There’s a small mint green Cape with white trim that sits facing the house I grew up in. Large brick flower boxes flank the front door. When I was younger, they almost always had petunias in them. From the ground up, these flower boxes are about 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide. A huge pink rhododendron grew on one side of the house, and there were giant oak and maple trees on either side. The house was continually shaded under these trees. Gram’s house was always cool inside during the summer.
I know of pictures that show the house when those trees weren’t there. A house framed with cinderblocks and wood as it was constructed, standing alone on top of that hill, overlooking the neighborhoods below and beyond. My dad grew up in this house, with 8 brothers and sisters. My uncle Gene helped build the house when he was just a young teenager.
I knew that house so well, knew the hills and woods surrounding it, as well as I knew the landscape of my own childhood house and yard. I’d watch the sun set every night behind it, and it was the first thing I’d see out the door each morning.
This is how I remember it.
There’s a window above each flower box. When you walked in the front door, to the right was the “breakfast nook” as we all called it, a feature I’d only ever seen at my Gram’s house. On summer days and school vacations, my cousins and I would slide all the way in on those wooden benches, crammed elbow to elbow. Gram would crank out plates of sandwiches assembly-line style for all the kids she was watching, most of them my cousins. A bag of white Wonderbread, jars of peanut butter and jelly, Kool-Aid or Tang, and iced molasses cookies for dessert. I remember the cookies were kept in a Tupperware container on top of the old ice box in the back of the kitchen, the ancient white, rounded-top, pull-handle type ice box. Most of the time, my brother and I would eat at home, because it was right next door, and because I’m pretty sure my mom didn’t want Gram to have to feed two more mouths when she already had four or five over there. I’d eat so fast, not wanting to be the last one done and be left out of whatever game we were going to pick up on.
Gram never drove, that I knew of anyway. She never had a car, so her big circular gravel driveway was almost always empty. It was the perfect kickball and wiffle ball field. There were concrete ramps running down the part of the driveway that led to the edge of the property– those were the best for racing down with our Big Wheels.
We had the run of the whole hill and spent most of our time outside. There was a playhouse that my cousin Tabi and I loved. We’d spend hours cleaning and organizing and setting up elaborate games of restaurant or house. It usually needed a good cleaning every month or so, lots of spiders liked to take up residence in there. We’d take turns attacking the walls and rafters with brooms, and sometimes Gram would let us have the can of Raid. How we never got sick from the fumes is beyond me.
There was a concrete patio that we used to draw on- not with chalk, but we’d hunt for different colored rocks to write with. We could almost always find rocks that would write yellow and red, and we’d usually find pieces of coal behind my house that would write black. Pieces of slate would scribble bluish or white, but we rarely ever found any rocks that wrote green.
There was a “catwalk,” as my Gram called it, along the side of the house to the back porch. I loved that catwalk- it was level with the ground at the front of the house, but it was about 15 feet off the ground at the back of the house because of the hill. From the porch, it felt as if you could watch over the whole neighborhood. It was Gram’s house, but I daresay we cousins felt proprietary over the yard and the catwalk, running in and out of the front and back doors, an endless stream of comings and goings throughout the day. I can still hear the sound of the screen doors banging shut.
Just inside that back door was the only bathroom in the whole house. And when there were four or five or six of us over there, I was sure glad my own bathroom was right next door. My dad grew up in that house, sharing that one bathroom with all his siblings and 2 parents. We certainly take things like this for granted now.
Sometimes we’d get tired of playing outside and want to come in and hang out in the living room. I learned to sew and how to play Monopoly in that living room. And as long as Gram wasn’t watching her “programs” (i.e. Soap Operas that we weren’t allowed to see), she’d sometimes let us watch something on PBS. We’d pile onto that lumpy old daybed that was across from the TV and next to Gram’s chair. We absolutely did not sit in Gram’s chair.
Every once in awhile my brother and I would get to sleep over at Gram’s. I loved sleeping on that daybed. We’d watch TV with her on a Friday night until our eyes were so heavy we could barely stay awake: “Love Boat”, then “Fantasy Island.” When she’d say goodnight, she’d pile so many blankets on top of us that rolling over proved difficult. But we liked it that way.
There was an upstairs to the house too, to the cousins it was always just “the attic.” It was the second floor of the house, one space shaped by the nooks of the dormer windows and the roof. It was the shared sleeping space of my dad and all his brothers and sisters while they lived at home. We weren’t allowed to play up there, but every once in awhile Tabi and I would invent a reason to need to go up there and explore. The stairs were blocked off by a folding accordion-type door, and it was unbelievably cold in the winter, and choking hot in the summer. My dad has told me stories of taking glass hot water bottles to bed to keep them warm, and then occasionally waking up to the sound of the bottle smashing on the floor.
I remember sneaking up to the attic one Christmas Eve during the family Christmas party. Tabi and I tried to make sure no one saw us push aside the door and tiptoe up the stairs. We sat on the small mattress under the slanted ceiling, spreading out our plaid skirts to keep our legs warm in the winter attic air. We talked and shared, away from the noise and the crowd, staying as long as we could stand the cold, or as long as we thought we could without someone missing us (it was always our little brothers that would come looking for us).
Gram used to host family parties every Christmas Eve when I was little. Gram’s house was the Hub, the Gathering Place, the Center of it all. Most of my aunts and uncles and cousins would be there, all crowded into that little house, the driveway packed with cars bumper to bumper. It was easily my favorite night of the year. I was surrounded by my best friends, surrounded by tons of good food, we could eat as much as we wanted, and no one would bat an eye, no matter how many handfuls of M&M’s we’d sneak from the glass jar on the buffet.
I remember snow falling one particular Christmas Eve as we were leaving the party. It was late, and everything was getting covered in glowing white. The excitement and anticipation of the next morning and the warm feeling inside us from the party made me want to stop Time right there. Nothing could be better than this. How lucky I am to be right here, I’d thought.