“I love my family, I love myself, and I love this house.” My 4-year-old granddaughter recently spoke these words in response to her Papa and I kissing and proclaiming our love for each other and her. Beyond what she “hears us say”, we purposely try to be demonstrative with our affection so that she experiences what at least one healthy, loving relationship looks like. I ‘ll refrain from elaborating, because, as I seem to say quite frequently, “that’s a whole other story.”
I started thinking about what she meant when she said ,”I love this house.” Well, wouldn’t you, if the two adults in the house were your greatest fans, hyper-focused on your absolute cuteness, not to mention your most certain Mensa level intelligence? Where two people were ready to walk on fire for you, would allow you to repeatedly have your requested popcorn and chocolate milk for supper, and engage in all forms of silliness, just to please the little person who brings them so much joy and laughter.
It wasn’t long before the river of memories of my own grandmother’s house came flooding through the tidal lock of history in my mind. First of all, I have absolutely no memories of my Grandma ever rasing her voice, being angry with me, or denying me anything at all. From the day of my birth, till the day of her death in 1989, hers remained the purest love, the purest acceptance. That’s the way I want my Emma to remember me.
And just as Emma proclaimed, I loved my grandma’s house as well. That house was the eternal steadfast constant in a life of many moves. Until 2002 , when Pappy died, that house was the one place on Earth that I could always call home. This past summer, when my dear mother died and we were back home for her funeral, I took my husband by to show him where I had lived for the first two years of my life and spent many blissful days afterwards. To say that the house was worse for the wear is an understatement. It was in great disrepair, being 60 or so years old, and much neglected by its current tenants. But I didn’t see it that way. My eyes were filled with brilliant shining images from my youth.
I saw the porch swing that provided so many afternoons and evenings of simple pleasures. Barefoot toes pushing off in unison with my Aunt Mary Lou, creating a breeze to cool us. A cold glass bottle of Orange Crush in one hand and a Moon Pie in the other, we were serenaded by songbirds by day or by the crickets and old barn owl at night.
There sat the red kitchen table on checkered black and white linoleum, that when it wasn’t overflowing with fresh, non-processed food, and crowded with aunts, uncles, and cousins, was covered up with a tablecloth, under which the daily use items remained. Butter that I’d helped churned, pickles and jams that I’d helped can. And my word! (as we say in the south). The bread! Always loaves of freshly baked bread, like slices of billowy clouds that smelled of love. It was there that we’d string beans or shell peas and catch up with cousins and aunts. There that I marveled at my Grandma’s ability to create what surely was the world’s longest continuous peel on a potato or apple without ever lifting her knife and how the only measuring spoon she ever seemed to need was her hand.
Open the wood screen door on the back of the house, turn left at the rose bushes where the house faced Old Walt and Miss Suzie’s and enter the root cellar, cool and earthy, smelling of clay and minerals. Grandma would send me down there for the potatoes and turnips that I loved to help dig. Entering that space felt somehow spiritual, much like being enveloped into the bosom of Mother Earth, the protector of the bounty of foodstuffs for our daily sustenance and enjoyment.
My grandma cooked on a wood-fired stove for much of my childhood. That distinctive smell and the warmth it created continues to remind me of Grandma and Pappy. I can still see Grandma’s white head and Pappy’s bald one, sitting in the living room that I learned to crawl and walk in, where Frankie, the family dog, was my constant companion and protector, barking fiercely at anyone who dared to feign any manner of even playful harm to me. Walls held Pap’s racing trophies and a variety of stuffed wildlife heads that both Grandma and Pap had hunted. Photos of family were cleverly displayed under the glass inset in the coffee table, decades before yuppies could order such a table from Pottery Barn.
And oh the bedrooms upstairs! Other than Pap’s garage, where this tomboyish girl didn’t mind getting dirty, (that’s what GoJo was for), where I gleefully rolled around on the creeper or took turns with my brother or cousins pumping each other up off the floor on the car lifts, it was my favorite place in the world. Each step upstairs led me closer and closer to my haven, to the familiar, the iron post bed, squeaky springs and all, covered with feather pillows, cool and infused with those sweet familial smells. I snuggled down, cozy under the vibrant, multipatterned “Crazy quilt” , a buttery soft chronicle whose threads related a saga of a hardworking grandmother who brought home ends and scraps from the sewing factory in which she worked, and of 4 daughters whose dresses first made of feed sacks, later graduated to calicoed and vibrant patterned cottons and polyesters. Trunks overflowing with old magazines, books, and clothes, promised never a dull moment for a curious young girl, never wearying of exploring the times past inside. A beveled mirror dresser had drawers embracing vintage mementos of the 4 daughters who grew up in that 10 by 20 space. Tubes of lipsticks, perfumed handkerchiefs, ticket stubs and costume jewelry were rife with imagined melodrama.
But the walls, oh the walls held it all. Baring remnants of posters, Frankie Laine, The Ink Spots, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, those walls talked. At night as I laid there reveling in the perfect joy that the day had brought, flipping through the pages of the massive Book of Everything, (a giant encyclopedic window to the world, long before the Internet), resting in the cocoon of the familiar , the walls seemed to eek the memories absorbed through the years. I felt them hover in the perfumed air, a medley of honeysuckled emotions, questions, mysteries, struggles, support, and love, lots of love.
Was this why I felt so happy when I laid upon that feather bed? Were the walls comforting me with spirits of the sisters who shared their lives there? All I know is that those walls sang a hymn-like tune to me, each and every time they enclosed and protected me. There was never any other place in the world that gave me that feeling, that feeling of being supported, being whole, and being loved.
My fervent hope is that Emma will make a similar statement about her Mimi and Papa’s house one day. I hope through the years she’ll be able to sense the cache of love and joy ensconced in the walls of our house, our loving home. And that every time she comes to visit, the walls will sing a familiar hymn to her too.