Architectural Unit

by | Nov 18, 2021 | Creative Nonfiction


Mrs. Pierce, the lay woman at St. Joseph’s School, opened our architectural unit. She etched the names of the four kinds of dwellings on the blackboard for us to memorize.

Cape Cod        Salt Box           A-frame cottage           Colonial

I recognized cottage from woodcutters and grandmothers. The roof woven of hay that could be blow away. But how was a house a salt box? What box?

“The steepness of the asymmetrical salt box roof allows snow to slide off before its weight can collapse the roof and crush the dwellers inside.”

The salt box my mother kept in her kitchen was an ink-blue cylinder like the Florida night sky on rotisserie, turning between stocky tangerine trees in the sweetened night where I lay on crab grass to scratch my sunburn.

A heavy snow could destroy a house, she said.

That crystal grains falling from the sky could weigh enough to smash a sleeping family under their roof came for me as a celestial surprise.

The house named Cape Cod was erected of stone, by fishermen I guessed, to protect against the dangers of living up north. Like the white-faced houses I had been drawing all my life, the Cape Cod house had a central door for a mouth, two shuttered eyes, a window-cheek below each eye and black rectangle wig perched atop its frozen face.

My family’s house in the grapefruit grove had one story, an off-center mouth and three louvered windows, too numerous for eyes, so the big picture window rendered it a cyclops. All this time drawing Cape Cods and colonials, I used to wonder what kind of house my father lived in where he grew up on his islands, but he wouldn’t say.

I heard my mother on the phone reporting with happy authority that our new house would be a suburban ranch. I knew ranch from Bonanza. Our new house was being built south of town in a citrus grove cut into half-acre lots we visited on Sundays, after church doughnuts. We chose our plowed lot. Our house was going to have four bedrooms: the boys’ room, the girls’, the little kids’, and Momma and Daddy’s room.

Decades later, I frown at my blind faith and Mrs. Pierce’s in our fourth-grade geography book, open to the same page across fifty desks we sat in, knees grazing the chair before us in the sultry stucco room where our teacher inched her hips up and down the aisles. She lowered the blinds against after-lunch sun.

Which house is mine? Where do I go? A lesson on how to belong. Who decides the four types of houses?

The typical ranch descended from “a Spanish colonial style popular out west says Wikipedia. After World War II, a surge of ranch homes created suburbias from California to Florida. Americans identified with out west. My mother, infatuated with Lorne Greene, named my little sister Loren after Bonanza’s star. I was infatuated with Fess Parker as Daniel Boone. My friend Mirna was infatuated with me. Night after night she called me to recite “Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?” She laughed and said share for chair and told me she was from Cuba.

It was 1964. We were the girls with frizzy black hair and long straight black hair. I didn’t yet know that the sun-bleached blond, dishwater blond and strawberry blond girls on the playground blacktop thought Mirna and I were not like them.

In my earliest recollected nightmare, I rush my little sisters up steep stairs in a Cape Cod house to hide in the second-floor attic. We huddle under dormer windows and steeply pitched walls. The gabled windows, two on each side of the dream, are too high to leap from.

The House of the Seven Gables must be about a family named The Gables, I used to think, a family with seven kids. Colonial children. I’d be bored with them. I preferred Nancy Drew.

The roof of our Florida ranch home—completed in the spring of 1965—had a standard 3/12 pitch, a nine-degree angle, the shallowest pitch for a roof. We girls used to scale the smooth limbs of a grapefruit tree to crawl onto that roof where we lay on warm shingles to gossip.

When I read that the standard roof-pitch is 3/12, the numbers illumined and afflicted me. Those numbers are an identity I cling to. That is, I am third eldest child of twelve children in my birth family. While I commune with three, being third, with triangles as well as cubes and dozens, I have recurring dreams in which the nine children “below” me, alive and dead, return to fill up our house like an egg carton. Its powder blue cement block and textured white brick façade made our house look like a diorama, fresh snow below clear sky tucked into an emerald landscape. When my mother and father moved us into our suburban ranch in the Lakeland Highlands that spring, I was third of ten children. When I left our house forever six years later, I was 3/12, my talisman, sometimes all I know about myself. My siblings and I were split up, taken in, fostered and adopted after we left the house.

Our public school in Lakeland, Florida had a flat roof. Flat roofs are invisible. All around the country, even in lake-effect Buffalo, school officials choose flat roofs to span at lowest cost acres of classroom hallways.  “If you were to put a sloped roof in, think about how big the slope would have to be,” explains a Buffalo architect. But really, he means expensive.

A steeply-pitched roof casts a spell against disaster. That’s how I thought of the salt box, a fascination, though I never saw one. A vault against bad weather, a lopsided cash box, serene and sturdy blockade. Mirna’s white teeth flashed before her riotous laughter. I realize now why Mirna liked me. We the brown girls. Together we made a steep pitch.

In the nightmare, my little sisters and I escaped into the white attic of this strange house. I slammed the door. Dreading the moment, I draped my body over two of my sisters to shield them. And yet from the steep ceilings, harpoon tips emerged aimed at us. I told them I was sorry.

On the Wilmington, Delaware riverwalk, there’s a multi-story swallow house mounted on a pole. I imagine what it would be like to live in a colonial-style mansion with seventeen bedrooms under a 17/12-pitch roof, the steepest pitch. Wings dart into the holes too fast to focus or count.

Late in my life I learned that I am not 3/12. Before my father married my white mother, he and his Filipina love, who together ran away from home the story goes, had a family of four children after they arrived in San Francisco. And before that my father left a teenage wife and baby daughter in the Philippines—if the names and dates he wrote, twenty years later in his request for naturalization, are true. I met one of my San Francisco siblings, the youngest, Al, before he died in 2020. That is, I am my father’s eighth child of seventeen, and Al was his fifth. Really I am 8/17. But roof pitches are not measured in rises of seventeen.

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce, did not teach high rise or tenement.

basement apartment      farmhouse     cabin      sod home    lodge

antebellum mansion      condominium     motel room     mobile home     tent

coquina house     slave quarters     hogan      shotgun shack     RV

chickee hut     nipa hut      bahay kubo      bale kubu      underneath the stars

In West Dover, Vermont I took an early walk before driving my son to his expensive music summer camp. I passed COVID-empty storefronts and quiet ski lodges. I passed a salt box house with a realtor’s sign and imagined snow on its steep back roof, facing a wall of fragrant balsam firs. I scrambled to its frozen peak, high enough to see everything hidden from me, took a deep breath, and slid all the way down without causing an avalanche.



Photo used under CC

About The Author


JoAnn Balingit grew up in central Florida and lives in northern Delaware on Leni Lenape homeland. She’s the author of the poetry collection WORDS FOR HOUSE STORY (2013) and two chapbooks, and has published poems and essays most recently in Poetry Magazine, About Place Journal, The Common online, McSweeney’s and The Rumpus. She’s working on a memoir in essays about survival, belonging, secrets, siblings and growing up mixed-race in a big Filipino American family. She’s a Delaware teaching artist for Poetry Out Loud, a national high school recitation contest, and served as Delaware’s poet laureate from 2008 to 2015.