Within Close Range: Betsy’s Dad’s Den

Each time I lit the candle gifted me, a rich, earthy fragrance brought forward hazy memories.

Vague images which came briefly into view and then vanished amid so many forgotten days.

I’d light the candle and back they’d come.

Out of focus, but strong.

One day, with the faint but familiar fragrance still in the air, still teasing my will-menopause-ever-end-addled mind, I reached for the candle and turned it over, hoping the label would reveal something – anything – that might re-animate these mislaid memories.

There was my answer.

Pipe tobacco.

And Mr. Gould’s suddenly den came into focus.

Tucked in the corner of the Gould’s old, grey-green, two chimney, Colonial, which sat a short block from the edge of Lake Michigan.

You could find it by heading straight east down Scranton Avenue, the main street of Lake Bluff’s hardly-a-downtown business district.

The old house sat in a quiet spot amid tree-filled lots and winding ravines and looked as if it had been there almost as long as the trees which towered over it.

Stepping into the Gould’s house was like stepping out from the Way Back Machine with Mr. Peabody.

Everything – from its old plaster and uneven, wood floors, to its cozy nooks and small, sunlit rooms filled with old things – incited my imagination.

And oh, the kitchen – old bricks and beams – always smelling of fresh-baked bread.

Betsy and I would cut thick slices off a golden brown loaf cooling on the tall counter and sink our teeth into the still warm, chewy insides that hinted of honey and butter and left our fingers powdered with flour.

And my stomach hungry for more.

With the final crusts stuffed into our mouths, we’d climb the steep, narrow, crooked flight of stairs to Betsy’s room, straight ahead.

Two rooms, really. One being her bedroom, the other a small, summer, sleeping porch with northwest walls of old, paned windows; where generations of restless sleepers sought lake breezes during the dependably hot and humid Midwest summer nights.

Cots and cotton nightgowns. 

Late summer sun and the strident thrum of crickets. 

Another time still haunted the corners of this room.

Before the piles of fabric, patterns, and sewing stuff cluttered the small, bright space at the corner of the Gould’s old, grey-green, two chimney, Colonial near the lake.

We’d spread out across Betsy’s high bed and talk dreamily about our four favorite men: John, Paul, George and Ringo. Spinning their albums until daylight left and my ride home appeared at the front door.

The rest of the upstairs was a mystery to me, being two-thirds occupied by teen brothers, whose rare appearances and even rarer visits to Betsy’s room usually lasted briefly and annoyed her thoroughly.

It simply scared the shit out of me.

On occasion, when Betsy sought out her dad during my visits, we’d wander back down the creaky, old stairs, through the dark front entry hall (which no one ever seemed to enter) to the only place I ever recall seeing Betsy’s dad.

His den.

With a timid rap on the solid, old door, we’d hear his gentle voice give permission to enter this space.

His special place.

His sanctuary.

And it was here, as the door opened and I entered behind my best friend, that the smell of sweet and spicy, earthy and smoky, became a part of me.

As did the sight of Mr. Gould at his desk.

Smoking his pipe.

Sweatered, like the perfect professor.

Ever engaging his hands and his mind.

Creating. 

Drawing. 

Building dreams.

And ships in bottles.

Magnificent, masted vessels of extraordinary detail. Masterfully and meticulously constructed, painted and engineered within ridiculously constrained confines.

When finished, each ship would join the miniature armada that floated on a sea of books on wooden shelves, near paneled walls, and paned windows with mustard drapes; above a glass-topped coffee table filled with shells and sticky sand from spilled milks.

Each night (Betsy would tell me), without fail, her dad would close those long, mustard-colored curtains overlooking Scranton Avenue and sit at his desk to busy his hands and block out the world.

Yet each and every time a car drove past, she found it most mysterious that her dad would stop what he was doing, draw the drapes back – just enough to watch the car pass – and then close them again and return to his task.

And his deliciously fragrant pipe.

And his secret snacks – Pepsi and Fritos – hidden beneath his desk.

And there he’d stay, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, making beautiful things for make-believe worlds.

I could have sat in there for hours exploring the books, the shelves, the bottles, and the mind of a quiet, creative man.

All of which were out of reach.

Yet now reach out.

Calling me back to the old, grey-green, two-chimney, Colonial on Scranton Avenue.

To Betsy’s dad’s den.

To his ships and his pipe.

And the sweet aroma.

To fresh baked bread.

And lazy afternoons.

With best friends.

Author: Anne Celano Frohna

I have been writing for as long as I could hold a pencil in hand and would not feel complete without it. And I actually made a meager living at it (and as an editor) for 25 years. I worked for newspapers and magazines, in graphic arts and advertising, and wrote several local history books. But I have also taught English in Japan, been a Nanny in Italy, worked in and for museums, was an Airbnb Superhost for four years, as well as an Etsy shop owner where I sold vintage items I found over the years of thrift and yard sales. After moving to Arizona with my family in 2010, I completed a series of different writing projects, including two books of creative non-fiction: Just West of the Midwest: a comedy (Based on journals I kept during my two years as an English teacher in rural Japan.) Within Close Range: short stories of an American Childhood (Short stories and poems about growing up as the middle of five children in suburban Chicago.) I've also written children's stories and continue to write short fiction, but have recently found my voice in poetry. This blog, however, is where my greatest passion comes alive. I am also a mother of two wonderful girls, Eva (23) and Sophia (21) and wife to one wonderful husband, Kurt.

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