A little girl, about three, hides behind the wood shutters. She hides because Grandpa is home and this is the routine. She hides behind the shutters because when he walks in the sliding glass door, she will jump out at him and scream, “Boo!” And Grandpa will throw his hands up in the air, feigning fright, and the little girl will belly laugh as if this has never happened before. She will laugh just as hard when she does this tomorrow.
That same little girl plays with her older cousin in what was once her uncle’s bedroom with atrocious red and blue shag carpet with a basketball light hanging from the ceiling. There is a puzzle of the Muppets somebody put together and painstakingly glued to a piece of cardboard. That little girl learns how to color inside the lines for the first time in that bedroom.
As time goes by, other children join the little girl. She gains a sister and two cousins who will be much more like siblings. Grandpa goes to bed early every night because he has to get up early, but he ends each night with having all the grand kids climb into bed where they all take turns making up stories. The most favorite story of all the kids? It is the story of the little boy who walked and walked and walked and walked some more.
When the girls’ parents work late, Grandma goes to take her evening bath while the girls watch “Unsolved Mysteries,” and the creepy music makes them freak out and believe the house is truly haunted. It doesn’t help that there are pictures of dead ancestors on the wall in “the organ room” that rival an episode of “Scooby Doo.”
But once Grandma is finished with her bath, she comes back to the living room to do her book work that will keep her busy into the wee hours of the morning. The girls tell her how scared they were while she was gone because surely the house must be haunted. She responds with her usual, “Oh, poo!” She is now watching “Golden Girls” and giggling.
The little girl is now ten. She sits by herself in “the hot tub room,” away from her sister and cousin who like to cause mischief. She grabs handfuls of loose leaf paper, folds it in half, and then borrows her grandma’s Swingline stapler to staple together what will become her book. She sneaks cups of Coke from the bar and then, if Grandma is out of sight, she’ll creep into the kitchen to grab a handful of E.L. Fudge cookies out of the cookie jar. But always, without fail, Grandma will come around the corner and say, “A-ha! I caught ya!” As she writes, she can’t concentrate with the noise of the kids playing, so she will take her pen and paper and a Woman’s Day magazine to write on and go hide underneath the willow tree at the bottom of the driveway. It is quiet and serene here and she can be by herself and her thoughts. This is also where she will hide when she wants to get out of the dusting her sister will end up doing.
As time goes on, the youngest of the kids, a little girl, will be old enough to want to sit and watch “The Little Mermaid” and “Cinderella” every day. And the now 11-year-old girl and 2-year-old will belt out “Part of Your World.” Grandma will close the door so she can hear Donahue.
Soon Grandma will start dinner, just one of many dinners eaten at the table in the middle of it all. The best days are the ones where Grandma surprises the children with Jet potatoes, chicken wings, or macaroni and cheese. The now 12-year-old fights pettily with her one boy cousin over who will get to sit in the coveted spot nearest the wall of class photos for dinner. No one knows why this spot is so important to the other. It is a battle, though, of physicality and wits. The two kids will dash from Grandma’s car after school into the house to grab their place mat. Whoever slams their place mat on the table first wins the spot that night. This continues for months until one or both lose interest.
This home is a hub. Everyone comes here. This is where the holidays are. Grandma must have a tree that is tall enough to reach the ceiling. It is a yearly rite of passage to come over and decorate and marvel at the huge tree. It will soon have dozens of presents underneath it for everyone because no one has even heard of a gift card yet or gift bags for that matter. And Grandma is a shopper. Christmas morning will mean walking into the front door of the house, which is almost unheard of, but you can’t get through the side door because of the tree. Grandma and Grandpa stand cheerfully by the door and exclaim, “Merry Christmas!” while Grandpa teases the kids about sitting up on the roof all night long trying to catch Santa. But never fear, he’ll get him next year. Grandma makes a french toast, little smokies, and homemade apple sauce breakfast for everyone. They tear into gifts, but have to head home shortly after as now Grandma will start cooking Christmas dinner for them and the rest of the family. The house will be packed to the gills. There won’t be enough places to sit, but everyone will make do. There is plenty of food and laughter.
On Easter everyone will come in their Sunday best. There will be Easter egg hunts in the front yard. Grandma will make her deviled eggs, the beloved Jet potatoes, and ham with her signature mustard-mayo mix for dipping.
As the little girl grows into a young woman, she no longer needs to go to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s all the time, but finds that now that she can drive, she likes to stop by and visit just because.
One day she will bring her future husband to his first holiday at the house, Easter, but they arrive very early so Grandma puts them to work making deviled eggs. It is the only holiday he will ever witness Grandma as the grandma the girl knows before she has a stroke that changes her life. Changes everyone’s life.
Grandma can no longer do anything. Where she was once running circles around women half her age, she is now a shell of her former self, wanting only to sit on the couch and watch game shows. There are now two grandmas. Grandma before and Grandma after. The holidays still continue, but not as seamlessly. They are now potlucks. Everyone brings a dish. It is the new normal. But it is still joyous and Grandma is still feisty if nothing else.
The girl brings her firstborn child to visit Grandma and Grandpa at this house. They sit on the couch and “ooh” and “ahh” at him. Soon there will be four more babies for them to adore. Grandpa sits on the recliner and sings to them, reads to them, many of them the same songs and books read to the girl and her sister and cousins. The young woman, now mother, sits in a chair across with her grandmother and patiently answers her questions, even if she’s asked the same question ten times in the last 20 minutes. Grandma inevitably will make a joke that will have them both in stitches. Grandma will end up in an endless belly laugh, so very proud of her funny joke.
The children grow, just as the ones before them did and the ones before them. The original three boys raised in the home turn into four grandchildren that turn into five great-grandchildren.
But as surely as the seasons change, so does everything else. Grandma passes away, taking with her the two versions of herself that they had known and loved. A house once meant for a family is too big for one man. A field once large enough to ride four-wheelers through is now several houses. The field where a donkey and a sheep once lived is even more houses. The willow tree once used as a safe haven is only a distant memory now.
Yes, everything changes. It’s the only thing that stays the same.
Abandoning the third-person point of view now, this house was so much more than a house to me. It was my second home. It was where I felt the safest in the world next to my own home. It is where the majority of my childhood memories are stored. As I walked through the empty house last night, I marveled at how empty rooms seemed so much smaller than I remembered them. I felt like I was in the series finale of my favorite show, standing and looking at a portion of my life and saying goodbye before I gave up my key, albeit a metaphorical key.
Of course, feeling a loss of something so great means I had something wonderful, something that many have never had. My memories surely don’t live in the house. I can carry them with me forever. But even being in the bathroom, I remembered sitting on the counter while my grandma sprayed Bactine and applied Neosporin and a Band-Aid to my scraped knees. Being in the bar room reminded me of the fabulous parties my grandparents threw. They were entertainers. Being in the living room reminded me of eating dinner while watching “Wheel of Fortune” and doing homework. I can hear my grandma and her good friend doing book work at the kitchen table, laughing while watching Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Geraldo. I can see and smell my grandma’s hot glue guns and ribbons strewn out everywhere as she prepares to decorate yet another wedding reception. I can hear the eerie tone of the ancient organ I practiced piano on. I hear the slamming of bedroom doors as my teenage self has an argument with my grandma, because that’s just how close we really were.
Perhaps the memories I carry can never truly be put into words, but after 1749 words thus far, I find my blog post is turning into a novel, and yet I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of telling the story of the house that built me. It was a great house. I am so lucky.