Back door

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

When I was in grade school, most of the friends in my little Iowa farm town were back door kids, like me. We went out our back door to play and knocked at each others’ back doors so they would come and play with us. It was the entry to the great outdoors and the freedom we were given to enjoy it: it was the first step to school, it was how we took the washing from the basement to hang on the line, it was the door we used to walk to the pool, to Little League games and to the B and E for an ice cream cone. Unlike the front door, it was homely, as in, it was home.

Once in a while we had our photos taken on the front porch – first day of school; greeting Gramma and Grampa; ready for the square-dancing group; going to the prom. For the eternal chronicling of these events, Dad manned the 38 millimeter camera and made home movies.

Years later when my younger sister had all the reels put onto one disk, we three middle-aged women watched the parade of the O’Brien girls to-ing and fro-ing in different clothes, at different ages . . . there were no transitions, just year after year of at first shy little girls, then gawky, gangly and dorky grade schoolers, sometimes clowning, sometimes just scowling like brats, eventually aping sophistication as only a 17-year-old headed for the prom on the arm of her boyfriend can do. Our children watched us watching home movies as we laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. They didn’t think we or the movies were funny. But we did. We laughed till we cried watching our young selves grow up so quickly. They shook their heads and went away.

If the front door was our stage, as well as the door we used to greet our dates and then leave them with our goodnight kisses, it was the back door that was our refuge as we ran eagerly home from school or sulked in to Mom crying from a fight with that mean Patricia who was older than us and so bossy. It was also our escape hatch when we had to get away from each other or the family in general.

The linoleumed landing as you came in the back door was at most three square feet – straight ahead were the basement stairs; to the left, three steps up to the kitchen. There were hooks for coats and a box-like area for our boots cut into the basement wall behind the door. When I was a kid it was just fine; it never dawned on me to complain that it was too small because I was so small. When I was an adult and bought a house in my hometown with that very same configuration, I felt there wasn’t enough room for me there on that landing. Merely opening the door and closing the door, which grazed the steps to the kitchen, was a trick. And coming up the steps from outside with groceries or going down the stairs with things for the basement, I felt I was mincing, having to take exaggeratingly small steps.

Once, as a child, maybe nine or ten, holding my breath as I was witness from the kitchen, I watched my mom and dad having an argument in that little three-by-three space: Dad was sitting on a step with his head in his hands when Mom came up the stairs from the basement carrying the broom and dustpan. She said something to him and he answered. Then he got up and went out the screen and she followed him and threw the metal dustpan as he took off across the neighbor’s gravel driveway toward uptown. The dustpan glanced off the back of his head, he stumbled a bit, put his hand up to smooth his hair and kept walking. It was the most dramatic fight I’d ever seen in real life.

The front door was always locked, but the back door was open to all, secured only when we went on vacation. Because it was so seldom locked, the couple of times it actually got that way, no one would take the blame; in other words, neither Mom nor Dad had remembered the key.

One of us three girls was chosen to crawl through the basement window with the broken latch and run up the stairs to open the back door. The time I had to do it, I felt it to be a precarious and oddly weird experience, for there I was, having to wiggle feet first and on my belly across the metal lip of the window sill, my family’s feet in a semi-circle before me and voices telling me what to do. Working backward, I was blind to what I was crawling into, but I was getting plenty of instruction (Mother, Father, older sister, younger sister) on being careful, on how not to fall into the washing machine (it was a tub with a wringer attached to squeeze out the water) and then how to get out of the washer without falling on my head.

The third time it happened, the youngest of us was chosen acrobat for the feat, and we realized that she should have been doing it all along, for she’d been an escape artist since she could walk, running down the alley when she was a three-year-old as soon as she could shed her clothes. She was agile, and unafraid. And perhaps an exhibitionist.

When I moved back to this little town 40 years later to a house with the same back door, for six years Jim and I lived there and then he died and for seven years I lived there alone. In the beginning, he and I sat under the pergola in the backyard smoking cigarettes and drinking wine (I) and coffee (he), admiring the dark green trim that framed the door and the yellow back door itself.

Then it was just I, sitting out there with a glass of wine, looking at the back door. I have photos of it, the bluish morning glories climbing up the weed tree beside the stoop to the east, a basket of red and purple vining petunias on the west side. The back door was a picture; I have it here, on my desk. I look at it every day and think how life was when I lived in that house with Jim and our back door. And then without him.

Eventually I sold the house with the yellow back door trimmed in dark green where I got to live with Jim for a while as we grew older. It lives in my memory in many ways, just now prompting me to a memory of him and me much further back, to my childhood house with the plain back door . . . where when we were way too young, he came in through that back door when no one but I was at home, and I ran through the kitchen and up the stairs to my bedroom, sat on my sister’s bed, and he came in. He sat next to me and he kissed me. I think we were 12. I never got over it.

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