Meet Elizabeth Cottage, the house I think of as home when asked where home is. I lived in six houses and a dorm room from birth to age 18, but this one was mine up to age 9. It looked about like it does in this picture then, though I believe the ramp was added after we left. It was a good house to be a kid in. There was a staircase from which to send Slinkies slinking. You could also swing yo-yos from the top of the stairs. And because there was a little window over the dining room door, you could crouch on the staircase to spy on formal dinners taking place with grownups only.
It was a place to foster imaginations. It had an attic, a basement, a closet under the stairs–everything a child needs to imagine the stories her older siblings tell her about monsters lurking and so forth might be true.
From the small balcony, which I imagined existed because every family had to have a place for their Scarlet to go out and wave to her beaus, you could hit nearly anyone coming to the door with a water balloon. If you were short enough, no one ever noticed you were up there.
Upstairs were four bedrooms and a bathroom. This would make for a definite bathroom shortage by today’s standards, and it was the root of many a sisterly fight. Four bedrooms and six children meant only two people at a time got a room to themselves. Most of the time, I think those two were Cindy and James, though I was young, and it’s possible the others remember our arrangements differently. But to my memory, it went like this: Keith and Larry shared. Cindy had her own room. I shared with Judy sometimes, had a bed in the sewing room next to my parents’ room sometimes, and took over James’s room sometimes. James had the corner room next to the bathroom. It had built in shelves, and he made it look like a school room with a desk and a small chalkboard where he tried and failed to teach me math.
When James got fed up with me trying to claim his room, he created another room in the hallway. Everything about a house was built bigger in 1913, including the hallway. In this one, James put a screen up and made a room out of the end of the hall. You had to walk over his typewriter and telescope if you wanted to go out to the balcony to toss water balloons at unsuspecting visitors. If it was dark out, you would probably just drag the telescope with you to the balcony. As a kid who lived on a balcony with a telescope, maybe he had little choice but to later go for a degree in physics.
Downstairs were a living room for company, a study for family, a dining room for company, a kitchen for family, and another bedroom and bathroom, as well as a place for a freezer and a washer and dryer, and a small room that was sometimes for sewing and sometimes for a child to sleep in.
In the study, there were book cases lining the walls and a roll top desk with plenty of pigeon holes to explore. This was where the couch my mother didn’t care so much about was kept. We lived on it, dogs lived on it, cousins slept on it when they came to stay. From there, we watched the news every night, all of us gathered round for images of Vietnam and protest.
The ceilings were high enough in that house that every other house felt claustrophobic to me. It took months to learn to sleep at night when we moved away.
Elizabeth Cottage was in the middle of a college campus that sat in the middle of town. From there, I could walk to the elementary school and the public library. Woolworths with its soda fountain tempted like Pied Piper from our very front door. In 1972, a child of five could wander about in a place like that with no one really worrying. Everyone knew who I was. The village and the family German Shepherd had an eye out, and that gave me freedom to explore and play and make my own way with a sense of autonomy that I never have outgrown.
Only when I crossed busy streets alone did anyone worry, and then someone always brought me home.
From our house, you could walk to the public library without having to cross a street at all. This made a reader and a writer of me. I finished summer challenge lists quickly and explored the library for more and more books fit for a girl like me.
From our house, you could walk to class. Take your pick of the first grade or college. It’s a family joke that I went to college before I went to kindergarten. They say that’s why I never left college, why I teach in one now. It’s the only place I feel at home. It’s true that I went to college classes from the time I could walk around on my own. My brother James and I both did. We’d take notebooks and pencils and just walk right in and take a seat. I don’t think we made too much fuss. I don’t remember anyone ever asking us to leave, though I’m sure they must have sometimes. I don’t know what we learned. If we learned anything, I suppose it was to love the sounds of learning.
Because we weren’t enrolled, we could pick and choose when to go to class. Sometimes we didn’t actually go in. We spied on learning from the outside. There was a small ledge that went around the edge of the classroom building, nothing more than a foothold, but it was enough for a child to scale the edge of the building for the purpose of hanging onto windows and peering in. With no air conditioning at the time, windows were often open. I can only imagine how many classes our small heads disrupted by bouncing up and down in the corner.
Things happened at Elizabeth Cottage. People came and went. We met the world there. Mayors, governors, people running for office stopped in. Missionaries, students from everywhere, people with educations from other states and other countries sat and talked in that house. My brother and I listened, and we saw the world as a different and bigger place than we might have if we’d lived only a block or two away in a house that was not the center of so many comings and goings.
But ultimately Elizabeth Cottage was a family home. Our 1913 house had a kitchen full of 1950s formica. Remember that speckled stuff? You know you do. One room over, just through a swinging door, visitors were served on linen tablecloths. My mother set out crystal salt cellars for them. But in the kitchen where the kids ate, we had grocery store patterns, cups that came out of oatmeal boxes or came filled with grape jelly. The refrigerator put out a steady flow of heat at the bottom, and I spread my pink blanket in front of it to take naps.
My brothers slid down the banister and put their sports trophies on the mantel. In my brothers’ room there was an eight track player. In my sister’s room, there were hot rollers. I carried my Barbie by her hair around the house, and I believed Keith when he told me there were bodies under the house. I don’t know why he said it, but I didn’t go down there by myself for any reason. Ever.
On the sidewalk in front of Elizabeth Cottage, I made mud and sawdust pies. I made friends with people of all ages. I watched students hanging out, laughing. I listened to them play guitar.
From our house, you could walk to flea markets and political rallies. They were held on the campus.
From our house, I walked to the movie theater where I saw The Sound of Music with Judy and King Kong with Larry.
I walked to Mary Jane Lampton Auditorium where I saw plays and classical concerts. I stood on the stage when the auditorium was empty and acted out my own plays. I explored the balcony of the auditorium and fiddled with the lighting.
In our backyard was the college gym. I could swim by the time I could walk, though I never had a lesson and never could swim with anything like style or grace.
Next door was the college cafeteria. I was shocked when someone told me that my parents had to pay for it if I ate there. I thought I could, and I did, just go through and get a tray whenever they served something I liked. If my mother served something I liked was well, all the better. I’d eat twice. I never paid for it. I never knew why anyone would want to keep track or tell what I ate.
Christmases we filled the house up with craft projects, making ornaments and presents. Summers we filled it up with cousins and friends. Whatever kids were in the house at the end of the day, my mother bathed and put to bed. Sometimes she forgot which ones she was supposed to send home, and their parents would come looking for them after they were already tucked into a bunk bed somewhere.
I haven’t lived in Elizabeth Cottage for more than 30 years. I’ve lost track of the number of places I’ve lived since then. My family never owned this house. We were there because my father worked there. But if you ask me to draw a picture of my home, this is the one I’ll draw.
Today Elizabeth Cottage sits in the middle of the Mississippi School for the Arts. It’s in terrible shape, and it’s been a terrible feeling to watch it fade away. This week I learned that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History allocated money for its restoration. Thank you, MDAH. You’re preserving a house rich in history on a campus devoted to the best of Mississippi’s talented youth. They deserve to see that history at its best.
You’re also preserving my childhood. That might not mean much to the state, but it means everything to me.