The Bing Crosby House

I recently returned from a family gathering in my hometown that I would have not been able to imagine as a child.

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When I was nine or so, my dad was a middle school teacher and studying for his doctorate. He often spent Saturdays at the Bing Crosby Library on the Gonzaga campus in Spokane, Washington. These sessions ended with his crossing the street to drink at the house of a friend. On some Saturdays my mom insisted he take a couple of his five kids with him—to relieve her burden and possibly keep him from drinking too much.

bing20I was infatuated with Gonzaga. In the sixties, the campus was home to some fine-looking young Jesuits. I remember them as well-trimmed blondes in slim gray slacks and light blue cotton shirts with the unfortunate clerical collars signaling they were off limits to my desire. In contrast, the flocks of formidable-looking nuns, their copious black robes rustling in the breeze as they left Mass, made me quiver in fear. I imagined the church, Saint Aloysius, to be a replica of heaven itself.

Later in life, my dad claimed, “I raised you kids to be independent.” I couldn’t argue. His neglect was sufficient to keep us from ever thinking about depending on him. Such was the case whenever he took his two oldest—my brother and me—along with him to Gonzaga. We followed him into the Crosby Library and were told to meet a few hours later at his friend’s house. My first stop was always the Crosbyana—a small room filled with Bing memorabilia the singer/actor had donated to his alma mater.

bing12My favorite pieces were the framed gold record “White Christmas” and his Oscar for Going My Way (which I recently discovered is a replica). I remember the room as quiet, cozy, and rather dark, but recent pictures—that I cannot show because they’re copyrighted—reveal it to be light and airy. I curled into a plush chair and imagined it was my room, a den perhaps in the mansion that was my home.

Afterward, running around campus with my brother, I marveled at the coeds and longed to live in the Madonna Hall dorm when I went to college. Unbeknownst to me, my future husband was a student at the time. I never went there, but 40 years later our son Harrison would enroll and live his first year in that same dorm.

My last surviving Spokane relatives—a brother- and sister-in-law—moved to Phoenix a decade ago, but live in a cabin on Newman Lake, near Spokane, during the summer. This past spring, I thought it would be fun to have a family reunion with them, our kids and grandkids. Their cabin isn’t big enough to accommodate many overnight guests, but the overflow could stay in hotels and spend days at the lake.

Harrison suggested I look for a vacation rental on Coeur d’Alene Lake where we could all stay together. Many of the cabins available online are rustic with photos that hint at large spiders and mice. I found a couple of luxurious places that, when split four ways, were affordable, but not available on our chosen weekend. I grew frustrated and hateful.

I backed off and let it go for a few days. One morning, I girded my loins to try again. I expanded the search to include Hayden Lake, a few miles north of Coeur d’Alene. Lo and behold, up popped the Bing Crosby House! Bing Crosby, the inspiration behind the Crosbyana Room, the oasis that had comforted me as a child.

My fingers trembled as I clicked the link. I found a 3,000 square-foot log house built in 1955, lovingly kept in its original condition by Bing’s heirs (including the kitchen appliances). With four bedrooms, three and a half baths, and a stone deck running the length of the back facing the lake, it was perfect. But it required a five-night stay. Given everyone’s busy schedules, we could only eke out three nights to be together. I emailed the owner (Bing’s granddaughter) and asked for an exception. She agreed. I was beside myself with excitement.

***

bing19Entering the circular driveway of the Crosby House, I got chills. It doesn’t look like much from the front, but upon entering I was awestruck by floor to ceiling windows spanning the western border with a magnificent view of the lake. In the expansive great room, the walls were made of bleached paneling and logs that stand vertically.

bing3The entryway had a framed page from an American Home magazine article written, I assume, soon after the house was built since there was no year is on the cover. Subsequent framed pages line the hallway. Each room holds a page about that particular room.

We took great delight in these. A highlight: as a rough and tumble kid in Spokane, Bing often got in trouble for fighting, most notably beating up a “boy who called his sister tubby (she was).”

bing18We fell in love with Mrs. Lemmon, Bing’s dowdy French cook who was cordoned off in the kitchen and, unless the swinging door was open, could not be seen from the living area. According to the article, whenever she heard Bing’s car enter the driveway, the tiny woman stood on her tippy toes, looked out the window above the sink and cried, “Mr. Bing, God bless him!”

bing16To me, the most unique feature of the house was the original draperies. According to the article, “Bing’s famous theme song, ‘Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,’ is motif on the living room draperies, done in square Gothic notes from 15th and 16th century parchment panels of church music that hung over piano. In his bedroom, [the] tune changes to ‘Home Sweet Home.’”

It was thrilling to stay in Bing’s house, a place custom built for him, where he and his kids spent summers fishing and golfing. This was the perfect setting to gather a family who enjoys spending time together, a family far more wonderful than my childhood fantasies could have conjured all those years ago when I nestled into that plush chair in the Crosbyana Room.

katekid

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A Charlie Brown Christmas

a-charlie-brown-christmas-16A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired 49 years ago when I was eleven. It was a special evening for my younger sister and me. We had been invited to watch at the Biklen’s house (they had a color television).

68aee84bcc9bd0c7469a97d97b2d22f6The Biklen’s were our next-door neighbors on South Mount Vernon in Spokane, Washington.  Geography caused the street to slope upwards, which perched their Swiss chalet on a hill above our house. Our properties were separated by a stone fence. Trees and shrubbery planted behind the wall shielded their house from view. A long red brick driveway curved into their property and stopped at a small garage nestled beneath the house.

L, K, M, & Tommy Earsley 1959

One spontaneous visit where we dragged along a couple of neighborhood kids.

When we were barely more than toddlers, my sister and I wandered into their property on a warm summer day and made Mrs. Biklen our friend. We stood outside her paned kitchen window, open to the fresh air, and hollered our hellos.

She said her name was Ellamae. I asked how old she was and she said, “Forty-five.” Outside of our grandmother, she was the oldest woman I’d ever met. Her voice carried the soft lilt of contentment, but her eyes held a tinge of sadness at the edges. She had graying chestnut hair and wore a flowered shirt-waist dress.

Mrs. Bilken & dogShe escorted us home that day, but on those rare occasions when our mother lost sight of us while we were playing in the yard, we’d wander to the Biklen kitchen window and call, “Ellamaid, Ellamaid.” (This was before we were fully indoctrinated to address adults by Mr. or Mrs.—never by first names.)

It was the late 1950’s and the two Biklen daughters were in high school. Mr. Biklen worked as the accountant/treasurer at the Spokesman-Review. Mrs. Biklen was a housewife.

My family consisted of a father who was a teacher, a stay-at-home mom, and three children. Within a few years, we’d balloon to five kids, crammed into a small three bedroom, one bath house. By comparison, the Biklens were aristocrats.

Years later—when I was eight—I was in our front yard playing with neighborhood friends when Mrs. Biklen drove her Nash Metropolitan past. I paused to wave and when she waved back, I again noticed her sad eyes. The next day, I told my sister that Mrs. Biklen was lonely and we should visit her. (I was too shy to go alone.)

L & K 1965She didn’t let us in, but invited us to return the following day after school. Thus began a series of weekly visits where we sat in her kitchen, practiced good manners, and told only those stories that shed us in a good light.

Mrs. Biklen served iced Cokes in leaded crystal glasses and store-bought cookies on china plates. She treated us with respect, listened to our stories and offered gentle advice. No one had ever paid such attention to me. Our hearts intertwined to create a bond that lasted more than forty years.

The night of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” my sister and I dressed in our good clothes—skirts and blouses, tights and Mary Janes. We donned winter coats. It had snowed the day before, but a slight rise in temperature had turned it to slush. We navigated puddles, careful not to get our shoes wet on our way to the Biklen’s.

The specialness of the program’s premiere allowed us to go to the front door (we usually entered through the back). We climbed the steps to the wide veranda and rang the bell. Mrs. Biklen opened the door wearing a dark green shirtwaist dress and black heels. Mr. Biklen stood from his smoking chair to greet us—another treat for the evening. We rarely spent time with him, always leaving our visits with Mrs. Biklen before he arrived home from work.

My sister and I sat on the antique Empire sofa upholstered in gray silk and nestled into a shallow alcove. A Christmas tree covered in colored lights and tinsel stood in a corner. The massive fireplace held a crackling fire. We crossed our feet at the ankles and straightened our spines. An assortment of cookies on a Christmas plate and paper napkins printed with poinsettias sat on the coffee table.

Mr. Biklen turned us into quite the Manhattan Coke lushes.  (Here celebrating my birthday.)

Mr. Biklen turned us into quite the Manhattan Coke lushes. (Celebrating my birthday.)

Mr. Biklen, in his highly spirited way, offered to make us Manhattans—his favorite drink. He left the room and returned with two elegantly-stemmed glasses filled with Coke and a sunken maraschino cherry. He proposed a toast to the Christmas season. I felt like a sophisticate.

The television—inside a dark wood console—was on, all warmed up so we wouldn’t miss a moment of the program. The opening chords of the soundtrack gave me the shivers. For the very first time, one of my favorite comic strips had come to life. I marveled how the voices perfectly fit the characters—Charlie Brown’s forlorn tone, Lucy’s crabby edginess, and Linus’s thick-tongued toddler sweetness.

My sister and I left that night high on Manhattan Cokes and sugar cookies—infused with the Yuletide spirit of Charlie Brown and the gang. Every year since then, come Christmastime, I’m carried back to the Biklen’s sofa where I’m surrounded by warmth and elegance, and reminded how the loving attention of adults stays with a child forever.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”