Our House

It survived electrical wiring that would have caused

Thomas Edison to go back to gas light, the seismic activity that Southern California is heir to and the dining room was the location of the kinds of religious and political debates that would probably have caused Bishop Fulton Sheen to seriously consider Zoroastrianism. It was our house.

It might seem strange to include what is basically an inanimate object as part of what has influenced my Catholic journey, but on further review it makes a lot of sense.

Dispensing with “a house is not a home” parables, our house truly was like another cog in the wheel of our existence. It supplied shelter — well, better to have a leaky roof than no roof at all. It gave us heat supplied by wonderfully un-vented gas heaters strategically placed in various rooms that kicked out tremendous amounts of heat and carbon monoxide. Thanks to all the cracks and slightly out-of-plum doors, there was always enough fresh air coming into the house to counter the more lethal effects of the toxic-gas-producing gas heaters.

Actually, when I come to think of it, all of that carbon monoxide might have had something to do with the politics of some in the family.

It was a big house. Built just after the turn of the 20th century, it had been a boarding house in a previous incarnation until our family got hold of it.

Before I was born, before three or four of my siblings were born, the house was purchased, for cash, by my father's father for the impressive sum of $12,000. My father, mother, brothers, sisters, grandfather and uncle moved in to this six-bedroom, two-bath California bungalow-on-steroids in the middle part of the 1950s.

The house was one block away from our parish and school, St. Elizabeth's. It had a huge front yard that was perfect for sports. There were pickup football games, (touch on the cement walkway, tackle everyplace else). There were whiffle-ball games. And there was that time-honored, daylight-savings, after-dinner extravaganza known as capture the flag.

The house had its own geography, like a self-contained autonomous state. There was the bamboo porch, cactus hill, the camping compartment and Lake Mead (our dirt driveway after a hard rain). The house also had a feature that gave all us 10 kids a certain edge over our less-fortunate neighbor friends — it had a basement.

Now a basement isn't all that uncommon a feature in most of the country, but in Southern California it remains a rarity, and the fact that we had one in our house gave us all a certain imaginary play cachet. That basement would at times serve as IRA headquarters, World War I and II command centers, and a clubhouse for a wide variety of secret societies whose secret handshakes and codes of conduct that seemed so vital when we came up with them have now drifted away from our collective memories.

The basement was also the place where our dad stored cans of Campbell soup in the event the Cold War would ever get hot.

How we were supposed to survive a thermo-nuclear device being detonated over the wood frame and asbestos shingles of our circa 1912 house, we never questioned. I'm only grateful we never found out how well or poorly turn-of-the-century house-construction materials would withstand the technology of middle 20th century military ordnance.

The sleeping arrangements of this big house speak volumes about what it meant to us to be a big Catholic family.

Six bedrooms sounds like a lot at first blush, but in our household, by the time my grandfather had passed away and I had come along to bring the number of children to a nice, even, double-digit number, those bedrooms broke down into the following allotment:

The front bedroom belonged to my oldest sister (can you say “Irish princess?” I knew you could!). The middle downstairs bedroom belonged to my parents. The back downstairs bedroom was shared by my next two sisters. Upstairs, our bachelor uncle, Uncle Rich, who lived in that house along with us for 30-odd years until his death, had the coolest room in the house. It had paneling, a kitchenette and a walk-in closet. The smaller upstairs bedroom was shared by my two oldest brothers, and finally there was the “boys” room. This room consisted of two sets of army-surplus bunk beds occupied by corresponding two sets of twins and then, under the window, sleeping on a piece of redesigned patio furniture, was me.

There — six bedrooms, filled pretty much to capacity. It was wonderful.

Added to this mix and creative living arrangements would be the periodic extended family members who would come to stay with us in that house. Rooms would be shuffled, noses would be bent out of shape, but room was always found at this inn.

The generosity of my grandfather and then my uncle would be flesh-and-blood examples of what it meant to me to be a Catholic family.

Our faith would serve to be the great linking device that seemed to hold that house together and our family together as well.

Our faith might not have always been evident when we fought and acted like jerks, but there were constant reminders strewn throughout that house to help us refocus on our better selves. The statue on the mantel of the Sacred Heart, the statue of the Blessed Virgin on our big oak dining room table, the statues of Sts. Patrick and Joseph on the piano nobody really played except for my sister Fran, who could play by ear, pictures in the front hall of the current pope (our house survived portions of five pontificates).

These were not designer accents. They were who we were. Our house wasn't a “Catholic” household because it was filled with religious iconography, it was filled with religious iconography because we were a Catholic household.

The house was so much like a living member of our family. It survived to see most of my brothers and sisters marry and start families of their own and many of those older grandchildren who have children of their own still talk about the magic qualities of that big old house that forged memories in them.

The house is gone now.

Where it once stood is now a vacant lot. The only identifiable landmark that remains is the large palm tree that was in our front yard and served as the “safe” zone for all those games of hide and seek.

I sometimes drive my own kids past that lot and tell them of all the wondrous things that used to go on there. They'll never understand what it meant to me — the joys that old house hosted and the sorrows it absorbed like some kind of cosmic filtering system. My own children will never know that joy of coming downstairs on Christmas morning and seeing the big cherry wood doors that separated the dining room from the living room shut tight, keeping us between our expectations and that Christmas tree we knew was just beyond our reach in the living room.

We had to wait. Church first, then presents.

Sometimes, I drive by that vacant lot by myself and stop awhile. I look down the block at the steeple of St. Elisabeth's and think of how fortunate I was to have been given the gift of the house that used to stand here, the family that goes on and the Church that will remain with us forever.

Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.