In 1942, I was born in the same parlor where my grandmother laid in her casket less than 20 years earlier.
Thus the memories of my childhood became entwined with Winchester, Kansas.
My Aunt Ida’s Victorian house stood grey, the paint long gone, its rambling rooms empty after housing a family created by the marriage of German Frank Haas and Irish Estella Kiernan. Across town, her brother Irish Frank Kiernan married Frank’s sister Bertha Haas. What resulted was a dizzying array of “double cousins,” not brother and sister, but all bearing the best and worst of their shared German/Irish heritage. Many of us keep in touch today.
The population of the town was aroud 400. Today, it is around 500, the residents still mostly German and Irish.
Winchester holds many of my childhood snapshots. My Uncle Jim Kiernan owned the gas station. He was an incredibly affable Irishman who would grab your hand and continue to shake it for the duration of the conversation, no matter how short or long. He would always slip me a candy bar and an icy coke in a bottle from the familiar red cooler.
My German grandfather had neat rows of rabbit coops in the back yard, filled with rabbit families I adored and could not stay away from. My mother said repeatedly, “Don’t name them,”but of course I did. I was always devastated when we had rabbit for Sunday dinner.
There was no running water in Aunt Ida’s house. There was a pump outside the back door which tapped the contents of a deep spring. No bathoom inside, and the walk from the back porch to the dreadful outhouse seemed, to my suburban indoor plumbing soul, miles from the house. There were spiders in the corners setting up housekeeping and monsters in the darkness below the seats. There was the minimal luxury of toilet paper.
One of the highlights of a summer visit was outdoor movie night downtown. Wooden benches, fresh popcorn, scary movies that made me run back to the house like satan himself was just a half step behind me.
A porch swing hung from chains. I spent hours there, listening to the mourning doves and thinking the deep thoughts of an eleven-year-old girl.
I loved Winchester, and it loved me back. My people lived there. Great aunts who wore wonderful hats. Cousins everywhere I looked. It was a place I visited on weekends, holidays, and sometimes several weeks in summer. It was a world away,only 40 miles from where I lived and went to school.
Those marvelous people are nearly all gone. But they live in my heart, as does Winchester, to be conjured at will.