Grandma's houses

My grandmother had three houses. There may have been more, I suppose, but in my mind there were three. First, the big ranch house on the acreage in the middle of town. With the strawberry patch in the front yard and the long gravel driveway. The wood fence, where the riding lawnmower spun its wheels for hours after grandpa abandoned ship to escape a snake. The tiny kitchen where I once shot off a cap gun and burned a hole in the curtains. The sprawling back yard with the tall, skinny trees that always come to mind when I hear Rockabye Baby.

This first house was where I lived, with my mother and her parents, for the first three or so years of my life, though my memories of it are few and far between. This was where I first came home, was first loved and cared for. This was where my life on this earth, and my relationship with my grandmother, began.

I don’t remember much about this house. I have a flash of me telling grandma that I felt my great grandma (who must have recently passed away) put her hand on my shoulder as I stood at the door to the pantry in the kitchen. And then there’s that cap gun and the spark that flew across that kitchen, landing on the valence of the curtains and create a small hole ringed in black. And there are images, hazy like old photographs, burned into my mind of the front and back yards—that strawberry bed, those trees. But that’s all.

It’s fitting, I suppose. My memories of my grandmother as I grew up are much the same way—sputtering start-and-stop scenes, brief flashes, images pressed onto the folds of the past with the lightest touch. I spent only a short time in that house before my mother married the man I call dad and we moved to our own home. But that’s where it began—and beginnings set the tone. They leave their mark on the rest of the story long after you’ve forgotten them.

Grandma’s second house was a cabin on a lake along the northern border of Iowa. This was the house that morphed over the years—changing from a little red cabin just shy of being a camping RV into a lakeside getaway full of light and cushy couches. Huge shimmery-sounding oaks with moss-covered trunks as wide as I was tall. The expansive back deck overlooking the yard, the steps down to the fire pit and the grass giving way to sand filled with acorn tops. The sound of the waves breathing in, out, in. This second home is where most of my story of grandma played out, and it is the one my heart clings to. The one that sits over the hills and through the woods. This is grandmother’s house.

This house was the home base I came back to after long bike rides on dusty gravel roads. It was where my sister and I caught frogs and toads, turtles and bullheads. Where we pinched apart entire loaves of bread, dumping the pieces onto the water’s surface for the flocks of geese floating from dock to dock. Where I walked on winter ice and dipped my toes into murky summer waters, where I watched orioles and squirrels battle for the orange slices grandpa nailed to the trees. Where we set off colored smoke bombs and tossed tiny white snappers against hot July cement. This place, this was where my heart came to adventure, to love, and to rest.

My memories of this second home are rich and full of color. There is sunlight, streaming across my path and lighting up the whole world. There is the sigh of the breeze, the croak of the toads, the trill and call of the birds flitting from branch to branch. Both gravel and leaves crunch underfoot. Inside there is good food (peanut butter cookies, tall jars full of pistachios) and grandma’s belly-shaking laugh. Always a game of cards, gin rummy night after night. The smells of wet earth and sand and something I’ve never quite been able to place, but that is simply the scent of grandma’s house. Here, there was light. Here, Grandma laughed often and easily. Here, we were happy.

At least, for a time. For all the good that fills my mind about this place, there is that nagging voice that says “but remember…”

Remember that this house is also where Grandma was made to stand alone. This is where Grandpa got sick, grew weak. Where he fought, failed to stay. This is where he left her.

Our worlds are temporary ones—good and bad alike will all pass away in time. But they leave a stain of color behind them. This home, this place of sun and warmth and joy, is stained around the edges with the dark, watery blues of sadness. The red, burning tinge of anger. The hazy grays of loneliness. It can’t blot out the light—not all of it—but it hovers there on outskirts, always present, whispering.

Eventually, grandma sold the house by the lake and came to live closer to the family. She traded her big, bright windows overlooking the woods and water for small, suburban ones overlooking the street. Instead of watching the breeze tickle the surface of the water, she started watching the neighbors do yard work. And instead of soaking in the sun and serenity, she spent her days soaking in TV drama.

The third house was dark and cluttered—it started out covered every inch in knick-knacks. Then, when grandma got bored and lonely, she started to quilt. Oh, the quilts! Stacks and stacks of fabric, cut and pieced and sewed. Wrapped around old legs and draped over chairs and sofas. Given away and piled up in closets. She could have warmed an entire village with her quilts.

When Nick came, the basement became full of the kind of clutter that fills bachelor pads. Works-in-progress, pieces and parts. He filled the driveway with cars that looked like they barely ran, the garage with a bike I never knew him to ride. Then he brought home Bear, and the whole place was coated in a layer of slobber and dog hair. Instead of grandma’s smile and hello greeting you at the door, it was Bear’s giant, bounding form and endless supply of drool.

This third house, with its quilts and cluttered counters, Bear and Nick and Grandma, was where things came to their end. This was my grandma’s final home—the last place I saw her smile, heard her voice carry from room to room. Here I watched her fall asleep in her chair, her book drooping from her hands. I watched her sewing slow and then stall. I watched her hold my baby girl in her arms, struggling to balance her and commenting on how big she’d be come Christmas. Christmas came, but Grandma wasn’t there to see how much the little one had grown. She left her home, left us.

I know, of course, that these homes were only ever stages, the way the body is a vessel. They house our stories, give our relationships a place to unfold. These three homes tell me our story. They remind me of how things went with us, show me how much of her has covered me and woven itself into the fabric of my being. They were her houses, but they are where a piece of my soul comes home.

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