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The Front Parlor

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If a spider, let's say from Dubuque, Iowa, were to invite your modern fly into her parlor, the poor fly would not have the slightest idea where to go. Down the whole Mississippi Valley, there are no parlors left, except in museums. The river of time, more destructive than the Mississippi and with a wider flood plain, has swept them all away.

The flood might as well have taken the houses, too, for the front parlor—it was always the front parlor—was the soul of a house, as mysterious and sacred as the sanctuary of a church. The parlor stood just off the hall inside a front door, which no one ever used except the minister on his yearly visit.

The parlor was unheated in winter, the secret of grandmother's success with Christmas cactuses and Boston ferns. The sparse, hard furnishings consisted of the family heirlooms, chairs and couches too precious to use. Sun sifted in through billows of lace curtains.

Everyday life went on in the rest of the house. Relatives and close friends sat around the kitchen table by the wood stove to eat and visit. Christmas and Easter dinners spilled over into the dining and living room. Not even the Ladies' Aid or the sewing circles were allowed beyond the double wooden doors that shut off the parlor.

And yet, the parlor was the soul of the house. Once, early each Christmas morning, we children were allowed to open the parlor doors and find the decorated Christmas tree, and our presents, and the Lionel electric train whose figure eight was set up around the tree for two days each Christmas.

Once a year the parlor doors opened to entertain the minister with coffee and cookies when he came to call.

And the parlor doors opened for death. Double doors for the caskets of grandmothers and grandfathers to lie in state during visitations and funerals.

In our house too, the parlor and its stiff furniture have been swept away. The Lionel electric train remains, but its whistle, each December when we bring it down from the attic, lacks the cold echo it had in the parlor.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.