Monday, April 25, 2011

Back Doors

Grandma Doris and Great-Aunt Lorraine (Colton, South Dakota)

Where I grew up, in the south east area of South Dakota, side doors were most commonly what you used to enter and exit the house. These old farm houses had front doors, side doors and back doors. And, most of these doors were preceded by porch doors.

In my house, we had French double doors in the front - a modification to the recent addition.  There was a back porch door that led to the livingroom, and a side porch door for daily use.  This led directly to the kitchen.  Before you entered the yard or proceded up the front porch steps, you slid your shoes or workboots over the scraper so as to remove any excessive amounts of mud or manure.  Then, you went through the outside porch door to the entry way where you removed your workclothes/coveralls and then tip-toe sprinted to the bathroom for your evening bath before dinner. 

This side door was the one that was used and abused to the point of wear in the paint and wood and a loose door knob.  It didn't matter whose home you were in, there was always a special slam or adjustment that had to be used so that this door didn't blow back open by the heady prairie winds, letting in every fly in the tri-county area. 

I can recall visiting school friends on regular days where we would enter through these types of door just off the kitchen, often times to run into their "old man" sipping his afternoon coffee and having a couple cookies or a slice of cake before heading back out to his fieldwork and evening chores.  There he would sit quietly, hat messed hair strewn about above him with dust settled on his sunburnt face except where his hat had been.  And there was always a hat.  In fact, for every single friend and cousin's home that I can recall at this moment, we entered through that side porch kitchen door. 

The actual backdoor was rarely used, if ever.  Mostly it was hidden from visiters by the grove of trees that surrounded the house.  From the inside, this door was also hidden by a stack of boxes, an old piano, a couch, a summer bed.  I think we used our backdoor for my wedding two years ago, but never for the 13 years I lived on that farm. 

My Grandma Hazel's backdoor was an entry to her basement, which had another door right there leading to the livingroom.  I recall using that door once and likely only out of curiousity.  Never ever do I remember that door being used for any other circumstance.

To the east of us, Old Erwin Peterson lived in the house on his family's bicentennial homestead.  This was quite a large and impressive home, painted yellow with white trim.  Up the walkway, past the creaky old windmill, you could enter either via decending the steps to the basement door or by climbing the steps to his side porch door.  Never ever ever did he use the front door.

To the north of us, Elmont Baker and his wife always used the side door.  Again, never ever ever the back door or the front door.

On holidays, which always warranted a family gathering, no matter the house, the front door was cleared, dusted and used.  Cob webs wiped away, and a good shove at the old door and Grandmas, Grandpas, Uncles, Aunts and Cousins were welcomed through that door.  At my Grandma Hazel's, this door was on the front porch, in both the old farm house and the new house Grandpa built her in her 90's.  For our house it was French doors with all the menfolk practically lifting Grandma up those steps as she smiled and laughed, jell-o and pie in her hands, net over her freshly curled hair.

The end of those French double doors came when a large piece of sheet metal flew through those doors, practically killing my Dad and preventing him from seeking shelter in his basement, when the tornado came through his farm in 2003.  Most of our doors were spared that day, all except those of the other 11 buildings on his property that the tornado took that day.  After the farm was rebuilt, Dad remodeled the house.  The French doors had to go.  But he built a new front door and a new side door and new back door.

Again, what all these side doors had in common was a direct entrance to the kitchen.  There you were invited to join in morning or afternoon coffee.  There amidst the smells of the days baking or lunches frying and the aroma (rarely faint) of the cattle or pig yard, there you would get a tasty homemade treat and would be privy to recent prices in corn, cattle and hogs and the expected weather.

What I remember best about these doors though were the back doors and side doors that I used to knock on when I lived in Colton, South Dakota for one year, in 1979.  My brother and I lived there with my Mom while my parents pursued a divorce.  And, as I didn't have many friends there yet, I would wander and explore.  And whats cool about these tiny midwestern towns is the lack of fences surrounding their homes.  Lawn ran into lawn and plenty of kids would cut through the block on their way to school or the park or a friends or Grandma's house.  During that summer, with my Mom at work and my brother off tormenting someone else, I would walk between these houses and greet the dogs and cats and birds and butterflies and flowers. 

One time in particular I recall talking to an elderly man in his driveway as he worked on a vintage car.  He seemed happy for the conversation and invited me in for afternoon coffee.  Entering through the back door, we went directly to the kitchen table where his wife served us cookies, cake, coffee for him and juice for me.  She joined us and our conversation.  But I remember asking him about the tatoos on his arms.  There was an anchor and a pin-up girl.  He told me about how he got these when he was a very young man in the navy.  Then he showed me how he could make the girl dance by flexing his muscles.  I was in awe and utter sugar-enhanced bliss.  After coffee break, I thanked them and excused myself to return often times after that for afternoon coffee with my new friends.

In the same town, there lived an elderly woman all alone in a decrepid old home that was grey from years of wear and lack of refresher paint.  I was introduced to her by my one new girlfriend that summer who was actually my age, Angie Erickson.  This frail little lady welcomed us in through the side door and, without hesitation, whipped us up some rootbeer floats.  All three of us sat there laughing and talking with icecream float mustaches, slurping away.  I definitely called upon her again, even without Angie.

All those doors.  Basic wooden side doors.  Back doors and front doors with elaborate etching and scrolling that framed beautiful old circular glass.  As I now type-up my Grandmother Doris's memoir, I wonder how many of those people knew who I was and who my parents and grandparents were.  Likely they were even friends or relatives, but what we did was enjoy the time, enjoy the communion of friends and share in the moment that simply was.  Perhaps that is why I take such a particular pride in inviting people to convene for coffee at my own diningroom table right next to the kitchen.