Sunday, August 28, 2011

Memories: Grandma's House

Fall is coming and it inevitably brings with it memories of my grandparents' house. The house was emptied and sold several years ago, but we all have fond, intense feelings for the old rambler tucked into the treeline. Here are some of my most vivid memories, finally put to paper. 
On the south end of my home town, in the hazy borderland between the end of town and the beginning of the farmland, was my grandmother’s house. It was nestled deep from the road, protected by giant maples. Curious remnants of the past dotted grandma and grandpa’s lawn, lending it a somehow exciting and mysterious quality. A large cement frog, ridden by generations of children, squatted near the head of the driveway. A formerly white-painted curlicue metal headboard parked itself on the border between lawn and wood. The remains of an outdoor cooktop, built of limestone, crumbled behind the screen porch like a Roman ruin. 

It was among these buildings and monuments that we played for hours and hours. We would sit on the bank of the culvert next to the highway and wave to departing weekenders. We would play tag on the lawn. Sometimes we’d just lie on the thick grass, slowly pulling individual blades out without breaking them and tying knots in dandelions. My cousin and I would tell cruel stories to our younger siblings about Indians (politically incorrect, I know) that lived in the woods behind the house and loved stealing children. We’d go as far as making “Indian noises,” singing out a note and quickly tapping our hands on and off our mouths, sending them scampering into the house. We might have acted tough about the very real possibility of children-stealers living in the woods behind grandma’s, but all of us still closed the shutters of the bathroom window that faced the woods. It was too much of a risk to leave those shutters open, in the event we look out and see a face peering back. 

Inside was a warm, pulsing, cocoon. It always smelled like dinner was in the oven, mixed with faint scents of spicy cinnamon and clove. Most rooms had gleaming knotty pine walls and low, curiously wallpapered, ceilings. The kitchen and utility room also had pine cabinetry, with little black iron latches that never seemed to stay closed. Grandma layered heavy braided rugs and rag rugs on top of the floors and carpets, inevitably slowing any toy on wheels. Down a narrow little hallway, complete with novel little nook for a telephone, were the bathroom and grandma and grandpa’s bedrooms. Grandpa’s room seemed off limits, cowboy paintings and portraits of Boston bulldogs warily watching you when you entered.  Grandma’s room was utterly feminine, with its floral wool rug, her large collection of celluloid scattered about her bureau, and dozens of family photographs covering every flat surface. Her nubby matelassé bedspread always stretched tautly across her ancient bed, and her translucent eyelet café curtains perfectly accented the windows.

Grandma’s furnishings were a carefully curated collection any antique aficionado would appreciate.  Heavy wood furniture, placed in toe-stubbing increments, swallowed her living areas whole. Every seat had an accompanying end table, commode, console, coffee table, or plant stand. Layered on top of or next to these tables were lamps, many of them converted gas lamps. Stacked next to or under these lamps was grandma's extensive collection of Country Living and House Beautiful magazines. As the sun sank lower, the house was plunged into dimness and grandma would perfunctorily go about the house, turning on every lamp and chandelier. She would then disappear into the kitchen while no one was paying attention and get to work on dinner. 

Dinner on Sunday night was an unstoppable occurrence, like a train whose only duty was to arrive by 6 PM. The kitchen always smelled wonderful, one hotdish or another baking in the oven. Iceberg salad was compiled into the navy-checkered melamine bowl, crudités and sliced ham were plattered, bakery buns sliced and dropped into a basket lined with paper towel.  A procession of salad dressings, cans of soda, cartons of milk, tubs of butter, and the famous Tupperware container of dill pickle chips made its way to the large dining table. As grandma worked at a frenetic pace in the kitchen, floursack towel draped over her shoulder, we grabbed stacks of her Blue Willow and set the table. My cousin and I would often offer to set the table, if only to eat dill pickles out of the olive-green plastic container by the handful while doing so.

She always said that “it wasn’t much,” but it was always so much more than enough. Every food group was dutifully present, and the table was not complete without salt, pepper, butter, slices of Italian bread, and her little margarine-tub of plastic ice cube balls for our drinks. When it was a smaller group we all crowded around the dining table, elbow to elbow on caned chairs. When it was a larger group we spilled over to the living room, grandma getting out painted tv trays for the occasion. After the kitchen was meticulously scrubbed, dishes washed and put away, and every extra bite of leftovers accounted for and stowed in the refrigerator, dessert surfaced. With a large family like ours it was almost always someone’s birthday, which meant grandma’s angel food cake covered in her deliciously sticky boiled frosting. She recycled the birthday candles year to year, carefully rinsing them and putting them back in their box when finished.  Boxes of ice cream, cans of Hershey’s syrup, and a fresh pot of coffee always rounded out the end of dinnertime. 

Curling up on the big scratchy sofa, "60 Minutes" or "The Wonderful World of Disney" playing softly on the television,  we would drift on and off into sleep. Sometimes I would lie on grandma's red velvet settee, flipping her heavily-embroidered cushions so I could press my face into the cool silky backside. Everyone was mellow and quieter, the big grandfather clock ticking closer to bedtime. Mom and dad would miraculously get our coats on our limp bodies and herd us into the cool evening for the short drive home. And so ended another night at grandma's, just one of hundreds we were lucky enough to say we had together over the years.

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