Thursday, July 06, 2017

Across the Alley: The Ryan Siblings

Andy and Toots Ryan (Andrew and Margaret Ryan, to be exact) were brother and sister.  They lived together in a small, tidy house in the middle of St. Vincent, across an alley just north of my grandparents' home.  Toots and Grandma were friends...

Andy worked for the Great Northern Railway; Toots kept house for her brother.

I remember often going over to visit at Toots' home with my grandma.  Sometimes I'd come on up our road to visit Grandma and if she wasn't home, I'd run across the alley, across the Ryan lawn, and up Toots' high, large steps.  Their house was on a very high foundation, probably made that way to avoid flood waters.  Their steps did not match what that foundation needed, and despite the high steps, the last one into the house was a doozy in itself, especially for a little girl.

I remember the inside of Toots' house very well, as well as I remembered Grandpa and Grandma's. When you went through their door, you were immediately in a small kitchen.  It had a stove and small old fridge one-step-above an icebox.  The sink and counters were on the west side of the kitchen, with a window over it.  The sink did not have a faucet, but rather had a hand pump that drew up the cistern water when you hand-pumped it.  The floors - like my grandmother's house - were covered with old-fashioned linoleum.

The door into the next room was on the far right (east) of the north wall.  That led into a parlor where there was a big chair in the northeast corner, that sat on a large, old, threadbare oriental rug.  When Toots wasn't in the kitchen, she would hold court in the living room, sitting in the chair, while Grandma would sit in a rocker nearby.  Her feet sometimes didn't reach the floor, because she was a small woman.  I remember her as seeming as round as she was tall, and having white hair.  She called me "PK", because my first and middle names' initials (Patricia Kaye) reminded her of PK Gum.

When I was very little, I remember being at Toots' house with both Grandma and Mom.  They were visiting as usual, and I think they were laughing over something.  I began to stare at Toots and really take her in.  It wasn't like I hadn't noticed her before, but something about the situation, the light coming in from the nearby window shining on her...I don't know...but I suddenly REALLY saw her. Her hair was fluffy white around her face, she was missing a tooth or two.  As she laughed her face lit up and made me smile, too even though I had no clue what the grownups were talking about.  She had a dress on, with a full apron, and as she laughed her whole body shook including her large belly.  She felt my eyes on her, and looked my way.  I suddenly blurted out, "YOU'RE FAT!"

The room went silent, and for a moment or two, you could hear a pin drop.  Then Toots began laughing, and said, "PK, so I am!"  I had no sense of it being wrong, but my Mom soon told me different.  I apologized, but Toots and Grandma both continued to find much amusement out of the situation.

There was also a very old piano in the northwest corner of the room, with a round stool that you could spin around to adjust the height of. Its four legs ended with cast iron claws that clutched glass balls. As you might imagine, I had a lot of fun sitting on it and spinning!

The piano was a dark walnut, and some of the keys were missing. But of the many keys that were still covered, they were covered with real ivory, and were so beautiful compared to the keys of modern pianos.  The seat was worn very smooth, evidence of many people who had sat upon the stool over the years.  One can imagine the many songs that were played, maybe even sung to, at that piano. Evenings where the piano brought music and joy into the Ryan home. Now, however, despite its beauty and history, it was a shadow of its former self, including the tuning. It sounded like a piano in an old western saloon, so out of tune, it had a sort of tune all its own.  As a little girl, the sound delighted me, and I loved playing little ditties I knew by heart.

My nickname's inspiration
The kitchen and parlor were the only rooms in the downstairs. However, in the southwest corner of the parlor were stairs that came out of the wall and projected into the living room.  There was a curtain that closed the opening where the stairs met the wall, but beyond that was open stairs, upon which were stacked books, and a plant or two.  There was just enough room to allow a person to get up the stairs. I never did get upstairs, although I was always curious.  I was too timid to just go up without asking, and never felt brave enough to ask.

There came a time, after my Grandma got more ill from her diabetes, that her friendship with Toots waned and we saw her less.  She was friends with the Friebohle family, through St. Anne's, who took her under their wing and helped her out to get to the store, or to the doctor.  I'm not sure what happened to Toots, except that she outlived her brother Andy, who has forever lived in my memory as a stout man in striped overalls and a trainman's hat, as he appeared every so often upon return home once upon a time.