siding, as I note the absence of our white picket fence and grape vines that trailed the trellis over the gate. There’s a ladies’ three speed bicycle propped against a maple on the sidewalk, waiting for the twenty-mile journey along the lakefront down to Chicago – a path I frequently took.
It’s said that a house has a distinctive character, marked by design, time, and its inhabitants. Ours lasted, and Chicago was rebuilt, quickly becoming a populous and economically important city. I am not too convinced about the popping spiders, but I did ace that geometry exam — finally seeing the genius of Euclid in front of the fireplace as Beethoven’s Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life filled our suburban living room.
Referencing Our News Display: The Great Chicago Fire , Friday, 10/8, in the Everett Café