There is a house on Colonial Heights with a postage-stamp-sized front yard. The hedges that lined the sidewalk, the garden in the corner with its portulacas and hens and chicks, and the shade from the trees with the low-hanging branches seemed to create their own little oasis, in my eight year old mind.
The closed-in front “porch” had a window too high for me to peek out of, but that was where Boppa always put his carefully carved Halloween pumpkins for the neighborhood to admire. There was one old loveseat on that porch that I used to stand on to look out the windows. It always sounded as though the inside of the cushions were filled with plastic bags, giving a crinkly sound whenever I stood or sat on them.
This is how I remember it.
There was a big picture window in the living room, overlooking the big sloping back yard. There was a redwood deck that wrapped around part of a “figure eight” shaped pool; it was where I learned to swim. It was where Grammy used to wrap me up in big colorful terry-cloth towels when my lips turned blue. Next to the pool, there was always a garden that Boppa would tend: tomatoes, garlic, carrots, sometimes corn and onions.
In the corner of the living room there was a small fireplace that was never used. I remember seeing old photographs of my mom dressed up for prom with the fireplace used as a backdrop. There was a carpeted staircase opposite the fireplace, leading up to the “attic” that was at one time my mother’s and my uncle’s bedrooms as they were growing up. I used to love to sit and play on those stairs. A heavy plastic shower curtain hung from the ceiling about half-way up, serving as a barrier to keep me from going up, and the keep cold air from coming down in the winter months.
The wall-papered kitchen had a gas stove, the only gas stove I’d ever seen growing up, a novelty and a danger at the same time. I loved the click-click-click as Grammy would ignite the blue flames, seeing how close I dared to get.
The kitchen only had room for a small table, pushed up against one wall. We rarely ate meals there, unless only three of us were sitting down at a time. Usually we sat at a slightly bigger table on the closed in back porch.
Grammy had a side-by-side refrigerator for awhile when I was little. I remember how she hated that fridge, because it never seemed big enough. She kept a magnetic digital timer on the door, and when I was old enough to figure out how to use it, I’d set it to go off at random times, surprising everyone. Well, at least I thought it surprised everyone. Grammy always laughed, feigning surprise; I’m sure she was wise to my games early on.
Well before I was born, the back porch was finished off as extra living space next to the kitchen. That was where Boppa used to spend most of his time. His lounge chair was out there, with the little television on its rolling stand. He liked Jeopardy, the Yankees, and the New York Giants. If I was lucky enough to be allowed to sit in his chair, their cat, Yolanda, might come and sit on my lap. Now that was a treat. My brother and I would take turns, vying for acknowledgement from that cat, and if she deigned to fall asleep on our laps, well, then we sure didn’t move for anything as long as she was comfortable. We’d watch the birds at the feeders out the window and sometimes we’d fall asleep ourselves.
That porch was where Boppa kept my dollhouse as he worked on it. It was where we ate Sunday dinners together, with fresh Italian bread from Bonazinga’s bakery. It was where we played games of Scrabble and gin rummy. Grammy almost always won at Scrabble.
On special occasions Boppa would make homemade fried dough for us for dinner, carrying plates of it up the stairs to the porch from the doorway to the basement below. Grammy didn’t want him to cook it in the kitchen, whether it was because the smell of the oil would permeate the house for weeks, or because it was a fire hazard, I don’t know. Fried dough nights were a rare and special occasion. Boppa would cook the dough in an electric fry pan in small pieces, so we could put a variety of things on them. I didn’t like red sauce when I was little so my grandparents got creative with toppings to offer me. Butter was my favorite, melting in the little valleys. Or sometimes we’d put peanut butter on them, and it would melt into a syrup while the dough was still warm. My brother was partial to Cheez Whiz, the glass jar was always featured prominently on the table.
There was a small closet in the hallway, and it had a laundry chute in the floor. I thought it was the neatest thing. My grandfather had cut a hole in the floor, and attached a slide of some sort to direct the laundry right into the basket in the basement. I always wanted to play with it, to send my dolls or stuffed animals riding down, but it was definitely now allowed. Sometimes I’d just open the closet door just to peek down there.
I loved that basement. It smelled of antiques and faintly of pool chlorine. The door to the outside made the distinct sound of an old spring stretching and recoiling when you opened and closed it. There were shelves upon shelves of canned goods and tissues and paper towels, which gave me a feeling that this house was prepared for anything. There was an old upright green piano down there, that to my knowledge was never properly in tune, but I loved to pretend I could play it anyway.
The house was one floor, with an attic, and a basement. It had only one bathroom, but that didn’t seem to bother us. Neither did the smell of cigarette smoke back then, or pipe tobacco. Both of my grandparents smoked for most of my youth, until throat cancer and lung cancer forced them to quit. I rarely remember either of them complaining about giving up smoking, although Grammy once confided to me when I was an adult, “I almost wish I knew when I was going to kick the bucket, because for that last week, I’d do nothing but smoke and eat chocolate ice cream.” (She had high cholesterol too.)
Both of my grandparents passed away long ago, but there are certain things that take me right back to their house, to that time when I was younger. Golden-crisp skin on a Thanksgiving turkey: Boppa would swat our hands away as we tried to snatch pieces while he tried to carve. The smell of fresh baked Italian bread, the smell of wintergreen mints (Grammy’s favorite) and Noxema, reading One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Suess, pulling marigold seeds from their pods, orange Jack-O-Lantern plants, and silver dollar plant seeds.
“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” (Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Story Girl)
How very true this is.