Updated: May 21, 2020
The house still looks the same as it does in the earliest memories I have of it. They’ve taken down a few trees and added a carport, but mostly, this is the house that anchors my childhood to reality.
I question a lot of my memories, because my life was so fluid and I’ve been so many places only once. Sometimes I wonder if the way I remember things is the way they ever were at all.
I’m in this house catching up with my living-breathing ancestry, and my 77-year old grandmother says she thinks about me all the time and figures I don’t remember anything about them and that house because we led such an extravagant existence. This makes me laugh a little, because ‘extravagant’ is not a word I would use to describe anything about my life. I look across the room at the fireplace I have never seen warmed by fire, and wonder why a house in Florida would even bother. Then I wonder why I don’t think I’ve ever sat in this room and wondered that before. Maybe it’s because I live in Chicago now, and I know what it means to be cold.
The wall above the fireplace is populated by Bosson heads, which should be creepy but are actually innately comforting. I remember mostly the Fisherman, who still looks over the living room with the stoic kind of hopefulness that someone who’s seen a few storms displays. He used to just make me think of how much I hate grocery store boxed fish sticks, but now he makes me think about how tiny my grandmother looks, like she shrunk a foot or I grew a foot or both.
I’m forty-one years old. Which means that, for the better part of the last thirty-five or thirty-six years of my memory, my grandfather has occupied the same space in the same living room, watching the same television in the same corner which I can barely remember every being on anything but NASCAR. He’s 87, and he still fixes everything. He moves a little slower, but his fingerprints are on every inch of that house- from the corner bathroom he built the summer before we went to Italy to the back porch where, when I was five, I managed to hit myself in the head with an axe… just a tiny knick but headwounds bleed profusely. Whenever we are there, though, he stops tinkering and sits in his chair and, by the look on his face, genuinely enjoys that his family is in this room with him. He makes jokes, comments on things, crosses one leg over the other, ankle to knee. The chair is different, but I am not sure the carpet is, although I imagine it has to be because no one would keep the same carpet for three decades. There are still these novelty nail puzzle games hanging from hooks on the useless fireplace. I wonder how many people in this family have orbited this house like distant planets, passing through and solving the puzzles only to put them back on their hooks and leave, because they’ve promised to be there again the next time you transit.
It makes me sad that my grandmother thinks I may not remember them much, or think about my time in that house. When I was a kid and I didn’t know where we were going next, being in that house was the closest thing I knew to being home. I told her I remembered when the back room was an entirely fantastic dream world- my grandfather built a toy train track around the perimeter of the room, complete with mountains and tunnels and a grand train station. The track was built on a shelf that I think was about waist-high to an adult; to me it was eye level. Watching those trains go round and round was one of the few comforting memories I have of the times in my early life when I had no idea what was coming next.
So I tell her, Grandma, I remember. I remember so very much. I point behind me to the den and talk about the Atari that is still there with what is probably the first monitor Apple ever made. I tell her about the sewing machines and the racks of clothes and the bolts of fabric, and she talks about her days as a seamstress and how she wants to sell the one last industrial sewing machine she still has, but it takes two men to move it.
The light in the house hasn’t changed; it still holds the atmosphere the way the trees outside hold Spanish Moss. As an adult who has lived a life in risk management, I marvel at the home’s life expectancy. I can’t help but wonder what someone from American Pickers might find of substantial value hidden in a corner of this house somewhere. I think about the storms in my life and the storms this home has survived and I’m reminded that my grandfather can’t sit in that chair forever and that thought makes me ache for my dad. My dad, who is the taller carbon copy of his own. My dad, who never has a chair in the same place but always has the same anchoring presence.
We go outside, to the back yard, and it’s here that my memories fail me. I remember their big boat of a car parked under the awning constructed long ago, and I remember the wire trellis that once grew grapes. But the dark and mysterious jungle beyond the back door always seemed larger than life and more than a little formidable to me. Grandpa points out the place where a big tree fell in a hurricane, talks about what used to be here and what’s growing there. We come across a small bush with leathery rich green leaves and beautiful shiny red berries. I think it’s holly or mistletoe, because I know nothing about plants. It’s wild coffee, he says, my aunt looked it up one time when she was there. And I think, coffee? Really?
I guess I’ve never thought about what a growing plant that results in a coffee bean looks like, but thank God for Google because sure enough. Wild coffee, not particularly something you want to brew, but when you smoosh the berries and reveal the little pea-like nut-shaped seed inside, there is a distinct smell of fresh coffee as if it’s a flower before it’s a bean. I snag some from the plant and vow to figure out how to grow wild coffee in Chicago, indoors if I have to.
And that’s the way it’s always been, this coming home. Amidst the things that never change, I can still find something new. Something I never knew was there before; something I never paid attention to. Something I take with me when I go.
I have spent most of my life somewhere else, I have come to know houses as temporary things and people as orbiting planets just transiting through.
So I’m glad I’m here, because time slows down. I look at my grandfather in his chair, and my grandmother in hers. My palms are wet and sticky from the membraneous juice around the berries I’ve squeezed that smells nutty and chocolatey, and I think about how beautiful it is that they look nothing like they smell. I look over at my grandmother, and she looks happy. My grandfather is watching NASCAR, but that look on his face, he’s happy.
And I want her to know that I remember.