Sunday, November 24, 2002

Grandma's House

I still see it in my dreams, when exhaustion, background noise from the box fan or the Girlish Girls chasing phantom mice in the middle of the night conspire to bring dreams on--the house on McLean Avenue where Grandma used to live.

Now, I admit that calling it a "house" might be overstating things a bit. It was really a small, gray cottage on the edge of an empty lot used as parking space for the cleaners across the alley (thus inviting injudicious drivers to occasionally bump the brick wall and knock chunks of gray brick and mortar out). A thin rectangle of yard flowed behind it, with a lilac bush tucked against the enclosed porch and various stumps and pits dotting their way back to the garage, which had never been used for anything but lumber storage for as far back as I could remember and which always had a curious, though not precarious, lean to the east, as if inclining toward the rising sun.

The yard needed frequent weeding, if only to keep city inspectors from issuing tickets or gangbangers from crouching in wait until the cops had passed them by, and I spent many a summer afternoon with shears and hatchet in hand, laying waste to mint and dandelions and young but sturdy sumac trees.

Once, while clearing brush from the empty-lot side, I found what appeared to be a thick mound of spider web, only to discover that it was really the remaining fur of a long-deceased cat. Another time, I found a spider web (a real one this time) stretched between a particularly large stump and the aforementioned lilac bush. And in the center of this web resided the largest spider I have ever seen outside of a Bert I. Gordon movie: to my prepubescent perspective, its black-and-yellow legs appeared to span at least a foot, though it's a good deal more likely that it measured no more than six inches from tip to tip, still a considerable size for something that clearly wasn't native to this, if any, hemisphere. (My attempts as an adult to describe this enormous arachnid to friends have been universally met with cries of "No fucking way!" or "You must have imagined it"; I regret that I was not into photography at that time, so that I could provide an image of reality to accompany the image that has rested in my all-too-vivid imagination to this very day.) Needless to say, not much foliage got trimmed in Grandma's backyard that day.

The interior of the cottage was modest as well, with mint green or canary yellow paint on the walls, embossed tin on the ceilings (long since painted over in layers of white latex) and linoleum on the floors. The rooms were mostly small, but Grandma didn't need much space. Since Grandpa died in 1968 (his wake a vague sepia memory in my adult brain), she'd lived alone with two or three cats, the last of which were a long-haired calico named Squeaky (for the sound she made whenever she opened her mouth) and a thin, skittish gray male known most popularly as "The Rat" (because...well, he looked like one.) There was a space heater in the modest dining room (which replaced the coal-fueled heater that ran into the 1970s until home coal deliveries finally stopped), two unused bedrooms (Grandma preferred sleeping on the couch in the living room) and a tiny, frigid room that passed for an toilet. (There was no bathtub--Grandma washed herself at the kitchen sink.) A wedding portrait of her and Grandpa hung on one of the living room walls, and a crystal chandelier that was just low enough for me to walk into face-first dangled from the ceiling. And even though her house was small, Grandma didn't need a lot of room anyway: her legs were badly swollen, so she never strayed far from home and, in most of her later years, never went beyond the front gate, and even then only to put down food for the neighborhood strays.

We visited Grandma--Mom, my brother and I--once a week or so, with Dad tagging along sometimes, usually on holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas Day or whenever Grandma needed a handyman about the house for plumbing or carpentry or electrical work. (Dad was quite the "jack of all trades"; I sometimes wish I knew half as much as he did about repair work and half as little about writing and movies and action figures--I might be less interesting that way, but more employable.) Grandma would always offer us food, no matter what time of day we visited or what Mom said about when we'd last eaten. She'd always offer us oranges or bananas or Easter ham--whatever she had to give. She ate off of small tin tray tables and drank her instant coffee or tea with honey from cups with elaborate, pink Japanese designs--odd china for a small, stout Polish woman to have, it seemed. But Grandma had many such odd things, accumulated over years of buying things from catalogs or department stores and rarely if ever using them.

In other words, Grandma was a master packrat. So much so, in fact, that until she took ill and had to be hospitalized in 1975, her house was piled floor-to-ceiling with all manner of dark, dusty items, with one narrow pathway through the middle of it that allowed her to get about. During that hospital stay, though, Mom decided to do something "nice" for Grandma: she decided to clean Grandma's house. And so we did. My brother and I spent the better part of three weeks excavating the site, with "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction," as Arlo Guthrie would say. Had we known about collectors markets then what we know now, we could have made a buck or two off of some of the "trash" we hauled out that summer, like cereal boxes from the '50s or newspapers going back decades, touching on the events that shaped world history (then and now).

Some of the stuff mysteriously survived the purge, like two huge old radios that hadn't worked in decades or the can of vintage Christmas ornaments, or the movie magazines dating back to the dawn of the Sound Era (including one with a stunning painted portrait of Barbara Stanwyck), or a tin dollhouse in more or less playable shape, or hundreds of 78s and a hand-cranked portable turntable to play them on. Maybe Mom just couldn't part with these things; maybe there wasn't enough time to toss them out before Grandma got home and Mom just shoved them into closets to avoid dealing with them; maybe some (like the radios) reminded her of Grandpa, by all accounts a gentle soul who was never, ever sick until the end, when he went quickly and far too early.

Whatever the reason, Mom and I found all of these things in Grandma's house after she died in 1990 after a lifetime of varied illnesses--so many that Grandma, a devout Catholic, was given the last rites nine different times (appropriate for a woman who loved cats so much). And yet, the woman lived to be 85--tough old bird, that Grandma.

But it wasn't for the things in Grandma's house that we went once a week or so--not for the cats, not the Japanese teacups, nor the various other things tucked into gray/brown corners of gray/brown rooms. No. We went to see the woman herself, always kind to us, the kids, even when she and Mom were going at each other over one thing or another. Both were stubborn and set in their ways, and many a visit turned uncomfortable as they argued back and forth over something Mom wanted Grandma to do and Grandma didn't want to do at any cost.

Yet, even this arguing was an expression of love, of sorts: would they have bickered so if they didn't care deeply for one another? Would Mom have visited every week? Would she have gone to the trouble of making Grandma dinner, including kidney stew--the most foul-smalling food product on the planet, whose stench permeated our house whenever Mom simmered it--for each visit? Or would she have decorated Grandma's house for the holidays with garlands and ornaments and a small, lighted tree that she put up in the center window every Christmas?

Grandma's house still stands on McLean Avenue, albeit barely. A fire broke out in the house about six months after Grandma died, though the cause was never determined with any certainty. (The house appeared to have been broken into at least once, if not several times, and someone smoking on the living room couch may have started it, though whether this was intentional or not was unclear.) The front of the house suffered the worst of it: the living room was all but destroyed, the wedding portrait consumed, the crystal chandelier ground to dust beneath the collapsed tin ceiling. I spent two of the most miserable days of my existence in that house, hauling out whatever was deemed salvagable in 20-degree February weather. I've never felt an ache like that, before or since: a weariness and sadness well beyond the bone and marrow down to whatever limp dishrag passes for my soul.

Maybe that's why the house still haunts my dreams--because I parted company with it on such bad terms, especially since I wanted to buy the house from Mom, if only to rehab it and sell it again (unlikely, though, since the admittedly sentimental idea of carrying it forward as some sort of ancestral home appealed to me then), but she would not hear of it. We never spoke of why that was--maybe the memories were too much for her and she wanted no direct connection with it anymore. Whatever the reason, she sold it quickly after the fire, and the new owners rehabbed it, gutting the interior and adding a second story. But these days, it sits boarded up, probably awaiting a backhoe to clear the plot for one of the ugly, cheap, concrete block-intensive condo developments so prevelant on the North Side these days.

But even though Grandma has been gone for a while now and her house has been out of family hands for about a decade, reminders of her surround me in La Casa del Terror: the huge old radios are on a bookshelf; the tin dollhouse stands on another; the 78s and turntable are in a closet just off the bathroom; the Japanese teacups are in the kitchen cabinet. And the small, lighted Christmas tree? It gets hauled out every holiday season and sits in the center window of my living room.

Being a packrat is genetic, I guess.