The big empty house

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My sons ask why I haven’t written a column about our trip from Pennsylvania in 1964 when I divorced their father and we headed for a new life in the West?

Certainly, they somehow believe, I can get all the crazy things that happened in 750 words.

Things like the wild cat in our tent, the rude staring kids at a campground, the restaurant proprietor who didn’t know what a travelers check was or the buffalo that tried to crash into our car cannot be described in a few words. So I’ve decided to do it in installments.

There’s always reasons why a marriage fails. Mine had a lot to do with the way my husband, Don Sr. was, and why I simply couldn’t after 20 years stay in an unhappy marriage. How his parents had raised him had a lot to do with our problems.

His father, Clayton Hill, was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore in a small western Pennsylvania town. It failed when a chain drugstore opened and the family moved to Philadelphia. Clayton got a pharmacist’s job at a store in that city’s Logan section. They then rented a small row house a couple of blocks away. Everything was convenient, and all the stores Mom Hill needed where within walking distance.

Don’s folks bought a 1937 Plymouth and the older brothers learned to drive. As years went by the family, along with the boys’ girlfriends, often went on Sunday drives, sometimes to Princeton or Jersey City, N.J., or to visit relatives of the family; however, neither of Don’s parents ever learned to drive.

While dating husband Don, I was surprised that he’d never eaten in a restaurant in his entire life. I don’t ever recall a time when his mother and father went out to dine or a movie together, or had friends in for a meal. It just wasn’t done in the Hill family.

The Hill’s were fine Christian people, but I finally realized the way they lived was unusual. Unfortunately, my husband wanted to live the same way. Don’s priorities were in this order, his job, his parents, his children, his church and then his wife. It was always a battle having my friends visit our house, or getting Don to take us out for a meal or a movie. My family, before the depression, often had friends in for card games and took my sister Jeanne and I out for meals.

Finally, I told Don about my plan, that I was taking the boys to California to begin a new life. I arranged for the school next door to buy our property. I then found a nice apartment for Don, sold our excess furniture and household items, bought a used VW bus, and prepared for the trip. Don in the meantime went to work every day, like all was normal.

The last night in Pennsylvania we stayed at Don’s new abode, the boys sleeping on the floor of the living room. In the morning as I got the boys some breakfast and ready to leave, their dad said goodbye and left for work. A little while later we picked up our belongings, closed his apartment door and got in our old VW bus to begin our new life.

We decided to drive past the old house. That big three-story house that had been our home for so long looked so forlorn. The big pine tree stood majestically in the back yard beside my forsythia bushes, the lily bed sat below the living room bay window. Our lovely covered front porch, now empty, seemed to be looking back. For a long moment I just wanted to cry. “What was I doing, what was I thinking? Should I just take the boys to a real estate office and find a place to rent and stay here? “

My son Doug drove the VW at about 10 miles an hour. Across the street I spied the pastor of the Baptist church we had attended for many years. He’d been a family friend and to our home on many occasions. Not 10 feet away he looked up and I smiled. The man simply turned his back and rushed toward the church. Any thought of staying in Pennsylvania vanished.

Doug turned that old VW bus onto the Pennsylvania turnpike at the Fort Washington entrance. It was the start of a remarkable new life that began in early July 1964. I’ve never looked back.

Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer.


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