Where the heart is

It’s a beautiful season to be born, and a beautiful time to die. The sun is strong and warm. Leaves are starting to turn and fall. Shadows are growing longer. Crickets chorus in the golden twilight and break the solitude of a lonely dawn.

My grandmother was born and died in September. Sometimes on her birthday, we take flowers or some other token to the cemetery. My grandmother was fond of white roses, white doves, and the color green.

I live in her house. It is my house now, but it will always be hers, too. The thick carpets and wallpaper are gone and now the hallways are lined with backpacks and book totes. Tables are covered in permission slips and order forms.

Growing up, this house, in the suburbs, was the constant in my life. The others were variables. There was the log cabin where I was born and lived until my family moved to the old farmhouse.

When my parents divorced, my father had an apartment at the back of an alley on a city street. We’d pack our bags to visit while listening to our parents debate over the phone whose “turn” it was that weekend. I decided then that when I grew up, I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase. I wanted a place where a thin layer of dust would collect on my little bottles of perfume as they caught the afternoon light. My grandmother’s house was that place.

I moved in with her when I was 18, leaving half my belongings here and taking the essentials with me to a dorm room an hour away. I’d return on breaks from school and Grandmom and me would be kindred insomniacs. We’d hold communion at the kitchen table at 3 a.m. She was partial to Otis Spunkmeyer muffins with milk and berries, but she said eggs were really the best food to cure insomnia.

My grandmother didn’t like alcohol. She told me that in her younger years, when she went to a cocktail party, she would ask for rum punch and hold the same drink all night. Once, when I was nursing a bad case of insomnia with a glass of red wine, she started in on me about temperance. Exasperated, I poured the remainder of the bottle down the sink and told her she ought to know I was too much of a control freak to become an alcoholic like the boy I was in love with at the time. She liked him because his family went to the same church as her, but I was lucky, because he didn’t love me back.

When you lose your grandmother, you essentially lose your fairy godmother. You lose the person who clipped all the stories you wrote for the newspaper and kept them in a scrapbook.

For 50 years, my family ran a nursing home that my grandmother owned. I grew up there, talking to the Alzheimer’s patients and working in the office on the weekends. I wasn’t always the best employee because I was a teenager whose family owned the place, but some of the old folks who lived there liked talking to me and appreciated when I made them coffee or lit their cigarettes. This was back when smoking was socially acceptable.

My family sold the nursing home after my grandmother died in 2005. By then, I was three months away from having my first child, working full-time, and tragically unprepared for the changes that were coming.

Profits from the sale left each of Grandmom’s descendants with a small nest egg, but the money went quickly for those in my family. We had grown accustomed to always having something to fall back on in the form of a job or a dividend and now we would have to make our own way in the unforgiving world where you really do have to know somebody. In fact, you have to know a lot of people, and you’d better hope you treated them at least as well as they treated you.

These days, I tell my 8-year-old she can’t take my grandmother’s green satin clutch purse outside to play. It’s one of a few handbags my grandmother left that I hold dear, but rarely use. I still have some of her china in the cabinets and most of her wooden dining room set. I’ve been meaning to have the chairs reupholstered for about a decade.

One of my students recently told me that he doesn’t want to get stuck in Winchester. It’s a tragedy, he said, when people get stuck here.

When my grandmother died, I was living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, about 45 minutes away from her house. I’d return to Winchester to visit friends or family with my colicky baby in tow. I brought the Dustbuster with me because the sound comforted him when he was hysterical, and sometimes he became hysterical in the back of my car by himself on the long ride.

When I came back to Winchester, we’d check in on her house, the one I live in now, which had a For Sale sign out front. I’d nurse the baby in an empty room that had been cleared of the carpet and wallpaper and most all of the furniture. It seemed to me that Winchester had changed so much in the few short years since we’d moved away, and I was homesick.

My family did receive an offer to buy the house, but the offer was low, and they declined. I ended up moving back to Winchester, to my grandmother’s house, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

Teenagers, especially those who have never had to pack a suitcase every other weekend, think it would be tragic to “get stuck” in their hometown. One thing I’ve learned from reading their essays is that many of them are very angry with their fathers. Some of their mothers have done their best to make up for the fact that their fathers were gone, but of those who are disappointed with their parents, many love their grandparents because their grandparents were there for them when no one else was.

Grandparents tend to behave better than parents. They don’t yell as much and they’re less likely to desert their families or use some addictive poison to cope with the drudgery of adulthood.

My own daughter holds her grandmother in the highest regard. Grandmothers are all adulation. Someday I want to be a good grandmother, someone who doesn’t whine about the laundry the way I do now. Someone who hardly thinks about laundry.

I am sure that there are places other than Winchester where September is lovely, even if there are no walnut trees dropping green fragrant ornaments into piles on the ground, and I admit that I have visited too few of these other places.

But I can go with my mother to visit my grandparents on their birthdays, or their death days. I can put white roses in a vase in my grandmother’s kitchen and light a candle and be grateful to remember. I’ve seen enough to know it’s better than the alternative.


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