(Disclaimer: I want to be as true to life as I can but my memories of my grandparent’s house may not be totally accurate. Still, they have a fuzzy-edged clarity that is lacking in any other memories from my childhood. From these family trips, I can recall smells, sights, and sounds that I can match up to feelings of fear, wonder, and happiness. It’s a simplicity of emotion reserved mainly for children. For this reason, when my sisters and especially my mom read this they will most likely disagree with certain aspects of my recollections. To this I say: Get your own blog.)
When I was growing up, my family would drive to Illinois once or twice a year to visit my grandparents. It was a long trip from Kentucky where we lived until I was seven and an even longer trip from Tennessee. I don’t remember much about the actual car ride but I do know it didn’t involve DVDs or iPods. We were happy just to listen to cassette tapes on our Panasonic tape player. (Ok…we probably weren’t exactly happy. We still drew imaginary boundary lines in the seat to emphasize to each other how unhappy we were to be in the car all day together.) We spread out all over our faux wood side-paneled Station Wagon—lying on the floorboards and sitting backwards in the rear. I could usually tell when we were getting close because the endless cornfields would begin to give way to neighborhoods that looked like my grandparents’ with grassy alleys in between modest wooden houses. And there always seemed to be the smell of burning leaves—a smell I still associate with Danville, Illinois to this day.
When we finally arrived, my grandmother would be waiting for us at the back door. She’d reach down to hug and kiss us, then she would usher us into the hallway leading to the kitchen. The kitchen transformed throughout the day following the rhythm of hungry, active kids. In the morning it smelled like fried eggs with lots of pepper and hot coffee. The Today Show played on the small television set. A large mahogany and leather rocker sat near the doorway to the dining room. This was grandpa’s chair. He would sit there as he peeled an apple with his pocketknife and feed the peelings to our scruffy mixed-breed poodle named Rusty. At suppertime, the kitchen held in the warmth and scent of fried chicken and creamed potatoes.
At some point during our week there, we would be forced to go through the door that stood innocently at the corner of the kitchen. This door opened to a set of rickety, wooden stairs that led to the (gulp) basement. It took up the entire underside of the house and appeared to have been carved out of a giant stone slab. As I cautiously made my way down the stairs, trailing my hand along the bumpy, dusty stonewall, I could almost hear it whispering to me that it wanted nothing more than to become my tomb. Grandma had her ancient washer and dryer down there along with a stand up shower. The walls were lined with Mason jars and there was one small door along the top near the stairs that led outside. (Note: Anytime you are in a room that seems to whisper to you about your impending doom, be sure to locate all exits. If people in horror movies employed this rule they would be more likely to escape.) We were in the basement because—although it was the mid to late ‘70s and early ‘80s and there was some kind of rule that everyone must have greasy hair—we eventually had to take a shower. Grandma always stocked the shower with shampoo displaying a picture of a green apple on the bottle that smelled like sweetness and sunshine—an ironic touch down in that dank basement. We showered as quickly as we could so that we could run upstairs to safety with wet hair.
Other than the kitchen, the main floor held my grandparents’ bedroom, the only other bathroom in the house, the dining room with the large round pedestal table and the living room. I always felt like the living room ceiling was about a mile high. There were beautiful old books on the built-in shelves and Grandma had lamps on every end table. One of the lamps was made to look like a gnarled old tree. It had one of those fake birds you find in the floral section of craft stores perched at the top and a sleek, black panther stretched out in one of the crevices at the bottom of the lamp. It never seemed strange to me that this lamp should present a predator vs. prey story. I just liked to look at it. Grandma also had her old, worn KJV Bible on one of the tables. Once, I put my cup on top of the Bible and I was chastised severely for using God’s Word as a coaster.
One of the things that my sisters and I loved to do was to hop along the thick sheets of plastic that covered the carpet and rugs in the living room and dining room. Grandma had created a track of these sheets to protect the high-traffic footpaths. The main goal was to only step on the plastic without accidentally lifting a corner of it revealing the spiky underside that kept the mats in place. If you stepped on the spikes barefooted you were definitely the loser. Off of the living room was the downstairs front porch. It was screened-in and housed a porch swing and metal chairs. We went out there to play a Holly Hobby board game and a game called Tiddlywinks.
On the far side of the living room was an impressive staircase. It had a landing with a little window looking outside and a darkly, polished banister. I would start at the top and walk gracefully down, pretending that all eyes were turning to see the beautiful lady make a grand entrance into the room. Upstairs there were two bedrooms and an office with a twin-size cot. Off of the larger bedroom, there was a sleeping porch with a day bed and all of my mom’s old toys and books. We were allowed to play with her Barbies with their heavily lined eyes and fashionable outfits. We would dress them up as nightclub singers, nurses, and society ladies ala Jackie Kennedy. Grandma had also saved my mom’s paper doll set. It included two guys and two girls. They had names like Bob and Pam and we loved dressing them up. My daughters have several sets of paper dolls and I bet none of them are a complete set. It’s amazing how meticulously my mom cared for her things.
We spent most of our time during our visit on the upstairs porch listening to 45s on my mom’s little red record player, dressing up dolls and reading or—if the weather was nice—playing outside. The house was built in the corner of the lot, creating large back and side yards. There was a neatly trimmed hedge that ran along two sides of the property. It looked like it fell right out of an episode of “Leave it to Beaver. “I could just imagine Ward Cleaver with his hedge clippers pausing to impart some bit of wisdom to his bungling, young son. There was a substantial garden complete with grape arbors in the back corner diagonal from the house. Next to the garden was grandpa’s workshop. My grandpa was a carpenter. Massive snowball bushes grew near the doors of his shop and they attracted every bee in town. Because of the bees, I rarely went near his shop and never got to see him in action.
My grandfather died when I was in the fourth grade and my grandmother came to live with us soon after. I never got to see their house when I was old enough to appreciate the intricacies of grandpa’s workmanship inside or the architecture of the house outside. Now that I have no grandparents left living I have begun to understand what most people know only after it’s too late. My grandparents were real people with a long, rich history that I’ll never know. I’ve learned from my mom that my grandmother had a bleak childhood as a product of a broken home. When her parents divorced, she and her siblings were dispersed amongst relatives and she went to live with her grandparents. Years later she returned to her parents after they found religion and were re-married. My grandfather became the man of the house early on when his father unexpectedly died. His mother opened her home to strangers as a boardinghouse so that she could support my grandfather and his two sisters.
When I was little, all of my grandparents were what they did for me or gave to me. My grandmothers were chocolate chip cookies and handmade nightgowns. My grandfathers were Filet-o-Fish sandwiches and wooden blocks. As I grew up and I began to realize that the world didn’t turn because I needed it to, I still didn’t appreciate what my grandparents represented. These elderly family members blended in to the background of my young adult life. Now that they are all gone, I wish so much that I could sit down with them and ask them questions about their lives. What did they wish to become? What were their greatest disappointments and accomplishments?
Some day, I hope to be a grandma. I want to have that special recipe that my grandkids ask for every time they come to my house. I want to spoil them and tell them to sit up straight and read them Bobbsey Twins books and comb out their hair after they take a shower in my not-scary basement. I want them to feel safe in my wrinkled, liver spotted hands and know that I see in them something rare and precious that no one else can see. In that way, I will atone for the lack of acknowledgment I gave to these four individuals who were necessary to my existence.