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Homes: Front porch

Living on memories of home

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2003


Front Porch columnist Janet Zink has assumed new duties at the Times. Beginning this week, Elizabeth Bettendorf takes over the column, opening with musings on the meaning of "home."

My grandmother's cookies always arrived by shoe box.

Her sweet pillows of chocolate chips and walnuts followed me to just about every working-girl apartment I inhabited.

She died years ago.

But when I close my eyes, I peer once again through the window of Dorothy Pikas' cozy kitchen. She is scooping and dropping sugar, flour and soda into a nest of green mixing bowls in Riverside, Ill., where she settled as a newlywed in 1942.

Her French country-style cottage, with a shake-shingle roof and a storybook picture window, gazed upon a quiet street shaded by tall elms. She always called it the prettiest house in the neighborhood. Complete strangers agreed. They would stop at her door, offering to buy.

The house stood in one of Chicago's first planned communities, conceived in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted, dean of American landscape architecture and designer of New York's Central Park. The neighborhood resembled a pop-up book of trees and parks and so many wonderful styles of houses, it was hard to count them in a single walk.

My own family moved several times, but my grandmother's house remained a constant. It was the place where my mother and uncle grew up, where I spent summers and vacations as a child, a place so deeply felt and emotional that even now, distanced by decades and miles, I still think of it as my real home.

What is a home, I wonder, but the aroma of dinner on the stove, grandparents, parents, siblings and children gathered around a kitchen table, rooms filled with memories?

Who hasn't heard the tired old saying, "It takes a heap of living to make a house a home?"

Home is not a place but a state of mind. A real home means love, food, friends and family -- and all the happiness and heartbreak that goes with living.

In my grandmother's home, the kitchen was the center of love.

Aunt Mabel, my grandmother's beautiful sister who worked behind the candy counter at Marshall Fields, stopped by every evening for a glass of port. An hour of sisterly gossip would follow. Golden yellow cabinets matched a wall telephone with a rotary dial that my grandmother answered with delight and according to the occasion: "Good Morning!" "Happy New Year!"

The family ate most meals around a built-in kitchen table, above it a still-life picture of potatoes and onions painted by my mother, an artist. I remember long talks past midnight in that room with my grandmother, about school and life and dreams.

My grandmother cooked in her kitchen almost every day of her life until she was nearly 80. When her energy gave out, and the house simply became too much, an auctioneer hawked her furniture, china, glassware and linens at an estate sale that lasted two days and even attracted the state treasurer of Illinois.

She didn't live long after that. The heartbreak of selling her beloved home sapped her strength in a losing battle with cancer.

But even in the end, she baked her chocolate chip cookies in a tiny galley-style kitchen in a retirement condo. A week before she died, though too sick to eat, my grandmother asked for lamb chops with tarragon -- just wanting, I'm certain, to smell my mother's cooking one last time.

My grandmother said she missed her "beautiful" home so much that it broke her heart. It wasn't so much the house that was gone, but what went with it:

Life.

Sometimes when I can't sleep at night, I still roam my grandmother's old house in my mind. Room by room, I search for something, although I'm not sure what it is. When I leave, my grandmother appears in a crescent of light in the kitchen window, waving goodbye until my car is out of sight.

-- Write to Elizabeth Bettendorf in care of the St. Petersburg Times at 1000 N. Ashley Drive, Suite 700, Tampa, FL 33602; or by e-mail at ebettendorf@aol.com.

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