It seems as though things get smaller the older I get. People and houses especially. I’ve said goodbye to the homes of my grandparents this year, each event having its own bittersweet taste, each house smaller than what I’d thought. Almost as if the stories, the memories, laughter, grief, peanut butter sandwiches, coffee and life of each house were absent. As if we, cousins, siblings, family friends, all had a box labeled with our names, and we picked them up and stored them safely away, and as all the boxes were taken the very essence of the house was also.
The Stewart homestead in Corunna seemed like a castle when I was small, like a fortress set high on a hill. I remember pulling in the drive after the interminable drive over for Christmas Eve, and seeing the lights shining out the front window on the glittering snow of the lawn. The house seemed to pulse with life, a vital giant heartbeat. I walked through one more time with my grandfather not so long ago. We went, arm in arm, from room to room. He told me how when the house was built and my grandma decorated, she chose things that would last; an attempt to be frugal. So the curtains in the windows are the same, taken down and washed and re-hung over and over. The paneling in the kitchen, the huge stone fireplace, the cabinets themselves, all the same, all preserved. Even the view out the huge window in front has not really changed.
I remember how we rarely used the front door, the one where you could climb all those winding steps, past the large stone dog and come to the porch and knock on the door. We always used the basement door, and it shushed as it opened and fell to. I remember the metal porch rocker on the back patio and sitting with grandma on it and rocking back and forth. I remember the walnut tree that dropped walnuts big enough to turn an ankle on, and I remember grandpa feeding the massive fireplace in the living room. We used to make up Christmas plays down in the basement, we played Barbies on the pool table and banged away on the old piano. There was always that nervous, passing glance at grandpa’s old exercise bike in the corner of the basement, its oil pan installed beneath it. We used to drop things down the laundry shoot and run past the landing for the stairs lest some creature reach up and seize our ankles to drag us screaming into the dark. I know where the spare key is.
Grandpa and I at last reached the master bedroom, scene, I imagine, of impassioned arguments, passionate moments stolen from the children they bore. I couldn’t not let the tears fall. It was the end, the very end. And the house seemed so much smaller than I remembered it, the rooms less spacious with all their furniture gone. No string ties hanging on the closet door, no need to pull the drawer out in the bathroom so you didn’t get barged in on. No one was there. And he seemed smaller too. This bastion of the south, of family and Christian values, was somehow diminished. Really only my height, with a soft brush cut and a pen in his shirt pocket, he stood in what had been his bedroom for so many years, in the house that he built with his own hands over the course of a summer; and he was completely bereft.
Now his house is just a house. It sits empty and alone. No welcoming lights, no longer a fortress on a hill keeping all the family safe within.
The other house, even smaller, we said goodbye to yesterday. I think Grandpa Cramer would have been pleased. He was ever a sentimental and tender man. I think he would have appreciated that we stood around his campfire pit and relived our memories there. The trail of grandchildren following him everywhere he went, the never ending crafts and projects that he had. I think that Grandma would be happy to have us in her kitchen again, she would have been whipping the meringue for a pie and starting another pot of coffee while Patsy Cline crooned from the dining room stereo. They would have wanted to play cards around the dining room table that lives with me now, pulling up more chairs, setting in the extra leaf. She would have scolded as someone spun the hanging cage chair, grandpa would have put more wood in the woodstove.
The rooms are so small, how can they get smaller as they empty? The ceiling I could touch and not really have to reach or stand on tippy toes. Was it always this way?
They are reunited with each other now, their love story taken back up like a whitling project left forgotten in the garage over the long winter spent in Florida, like a pie crust she’d stopped kneading to welcome more of her children and her grandchildren into her home, the stones on her rings and her Patsy Cline watch winking in the late afternoon light.
And where am I?
In my own little house. With my own little family. And I am filling those boxes for my girls, the ones they will take when there is nothing else left, no family home to return to, no person to hug. I am filling them with lessons, and with stories and with love.
My own boxes are packed safely away. Sometimes I open them and lovingly examine the items within. The pure and enduring love of two long marriages, the stories and the memories. I can smell the powder on my Grandma Cramer’s neck, I can taste the coffee, long gone cold in Grandpa’s cup. I can hear Grandma Dorothy singing and playing the piano late into the night, feel her arms around me as she rocks me in her chair and sings to me of heaven, tenderly and low; while the shadows ‘or me rise and swiftly go. And I can see the remaining one, in his little home just a few miles from the place where he built a legacy. And I feel his grief, though only a taste of it.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that the most important thing in those boxes was love, knowing how deeply and truly I was loved, and that, in the end, houses are just houses. And I get to keep the memories.