Decades Have Sweetened Memories of Family's Little House on the Hill

It was a Cape Cod cottage on a hillside in El Sereno. It had a pleasant view over a tree-filled valley. It was ours. We had planned it and built it and would live in it forever.

How had this miracle come to pass? Well, it was 1922 and we were newly married. Houses to rent were scarce and the rents were high for our modest income.

Then my husband, Rex, had the great idea. "Let's build our house," he said. "I can get a veteran's loan. I know a nice lot for sale, with a view."

"And I have some school teaching money saved," I said. "I can help pay for the lot."

"And Dad knows a builder, absolutely honest. We can get Mr. Serley."

"And Roy will help us with the practical part. He's studying architecture at Caltech. He knows things like stresses and strains and weight-bearing walls. He won't charge much if we really hire him in a businesslike way."

So we conferred endlessly with Roy. We read House Beautiful magazines by the score. We trimmed our plans here and there. The first compromise was the dining room. The magazines stressed how unnecessary a dining room was.

"We will eat in front of the fire in the winter and in the garden, when we have one, in the summer," we agreed.

It sounded idyllic. But when we moved in, we realized that it was getting tiresome, carrying food here and there. How nice it would be to have a dining room. But how?

"You know, if we took some footage off the entrance hall and pushed the south wall of the breakfast nook out into the jacaranda tree, I think we'd have a nice, decent-size dining room," Rex suggested.

And with a floor-length window looking into the flowers, the room was beautiful. We had a dinner party to celebrate.

Then we thought how pleasant it would be to have a brick-paved patio to the north of the living room. What a pleasant prospect.

This entailed much hard digging on Rex's part, and much laying of brick on my part. We decided on a pergola overhead for shade. Then we must have a fireplace for barbecuing. This all took time, but when finished and shaded by wisteria overhead, we had a happy spot for lounging and parties.

I remember when we built the fish pond. Percy, our gardener, and Mr. Barge, his crony, labored mightily all day with pick and shovel. Percy had been an actor, and the ring of the pickax was accompanied by Hamlet's soliloquy or the death-bed scene from "East Lynne," or perhaps just a good joke from a colorful past.

The dimensions of the pond began to get a little out of hand, and, to our horrified gaze, began to resemble Boulder Dam. Bags and bags of cement were needed. We filled it half full with dirt and when the water went in, it became a thing of beauty with waterlilies and goldfish swimming lazily about.

Then we had a baby. The study must become a nursery. But we must have a study. How easy to take some more off the entrance hall and push the south wall out even with the dining room. A cozy, sunny little room was created, a pleasant place to balance the check book.

Then another happy event, another baby. The two shared the nursery until it became evident that a big little boy and a big little girl could no longer share the same room. Where were we to find another bedroom? The house had a steep roof. There was lots of room up there for a magnificent bedroom.

So we took hammer and saw in hand and, with the help of the neighborhood handyman, we created a big beautiful room, paneled in knotty pine. There was an alcove under the eaves for a bed and a hidy-hole where the scouts could meet.

Access to this playroom was gained by a narrow little stair, rather like a ship's ladder but quite practical for nimble young feet.

The old nursery, which was now Nancy's room, seemed very small and constricting. There was only one thing to do. We must push out the east wall. So we did this and made a bay window into which fitted a big low table where she and the Topham children could cut out paper dolls, paint or make strange unidentifiable objects out of clay. French windows opened onto a bricked terrace.

The garage in the back yard took a great deal of room. There was hardly any space for children to play. This was easy. An excavation in the front bank down by the street became a practical, functional garage.

The lumber from the old garage made a workshop at the back of the lot where boys could hammer and pound and make things out of scrap lumber we had been given by the local lumber yard.

There was also enough wood to build a playhouse under the apricot tree. This held a chest full of long, grown-up lady's dresses that were much used for dramatic play. Here also, was the type used by Donnie and his friend, Tommy, to set up and print the "Star News." This was a very small but gossipy paper that sold for a penny. The boys were immensely pleased when the editor of the real neighborhood paper expressed his fear that the "Star News" might run him out of business.

Out of the foundation of the old garage we could see a small swimming pool. We dug out the dirt, plastered the walls and floor with cement and there it was. Small, but so popular with the neighborhood. What splashing, screaming and laughing went on. I remember Nancy's third birthday when all the nursery school came and disported themselves, while the mothers sipped tea and watched. It was a good party.

Time passed. The children grew up. There was college. Then they had homes and families of their own. The little house was empty. The neighborhood changed. Friends moved away.

Sometimes, when I wake at night, I think of the flowering peach and the jacaranda in full bloom. I think of the wisteria dropping its blooms through the pergola beams, the fish swimming lazily among the lily pads. I think of the big attic room full of children. I think of the little girls cutting out paper dolls, the splashing in the swimming pool and the shouts of joy. It is all such sweet sorrow.

And I wish, oh, how I wish, that we were all there again, pushing out walls, laying brick, cutting windows in that much lived in and loved little house on the hill.

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