September 22, 2024

Grandma's House

Grandma died about eight years ago, and now the dilapitated house she lived in for fifty years or so is being torn down. The house sits on my parents' property, just across the driveway. My mom and brother have stripped it out, leaving just the roughly-hewn planks that formed its frame. The volunteer fire department will be by at some point to burn it down in a training exercise. It was basically falling apart.

When I was growing up, the house was wrapped in white siding, with purple clematis growing up the front, almost covering the big kitchen window by August. Grandma and I had tea parties out on the stoop when I was a little kid. She made the best vegetable soups, boiled dinners, baked apples, and Christmas cookies. She had a back room that was moldy and musty and filled with Harlequin romance novels and toadstools. In her kitchen was a placard that said "food should be cooked with butter and love," which was one of the first things I was able to read. She had lived a long life, a controversial life. Her first husband was a hard-drinking steam shovel operator up the shore, and Grandma spent the weeks he was away up in Silver Bay or Beaver Bay cavorting with men in Duluth. Many of her children (before my mom, the youngest, was born) spent parts of their childhoods in orphanages. She had a second husband, and something about that percipitated my mom and my grandma escaping to Madison, to work for rich sororities. Eventually, she returned to the little white house and the mossy yard cut precariously out of the woods.

By the time I came around, she was white and small, plump and gentle. She let me win at card games, gave me back rubs and told me stories about black bears and seeing Tarzan for a nickel back in the teens. She wore this white sweater I used to love picking the fuzz balls off of. Her house always smelled of old lady powder. Her long, wide davenport always smelled faintly of mold. She grew up in Northern Wisconsin. Her parents had immigrated from Quebec, and spoke French around her, though she was forbidden from learning it. She was a staunch Quebec separatist.

She taught me how to stay. Operations, a colostomy, then reversed, years in a wheelchair into her 90s, still in that house, still on her own. Old Christmas candies preserved like amber in crystal orbs. Playing solitaire into the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep. Subsisting on simple pleasures like trick-or-treaters, Christmas carolers, butter brickle ice cream.

She died at the age of 96, when I was 18, in 1997. I had just graduated from highschool. She was wearing a pink blouse when the last photo of us together was taken. The house remained empty for years. My mom and my sister, both superstitious, were convinced that they could feel her presence in that house. Now it's been stripped, the holes and bare boards look profane. The house has become a cadaver. It's almost as though an injustice is being done to the psychic afterimage of her presence. How can you separate one from the other? Both require it's match. Removing her from the house undermined its foundations, and it sunk into the ground. Removing it from the earth frightens me, as though in doing so the last traces of her are also erased.

I took some photos of what's left, trying in vain to preserve the final fragments.

Posted by jason at September 22, 2024 07:29 AM

A charming but sad story. This is what I always hope for when I visit somebody's blog, and it is a treat when I find it.
Good heartfelt prose. The photographs too. Reminds me of a line from an old play. "it is like Russia, so sad and so beautiful"

Posted by: Robt. at September 25, 2024 02:10 AM