Calling the Cardinals
I remember summer months at Grandma’s big house in Hamilton, Ohio, in the far southwestern corner of the state, near Indiana and Kentucky. When we visit in 1943, the house is already 108 years old. Grandma is 73 but tolerates the noise and energy of four boys. The days are hot, but in the morning, the air is fresh and cool on my legs as I sit down in the cherry-paneled dining room to cereal and milk and buttered slices of coffeecake that Grandma has heated until the butter melts. I watch Grandma call the cardinals. I am nine years old.
Grandma brings a bag of sunflower seeds from the kitchen. She raises the window, then the screen. She whistles: “Too-whit, too-whit; too-whit, too-whit.” A flash of brilliant red, a cardinal flies into the bush. Grandma dribbles a small handful of seeds along the sill. Down comes the screen. She steps back. One, then two, cardinals fly onto the sill. A hop, a look into the room, then down to business: pick up and shell a seed; eat it. Again. Again. Another look into the room. Another seed. I watch, entranced.
Grandma’s calls to the cardinals are the only times I remember sharing an experience with her alone.
Born in 1870, Grandma had lived in the house for 62 years as wife and mother and widow by the time she died in 1957. The family’s money was in the Beckett Paper Company, a smallish family-owned paper mill founded in 1848, located across Fifth Street and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks from the old house. Grandma took an active role in the company after Grandpa died in 1923. When Grandma died, her son Bill, my uncle, was both the executor of her will and the president of the company.
Bill grew up in the old house, but his obligations were to Grandma’s heirs and to the company. If Grandma had died a few years later, the historic preservation movement would have been under way—the National Historic Preservation Act became law in 1966—and the house might have been saved. It was expensive to maintain, no one in the family wanted to live in it—and the mill needed a parking lot for its employees. Bill, acting for the estate, had the house torn down. Sculpted rose and white Italian marble around the 19th-century fireplaces and the cherry paneling and antique furnishings were sold to the highest bidders. Then, acting for the company, Bill bought the property from the estate and paved it over for a parking lot. After the IRS agreed to a valuation of the Beckett Paper Company for estate tax purposes, Bill arranged to sell it to the Hammermill Paper Company for much more, and the proceeds were distributed to the heirs. One hundred nine years of family ownership, punctuated by several near-failures, came to an end. The inheritance didn’t make us rich, but certainly reduced anxiety.
Years after the house was gone, my brother Pete found a way to approach Bill about it.
“Uncle Bill, do you ever think about the house?”
“Peter,” he said, “I dream about it every night of my life.”
I had never guessed that Bill had a vulnerable side.
Between 1959 and 2012, the mill passed through the hands of corporate owners, but finally it was no longer profitable, and Mohawk Paper shut it down, dropping the curtain on one hundred sixty-four years of papermaking in Hamilton. A fire destroyed the main building in 2015.
Now even the parking lot is derelict—a chain link fence, weeds growing through cracks in the concrete. Beyond the parking lot is the Dayton Lane Historic District with big trees, green lawns, and lovely old homes, many of them repurposed as professional offices.
As I stand here now, I try to guess the exact spot—near the center of the lot, I think—where Grandma opened the dining room window and the cardinals flitted in the bushes and came down for breakfast. “Too-whit, too-whit,” a flash of red through dappled sunlight. I turn away. I won’t come back again.
About Rufus browning
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