Writers note: In early 2021 after 9 months of the pandemic, I attended The Jane Club virtual retreat. I joined the club on the spot. The Jane Club is a community of amazing people who come together to support one another in life. Each week they have a Creative Writing class where they offer writing prompts. This prompt, The Last Time I Was Home, brought up a memory I didn’t expect.
Photo note: The May procession through our neighborhood where my grandfather came to show his support.
The Last Time I was Home was when I did a real estate tour of the former house where I grew up. The house became home that day because the most important person in my young life, my grandfather, was with me for the tour, at least in my memories.
The house had been sold multiple times over the decades since the last of my family members who lived there, my mom, walked out the door for the final time. She wasn’t happy about the departure but knew it was too challenging to try to live there alone anymore. So, at the insistence of her children, she went to live with people her age where she made new friends and yearned for nothing but to be back in her home again. On this day, long after mom had left earth, I drove by the house, as I often do, just because I like to look at it from the outside to get a hug that only I can feel. There was something defining that remained for me at that house and I couldn’t let go. That’s when I saw the For Sale sign. I immediately called the listing agent and while making it clear I was not in the market to buy the house; I asked if he could get me inside. I only wanted to see how things had changed, or stayed the same. The owner agreed and my sister-in-law and I put the date on our calendars.
I walked up the white marble steps as I had done thousands of times in the 18+/- years I lived there. The heavy, glass, ornate front door was the same one I had walked through so many times. It stood out among all the other doors on the neighboring rowhomes that had been replaced with a storm or solid wooden version. I felt my grandfather’s presence immediately. Was it my imagination or did the door actually stick ever so slightly when I pushed it open as it did in my childhood? The slight push needed to achieve its widest swing, reminded me how my grandfather always said he would put some WD40 on the hinges. He didn’t though because, as he confided to me, he liked having that one unique thing about his house that most people hardly noticed. I was grateful the “stick” of the door remained. I took it as a formal greeting from grandpop.
Once inside I could feel the presence of my grandfather again. His picture had sat on the black and white marble mantle in the front room. The mantle was still there and even though the picture wasn’t, I could see it and I mentally carried grandpop with me for the tour. Grandpop would have said this was something else, indeed. We had called that front room a parlor when I was growing up. A parlor, to me then (and now), is the first room in the house. It has all the good furniture that you rarely sit on and is only used when guests come over.
We moved to the bottom of the stairs that led to the second floor expecting to see the TV room beyond. But as I continued to walk into what was once the middle, or TV, room, I was in another galaxy. They removed the walls between the two rooms and the kitchen to create one open concept. Grandpop would have called this a newfangled style – open concept. No judgement, just fact – the open concept, I mean. I thought, my how we have changed our idea of a desirable home. Where it used to be the number of rooms that were important to a buyer, now it’s having all the rooms together as one.
My mother and grandmother prepared all the meals in those days and I’m sure they would say the walls kept all the heat in the kitchen. But they would have loved the renovated Summer Kitchen that once sat with a screened-in porch. It was now enclosed and hosted a laundry room with a bathroom. A downstairs bathroom is for rich people grandpop would say. I tried mightily to close my eyes and feel my family events; the homework sessions in the kitchen, grandpop coming in the back door to grab coffee from the stove, Thanksgiving in the dining room, or the Johnny Carson show playing on a tv that now hung on the wall. But the space had been completely turned over leaving nothing of my memories. Grandpop would have liked a TV on a wall, I’m sure of it. He was TV kind of guy. But he would have hated having a bathroom anywhere near the kitchen. I took a quick look into the yard where we had our large above ground pool. But it is now a parking pad for the home owner’s car.
The 2nd floor was unrecognizable as well. We had 6 people living in our home back then and only 1 bathroom in total, which was located in the back on the 2nd floor. There were 2 bathrooms upstairs now; one where our hall closet had been and one where the original had been. It was all so modern and new, complete with a deck off the bathroom over the former summer kitchen. As I walked from back to front, I recalled the pillow fights with my siblings, the room where I struggled to get to sleep in the heat of the summer when we didn’t have air conditioning, and the one room that remained the same, my grandfather’s bedroom. My heart ached a little for him as I turned to go back down the stairs.
We headed to the basement and glancing around I saw nothing of the old space. It too had been renovated, like the other parts of the house. And, not surprisingly, there was another bathroom down there. So, given all these changes, I didn’t expect so many vivid memories to come rushing back. But, this had been my grandfather’s domain. It would be called his man cave today. This was where he went to do carpentry work. It was a cellar, really, when we lived here. A dirt floor ¾ of the way throughout with a dirt crawl space if we needed to get to the plumbing. The front of the cellar had been made acceptable for standing and walking and I was always invited by Grandpop to observe him in action at his workbench where he kept all his tools. He had a vice affixed to the work bench which he used to hold wood in place while he sawed away. I always delighted at the invitation because I loved spending time with him; to overserve or help. How I remember him making the large wooden base for the train garden he designed every Christmas. He had to build the base with hinges in the middle so it would fold in half to fit up the stairs and store easily when not in use. His Train Gardens were the most beautiful I had ever seen. He would transform that piece of wood into a beautiful scene when he covered it with felt. He placed tracks that had curves and hills. He had RR Crossings too and the trains would make a whistling noise when they were nearing one another. There were corner stores, carolers, bridges, tunnels, and people window shopping in the town. In some places he would spray canned snow for effect. He took such care with each and every piece.
I sat for a moment on one of the wooden steps and became overwhelmed by my memory of a man who had made my otherwise miserable childhood so happy. Why didn’t I realize it until he was gone for so long? I got it together and no one was aware of my desire to sob out loud. I walked back up the stairs, thanked the agent and went toward the front door. I listened to the “stick” one final time. As I walked down the white marble steps, I remembered how grandpop had carried me up those steps after I had fallen and broken my elbow in the 3rd grade. Always my hero.
From those steps to the mantle where his photo sat for decades. From his bedroom, to his basement where I could actually feel his presence today, my awareness of who made that house a home was evident. The Last time I Was Home, was the last time my Grandfather was Home.