My grandmother broke her shoulder during a fall a few weeks ago, and now she’s living in Decatur County with my aunt and uncle until she regains control of her arm and can once again perform all those awesome arm functions that differentiate human adults from human babies. Ass wiping, mostly.
(Grandmaw, if you ever read this, I hope you will laugh at that joke and not be scandalized. I love you and the internet does too.)
Monday afternoon as I was lounging around my parents’ house, pretending to be a teenager with mono, I got a call from my aunt. See, my grandmother writes the community news column for the local weekly paper, and as she is presently both unable to type and separated from her computer, submitting her column has been a bit of a chore. My aunt, not wanting to drive thirty minutes to my grandmother’s house, wanted to know if I’d be able to take dictation and e-mail the column to The Courier. But first I had to go retrieve some things (a calendar, a note left on the door) from Grandmaw’s house.
It is not often that I get to go rooting around in my grandmother’s house all alone. And that’s probably for the best. My grandmother’s house holds a place in my memory rivaled only by my parents’ current house. It is the place where much of my life’s mythology took root, a place of memory and substance and family lore. My parents built their house on land adjacent to my grandparents’ property; something akin to a football field’s length separates the two houses and over the years we wore a path in the grass between the two that has, heartbreakingly, recently grown up.
I remember spending the most sacred summer afternoons of my life on my grandparents’ back porch, jockeying for a position on the swing but settling for the not-yet-dry-rotted plastic chairs as the adults had their adult conversations and the kids mashed lumps of Play-Doh onto the dusty table made of a giant tin panel laid on top of a black iron kettle. Large scalloped ash trays were always within arms’ reach of the adults, and held the dark, smoldering butts of More brand cigarettes until my grandmother quit cold turkey.
The dogs — there have always been dogs, so many dogs — drank out of large plastic half barrels left at the edge of the porch to catch the rain water. My grandmother would sit and absentmindedly pick ticks off the ones who would let her. In my memory my grandfather didn’t spend a lot of time outside. I really only remember him during his days caught in a tangle of severe emphysema, where he was tethered to a breathing machine at all times and lived on the couch in the den, wheezing his way in and out of every day and working up the energy to get to the bathroom and back.
When the adults weren’t watching, we kids would invent entire worlds in that lush back yard. A retaining wall surrounding the house created a neat little creek that would babble with the slightest bit of rain, and there was even a little path and bridge leading to the side of the house that wrapped around to the porch. The whole place was blanketed in my grandmother’s flowers — many of them tiger lilies that would produce those little black beads we used to love to steal and hoard — and it was easy to imagine each tree as its own house. My brother, my cousin, and I would play neighbors out there. In the fall we’d pull up these reedy things that we’d pretend were firewood, and we’d go from “door” to “door,” bartering and sharing, depending on our moods. When the acorns were on the ground we’d gather them and pretend they were the groceries we’d foraged so hard to collect.
That back porch hasn’t enjoyed the company of a family gathering for more than a decade now. It’s junked up and cluttered and caked with dirt dobbers’ nests and dog hair and bird shit and a thick layer of neglect, and I stood there Monday and looked at it and just felt sick. Growing up is just this seemingly endless reel of the things you loved crumbling, sometimes slowly, and that is the part of adulthood that I am not handling very well.