It was eight years ago that I idled down that
long narrow driveway for the first time in too
We were both at our worst, that old house and I.
As much as myself, the old place was facing its
own trauma, its particular grief. My grandmother's
old Caprice was still in the garage, and the old
house leered at me with a face I didn't recognize,
though I shouldn't have been surprised. We had
grown estranged, distant.
I remember sitting in the truck for awhile, locking
my gaze with it. I stared into its window glass eyes,
wondering if there were anything left here for me,
the wayward son, the one who had turned his back on
it and all those within. Behind it, overgrown brush
and thicket threatened to advance farther, devouring
the house, causing it to vanish as the world took
over in the absence of loyalty.
"I don't want it," I had said to her. "I won't be
around here. Let someone else have it." Even that
day in the drive, I still saw it as only a temporary
haven, a stopover on my way to something else, as yet
unknown. It glowered down at me, all bone-white and
steep of roof, small porch like a snout. It reproached
me for my absence.
The key complained about the lock, the lock resisted
the key, but at last the bolt turned and I let swing
open the front door. The smell was dark, musky, faint
hints of dog and stale air. I had expected that: My
father had finally let the dog and cat go to new homes
when he reluctantly conceded she'd not be coming back
to rejoin them.
I didn't enter. I studied the siding, dirty and in
disrepair. The stop chain had broken, and the screen
door hung open. Everywhere there was the blight of
emptiness. Behind me, in the back of the truck, was
everything important enough to me to take here. Inside
the house was everything important to my grandmother
over seven decades of her residency here. I stood
there, more beaten down than I had ever been. I had
fled just that morning, my life in shambles from
broken dreams and hanging promises without stop
Of course, I knew this place. I had always been here.
Part of me still was. I knew the linoleum covering
the floors, but had forgotten the perfect white oak
hidden beneath it. I knew the marble coffee table
just there near the sofa, the big white-framed
mirror on the wall, the torn and ragged sofa witness
to the dog's months of loneliness. I knew the alcove
behind the living room, had slept there many a time,
safe and secure. But I had been gone for years,
struggling through forging a life, building its
foundations, nailing up its framing, raising its
roof, but my craftsmanship was tawdry. It collapsed
around me, splintering and cracking loudly, until
all that remained was a jumbled debris field.
Unloading the things from the truck, I glanced at
the old brown easy chair in the corner, and winced
against the pain of the statement, "I don't want
it." I imagined the pain it must have caused her,
me, her only heir, her only grandchild. Though I
had not intended it that way, it was like saying,
"I don't want you."
She had looked up at me, there in that old brown
chair, a half-finished beaded necklace on a loom
in her lap, and her eyes were black, moistening
pits of hurt. "Burn it, then," she said, voice
trembling like falling roof trusses. " Promise me
you'll burn it to the ground."
But I resisted the guilt, the vow, reminding myself
I'd just be here for a little while. Just long enough
to put myself back together, find those pieces that
had fallen away, see where they fit, snap them back
into place. There was much to be done to make this
old place livable again. I walked through it, check
listing the work ahead of me, and marveled at how
two years of emptiness can diminish a house. Its
doors must be opened and closed, its floors walked
on, its ceilings soaked with voices and laughter,
and yes, even crying.
Over the months that followed, I worked at getting
it comfortable again. I painted its walls, not even
bothering to fix the cracks in the sheet rock. I
wouldn't be there long enough. I had landed a job
again, and spent my evenings working on the old house.
I stripped up all the decrepit linoleum and, in the
living room and kitchen, released the old wooden
floors my grandfather had installed. Nights I slept
under its protection again, but I reminded it that
I would be gone again soon. Yet there were reminders
of her, and of me, everywhere. When I pulled off a
piece of baseboard, hidden there was an old mathematics
flash card she used to teach me when I was a kid. When
I emptied out a dresser, hidden within, was a manuscript
I wrote when I was 14 called Memories of a Grandfather,
a disjointed, rambling work penned more to make sense
of his passing the year before than any literary purpose.
It took six months to refinish the floors alone. But
I scraped away decades of old varnish and the glue
used to hold down the cheap linoleum and dropped
the debris into an aluminum pan. When the pan was
full, I'd throw it into the waste basket, and when
the waste basket was full, I'd carry it outside and
dump it into the big garbage container, and when that
was full, it would go to the road and be emptied by
the big trucks that came twice a week. Little by
little, I relieved the house of arthritis and
rheumatism, but with every pass of the scraper,
I relieved myself of something, too. A wall of
wainscot in the kitchen had buckled and popped
loose, cracking in the process. I replaced it,
painted it to match the rest, throwing out
something broken and bringing in something whole.
It's been said there's only one way to hurt a man
who's lost everything: Give him back something
broken. I was given back something broken, this
old house, and over time, without even realizing
it, the notion of temporary became permanence, and
the thought of leaving it forgotten.
The last time I saw her was an afternoon on, I think,
Mother's Day. I had cut the lawn that morning, using
her old Snapper mower, and that afternoon, my parents
and I had gone to visit. I knew that there were moments
of clarity, but they were mostly outnumbered by the
fog of her aged focus. She hugged me, there in those
white, crisp sheets, surrounded by metal bed rails
and featureless furniture.
"I saw you outside the window," she said, and I
nearly wept. Here, frail and withered, was the
strongest, most elegant and beautiful woman I had
ever known in my life, now shrunken, so thin I
feared she'd get lost in those sheets one day and
never be found. "I saw you outside the window
this morning," she said.
"Did you, granny?" I smiled, swallowing down any
hint of dismay lest she hear it in my voice.
She nodded. "You were cutting the grass. You did
a good job, baby. Do you have a cigarette?"
She was 92 years old. She was 22 when she had
first walked into that old house back on the
reservation. Seventy years later, surrounded
by sterile walls and white-garbed nurses, I
would have forsaken everything I had to give
her a cigarette. Everything.
It wasn't much later that the phone awakened me
in the dead of night. I stumbled out of bed,
picked it up and heard my father's voice crackle,
barely in control of his grief.
"Old woman went home," he said.
Home. I mouthed the word soundlessly. I promised him
I'd be there at daybreak to help with the arrangements.
I sat in the near-dark, moonlight streaming through
windows relieved of grime and dirt, casting hazy
shadows over the living room. I sat in that old
brown chair. Home. Around me, fresh paint reflected
the moonlight, and the oak floor twinkled in some
spots with satin luster. There was, I thought, so
much left to be done. Years of work ahead.
Home. When I was old enough, she would ride me on
the lawn mower with her, let me steer. When I was
a little older, she let me drive it by myself,
and eventually, I was charged with cutting the
lawn regularly. Then, for six years, I cut not
a single blade, seldom opened a door, rarely
lifted laughter into the ceiling. Not until
the day I pulled up in the driveway, a truck
full of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises
in tow, and slid the key into a reluctant lock
to gaze in at my own life, wrapped all up with
The pieces of us are rejoining. Oh, the foundation
still needs to be leveled, and the northern rooms
and upstairs still need to be renovated. There are
unpainted trim pieces around the windows, some of
which need new glass. But the locks accept my key
easily now, and the ceilings are saturated with
voices, the floors firm with trust. I still have
that old brown chair, and sit there, in the exact
same spot she did for 70 years. Sometimes I wake
for no reason, thinking I heard the phone ring.
Most times I go right back to sleep, but sometimes
I go and sit in the dark in that old brown chair,
and she moves through shadows, vanishing in
moonbeams, surveying my work, considering my
progress. "You did a good job, baby."
If I live to be 92 years old, I will have been
here for 60 years. What then? I've given orders
to those who matter that I won't wither away
surrounded by strangers and metal bed rails. I
don't know where I'll go after this life, but
I'll depart it from here. We're still rebuilding,
this old house and I, one fragment at a time. Will
we be finished by the time I go home? I don't know.
Sometimes I doubt it. Sometimes I think rebuilding
a life worth living is like rebuilding a house worth
living in. Maybe you never really finish.
Maybe you never really should. ~ Roger