(Note: My memoir Frozen Dinners will be released in November. Here in an excerpt from Chapter Four.)
In 1965, Dad hired Uncle Muncie Mink, my mom’s brother-in-law, to build a new home two miles outside of Wendell. The unique design of the house attracted attention from curious people who drove for hours just to see it. For many years after that, strangers would think nothing of driving up to the house and asking if they could look inside.
My dad filled the house with a peculiar assortment of objects he acquired as a long-haul truck driver, including four carved busts of African tribal members. One couple smoked pipes, and both women were bare-chested. Dad insisted on displaying the busts in the living room, so Mom, a devout Sunday School teacher, hung a large rendition of Jesus over the carvings. During the holiday season, I dressed the women in red bras, and that was the highlight of my youth.
Mom tried to balance the cowboy and Indian themes with watercolors of flowers and pastoral landscapes. She added candles and crosses arranged on hand-crocheted doilies. As a result, our home resembled a pawn shop in a truck stop.
According to my father, the house was designed by a student of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’t remember the name of the original architect. From a distance, it looked like a massive ship marooned on a rock. Surrounded by 180 acres of farm land, the structure was designed of rock and cement and became both palace and prison. The house was constructed in a semicircle with two main towers in the center. The floors were polished cement, and the ceilings were sprayed with glitter. The round kitchen had a huge bubble skylight and curved cabinet doors. The kitchen countertops were white marble, the two bathrooms had purple toilets, and my father’s bathtub had red and black tiles. Padded doors covered with orange leather lined the hallway.
The outside walls were constructed of white stone with a slash of green glass on the wall of the living room. A screened porch circled around the back. The four bedrooms opened onto the porch and overlooked the countryside. We could walk up a jagged stone wall to get on top of the flat roof. An upper clerestory of windows circled the entrance, and on the inside rock tower, my father hung the huge silver shield with five steel swords that he brought from one of his long-haul road trips. Over the fireplace, he hung his favored metal breast-plate. The rest of his trucking treasures were stationed around the living room.
An attractive but unused pool table took center stage in the living room as a repository for magazines, books, coats, and various knickknacks. I guessed that the original architect would have been dismayed at the altered house plans.
Uncle Muncie was a talented local carpenter, but this became his largest project. Because the kitchen was round, the plans called for curved doors on the kitchen cabinets. Uncle Muncie learned how to construct and create the elaborate doors and install a huge skylight on the roof over the kitchen. He hired a crew to lay the massive stones for the walls and spread the concrete for the floors. At my request, he added a secret compartment in my closet for me to store gossip magazines and a pack of cigarettes that were never smoked.
The house was the first in the county to have music and speakers wired into every room. In the evening, Dad would play his favorite records that included an eclectic variety from Strauss Waltzes to The Six Fat Dutchmen.
Every morning at 6:00 a.m. my father would blare John Philip Sousa marches into our rooms, bang on the doors and holler, “Hustle, hustle. Time is money!” Then my brothers and I would hurry out of bed, pull on work clothes, and get outside to do our assigned farm chores. As I moved sprinkler pipe or hoed beets or pulled weeds in the potato fields, I often reflected on my friends who were gathered at their breakfast tables, smiling over plates of pancakes and bacon. I knew at a young age that my home life was not normal. I remember the first time I entered my friend’s home and gasped out loud at the sight of matching furniture, floral wallpaper, delicate vases full of fresh flowers, and walls plastered with family photographs, pastoral scenes, and framed Normal Rockwell prints.
On the rare occasions that I was allowed to sleep over at a friend’s house, I couldn’t believe that the family woke up calmly and gathered together to have a leisurely, pleasant breakfast. Obviously, they didn’t know time was money.
The variety of crops around the house rotated through the years and included potatoes, corn, wheat, or sugar beets. Black Angus cattle grazed in the pasture, and my horse, Star, had a stall in the barn at the west end of the property. The pastoral scene was quite ideal until my father discovered that agricultural entrepreneur J.R. Simplot was selling his hogs. My father knew that sows would have up to 13 babies at a time, a considerable economic advantage over cows that only produced one calf a year. So, he went into the hog business and within a few years there were 4,000 hogs grunting, squealing, and pooping just a half mile from the front door. My mother would sit at the table in our custom house and swat flies during dinner. The odor was horrific, but my father said it was the smell of money.
I have no idea why my father paid to build that house. Even though he was becoming the major employer and the most successful businessman in the county, he always kept a low profile. He wore polyester work shirts, faded workpants, and old boots. He was so frugal that he would wait in airports that had pay toilets until someone came out and he’d grab the door so he didn’t have to pay a quarter to use the bathroom. Yet here it was–this dazzling stone estate on a country hill. And in that house, I wrote poems and stories, my brothers loaded shotgun shells to shoot rockchucks from the porch, my mother made rugs and read her Bibles, and my father suffered from various illnesses until he died.
After Dad’s death, my mother lived alone in the house for sixteen years. At age 79, she was manipulated by an unscrupulous realtor from Twin Falls to sell the house and surrounding acreage for one-fourth of the value. She was slipping into dementia and wasn’t allowed to consult her adult children when she agreed to carry the contract for 20 years. The shameful real estate transaction caused the inglorious demise of the Ambrose castle in the country.
Frozen Dinners – A Memoir of a Fractured Family will be released in November by Brown Books Publishing. It’s available now for pre-order. The Premiere Party is Thursday, November 8 at Telaya Winery in Garden City.