My friend Jo said she wanted to hear a story about my grandmother, so I’m going to share a little jewel of a story from my childhood that is so precious, I wish I could remember it myself. My dad tells it to me about once a year and I am glad that he never thinks I tire of hearing it. I don’t.
I was the youngest child of the youngest child, so at Grandmama Eunice’s house, I was The Baby. She lived right off the highway about halfway between Gay and Greenville in a rambling white house that burned in 1985. We had already said goodbye to the house a few years earlier, when she had sold the farm and moved into an apartment near Daddy. There’s nothing atop that hill now, but I still pull into what’s left of the driveway whenever I drive by. It’s a strange emptiness for a place that held so many memories. The emptiness of the now compared to the fullness of then.
If I start from the driveway and that patch of front yard where my parents left the car, I can walk my memory up the cement steps, painted barn red and faced in stone. It’s probably only two steps across the flat expanse of the cement front porch to the screen door but it seemed like such a way to go back then. In summer, the door would be flanked by begonias or ferns set on upended fruit crates. Metal patio chairs in yellow or green waited for the cool hours after sundown when the grownups went out there for a breeze and some story telling. If my tiny then self walks over to the left edge of the porch–no railing–and looks down, I see deep purple morning glories. Purple was my Grandmama Eunice’s favorite color.
The flap and creak of the screen door then the rattle of the wide thin glass that took up the top half of her front door. I step into the warmth of the living room with just one fan moving summer air near the green chenille sofa. To my right would be a delicate plant stand with last Christmas’ cactus blooming in the light from the window. A framed picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, his robe the same deep purple as the morning glories.
The hall tree with its beveled mirrors and thick laquer, turned black with years, covered in a pile of my aunts’ purses. A spindly modern coffee table that held a giant book of Currier and Ives prints and two glass paper weights–one a photo of my father as a curly-headed toddler and one a quiet photo of his father in a Stetson hat, the grandfather none of us had the privilege of knowing. A brown platform rocker, a basket of Guideposts and Readers Digests, some bamboo furniture covered in hibiscus fabric left over from the days in Florida.
My memory goes around the room, touching each place, smelling the warm dust in the air. I can’t remember the specific color of the walls–maybe pale blue. But just by writing that, I am overwhelmed by the memory of the light fixture, something I haven’t thought of in years. It hung on a brown cord from the high ceiling. There was no switch. Someone tall had to reach up and over the milky glass globe and pull the chain to turn the bulb on. Then after they let it go, the light on its long cord would swing back and forth, casting shadows along the length of the room, until enough seconds passed and the pendulum came to rest.
That corner of the living room–the path from the front door to the dining room and kitchen beyond it–that was the high traffic spot in Grandmama Eunice’s house. To and fro, back and forth, coming and going. One summer afternoon, we were all at the house for Sunday dinner. It was a crowd of folks, so maybe my Uncle Charles and Uncle Kenneth had brought their families up from Florida. That seemed to happen most summers and I loved it. They were glamorous people with tans and big sedans and they almost always arrived with giant lollipops from Stuckeys.
In the afternoon, the grownups headed for the porch with their bellies full of fried chicken, green beans, sliced tomatoes, sweet tea and started swapping stories as blue Marlboro smoke hung above their heads in the still air. I remember the way my Aunt Betty’s sandal would tap tap tap against the concrete as she rocked in her chair. While the other kids were off running and playing, I preferred to sit just inside the screen door, where I could listen to the adults talk.
And that’s the story that Daddy tells. I was about four. In the midst of that busy, loud afternoon, I was sitting there cross-legged on the dusky brown carpet, under the watchful eye of a Jesus with plenty on his mind already. I had found the perfect spot: a square of sunshine from the screen door, within earshot of the talkers but in front of the fan.
Grandmama walked past me once and said, “Baby? Don’t you want to go play?”
I shook my head. She went on her way.
A few minutes later, she came through heading the other direction. “You OK?”
She came by again, probably with a pitcher of tea. She stopped in front of me and asked, “Ashley? What are you DOING?”
I looked up at her and said, “I’m just sitting here being happy.”
And she let me be.
That place is gone. My Grandmama died twenty years ago and I still think of her every day. But while writing this and walking through that ghost of a living room, I remembered that I actually received those paper weights from her coffee table after she died. I’ve had them carefully wrapped up in paper for all these years, waiting to have just the right safe place to put them. Now I have my writing room and I took them out tonight and gave them a shady place of honor by my reading chair. My father as a boy with Carlos’ hair, and my grandfather’s quiet eyes, keeping watch over me when I sit in the brown platform rocker from that living room and think my thoughts.
We don’t get to take everyone or every thing from our past, but we get enough. Enough to be happy, just sitting here.