Lori said, someday this house isn’t going to work for us, and I said, you’re right. In my mind I saw us as senile and white-haired, bent and frail and leaning on solid oaken canes, faces like dried prunes.
What are we going to do about that? she asked.
That’s a long ways off, I said. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
The town grew up from the center outwards, spinning off from the circular hub of the round square eastward toward the Manhattan and Blue Valley Railroad tracks, northward toward the Big Blue River and the small cluster of mills and plants, southward toward the low grassy ridge and the tracks of the Central Branch Railroad, and westward to the perennial watercourse that may or may not have been named after a popular racing horse.
Juganine Creek was something of a dividing line separating the town proper from the rural countryside from which it sprung. It was hardly a geological barrier, merely a perennial watercourse sluicing water from the high ground to the river during rains and spring runoff and thereafter carpeted with colorful shards of limestone and flint. Only one house of any merit lay beyond it, a two-story limestone edifice on high ground overlooking the narrow road that would become the Kansas White Way.
We’ve always heard that our house was built in 1900 by a Rosa Weeks, formerly Rosa Wheeler, and her husband, Charles. The warranty deed on the property was signed in late October, 1903, so it’s possible that a house already existed. (The first owners, John and Charlotte Coon, bought the land in 1873.) Following the Weeks’ short stint at ownership, the property changed hands seemingly every few years. The town’s main source of income was the gypsum mine on the north side of the river, and the town’s population was reputed to be as rowdy as it was transient.
The house was built on sloping land rising from the creek to a saddle straddled by Western Avenue. Beyond that last dusty road the land dropped away toward Fawn Creek with distant views of Waterville and the setting sun. The house was framed with oak timbers and the basement shored up with limestone. The excavated soil formed a sort of berm surrounding the house on two sides, necessitating a low stairway leading up from the driveway on the south side.
Like most farmhouses from that time, there were lots of stairs. During the last century the number of steps and their placement have shifted during various stages of reconstruction. Originally the stairs to the upper floor opened onto the living room, and now they’re tucked away at the end of a narrow hallway. It’s so narrow, in fact, that hauling anything up larger than a twin size box spring is virtually impossible. Fifteen steps will take you to the second floor bedroom and library, once heated by a wood stove and now supplied by a single slender duct that does absolutely nothing. In winter, temperatures on the second floor often drop to 50 degrees. Needless to say, we have to block the stairwell with insulated curtains to keep the cold at bay.
Four steps lead from the driveway to the side patio, with another step up for the landing, three steps to the dining room, and another step into either the kitchen or the back office, the latter an uninsulated, narrow add-on containing my office, a food pantry and a coat closet. Getting to the basement and the two freezers requires navigating ten steps down and ten steps up. Everywhere we go in this house seems to require stepping up or stepping down. Some fitness people buy fancy stair stepping machines, we bought this house.
A nice ranch with a full basement and a kitchen the size of Delaware would have been nice, but this is what we got. It came with two and a half acres, a unobstructed view of the northern Flint Hills, undeveloped land on all sides, reasonably new roof, a jacuzzi bathtub, two wooden decks (also with stairs) and stairs. Lots of stairs. And suddenly stairs became an issue.
Nerve damage in my spine makes lifting my left leg difficult. Some days are better than others but for the most part every day has its share of challenges. What was once taken for granted is now taken with caution, if it’s taken at all. We no long sleep upstairs, and whenever possible Lori retrieves things from the basement. I try to push myself, but it usually just makes things worse.
Funny how something as simple and benign as a step can make life so arduous. And funny, too, how our conversation about an unforeseeable future was almost clairvoyant, as if it were a train with scheduled arrivals and departures. Right on time—to coin a phrase—I came across a quote from Yogi Berra that perfectly matched my situation. “The future,” he said, “ain’t what it used to be.” That man sure had a way with words. I’m going to find a way with steps.