I wrote this piece about five years ago, but a recent trip to my grandmother’s old house reminded me of how much I yearn for family and community.
The house on Spring Lane was more than just a two-story brick-and-mortar structure, but a living organism that pulsed with music and movement. My grandparents’ home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, stood sentinel in a neighborhood of first generation Italian and Polish families. Their house was a way station for errant relatives who blew in and out of the living room like autumn leaves.
Whenever my mother, brother and I visited Spring Lane, it was like returning to a well-worn chair that still holds the imprint and warmth of the body. My grandfather, or Pop-Pop as he was called, could be found in the kitchen sipping iced tea from a jelly jar. As my woolly head emerged through the doorway, he would admonish his wife to lock up the refrigerator because “Here come Eater!” No matter how much Pop-Pop teased me for my voracious appetite or “glommin’” as he called it, he never ceased to unfurl his arthritic fingers to feed me from his own plate.
A bricklayer with an eighth grade education, Pop-Pop bastardized the English language to fit his native tongue. He substituted “porpoise” for “pauper,” “suspecting” for “expecting,” and for years I walked around thinking the metal structure in the kitchen which pumped water was called a “zink.” No matter how much we laughed at his mutilation of verbs and nouns, my grandfather’s confidence in his speech made us believe he could hold his own among the most learned college professors.
Mom-Mom, that bespectacled, bronze-colored woman who rarely smiled, was forever floating around the house in a print dress, a quiet tower of strength. She smelled of rose water and old photographs. Her fingers were tough and work worn, yet nimble when braiding the jungle of my hair or cleaning other people’s houses. I accompanied my grandmother several times to the homes of the DeAngelos and the McCrackens, the white folks for whom she did day work. That taciturn woman could have been heading to a corner office in a bustling Fortune 500 company for all the dignity and skill that she applied to mundane tasks like mopping white people’s floors and dusting their grand pianos. Her own home was kept just as spotless. Whenever we spent the night at Mom-Mom’s, the next morning would find us scrubbing woodwork, polishing windows and hanging wash on a wire with wooden clothespins.
Mom-Mom’s mother, who was blind, lived with them. I was secretly afraid of my great-grandmother because her eyes looked like mold. Gramm Sallie rarely left her small, sparsely furnished bedroom, which overlooked the playground of a Catholic school. She kept snuff and a pugnacious wit packed tightly in her jaw. The adults tried to dissuade the children from spending too much with her because she told raunchy jokes. That never stopped me from running to her room, sitting at her feet and listening to her “speeches.” That crotchety old woman, who in her youth had been known to protect her property with a nine-shooter Winchester pistol named “Ole Bessie,” could always be enticed by her great-granddaughter to “say a speech.”
Had a little dog
His name was Buff
Sent ‘em to the store to buy me some snuff
Buff fell down and broke my snuff
Thought this speech was long enough …
My morning glories full of bloom
My window sash is gold
I step, step to the window
“Hello, Mr. Jones.”
Lips blackened with the snuff she loved to dip, Gramm Sallie was the family griot. She was born in Milledgeville, Georgia a scant thirty-five years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As an eight-year-old girl who was more fascinated by the sight of a blind old lady spitting snuff in a tin can and sing-talking, it would be years before I discovered and treasured the wealth of history and oral tradition that my great-grandmother imparted to me.
The house my grandfather built with his bare hands was a refuge where a solitary little girl could seek asylum from the incessant taunts of an older brother and roughhousing playmates who mocked her proper way of speaking and her passion for books. It was a nerd’s paradise. My love for nature and exploration was fostered in Mom-Mom’s garden among her snap peas, green tomatoes and pink peonies peopled with colonies of black ants. Insects were always more interesting to me than humans. I would try to mate preying mantises in an empty Folgers coffee can, holes punched through the lid with an ice pick, or create my own phosphorescent lamp by capturing a community of lightning bugs in a jelly jar. I was always disappointed in the morning to find that the “husband” preying mantis had bit off his “wife’s” head, or that the cluster of lightning bugs was dying slowly in their glass prison. I always failed at my insect experiments, yet I still found solace in Mom-Mom’s backyard. The peace I unearthed by digging into an anthill with a twig, or examining the ornate wings of a Monarch butterfly rivaled any human companionship I had ever known.
My grandfather’s house was a testimony to his frugality. An enclosed back porch, which had lopsided steps leading to the cellar, was home to his rubber work boots and rows upon rows of Mom-Mom’s preserves. The house also boasted an attic and a coal bin, which fed the enormous furnace in the cellar. Whenever the grandkids got together to play tag, it was inevitable that someone would run behind the furnace to hide, and just as inevitable that he or she would get burned. My mother’s older sister Dolores, who was obese and mentally challenged, would join us in our games. She laughed with abandon when we threw a sheet over her head and made her chase us around the darkened basement, a monstrous ten-year-old who had forgotten to grow up. We heaped our insults and our shortcomings on Dolly, whose brain was damaged at birth by a physician’s forceps. She was the adult we could chide, belittle, and even hit if we felt like it. The cruelty of children was never more apparent than in the way we preyed on our aunt, stoning her with our words. No matter how puzzled she was by our ephemeral emotions, Dolly was quick to hug her nieces and nephews or grace us with her sweet, deeply dimpled smile. Although eternally infantile, my aunt showed me more about the loving side of human nature than the grown folks who shouted down at us from the living room above.
A white glider stood on my grandparents’ front porch, supported by a metal track embedded in the cement surface. I would curl up in this mobile sanctuary and watch the world go by. Balls from the Catholic school across the street were forever landing in our yard, and the few cars that meandered down Spring Lane’s gravelly serpentine course would spit tiny stones at my grandmother’s parked green Chevy as they passed. As I swayed to and fro on the glider, I could gaze in the open living room window and listen to the gossip of adults or smell the pungent perfume of turnip greens wafting from the kitchen. I could cradle myself in this creaky metal bassinet and rock sorrow down to a manageable size. My grandparents’ house was the surrogate mother I needed to help weather childhood’s storms.
Nowadays, people can walk away from houses without looking back, tucking away their memories and moving on to bigger and better lives. Even though the door has latched for the last time on the house on Spring Lane, the memories of my grandmother’s home are forever etched on my consciousness, a blueprint for my soul’s happiness.