Sunday, May 18, 2014

To grandmother's house we go

I think most of us vividly remember the homes of our childhood -- where we grew up, our grandparents' homes. I know I do. Especially my grandparents' house on West 29th in Vancouver, Wash.

They sold the house when I was about 10 but until then I had full run of the place, especially on Sundays when we came for dinner and the grown-up folks were enjoying a high ball in the living room.

The house seemed to have endless nooks and crannies to explore: The fruit room in the basement, jars of home-canned Queen Anne cherries, so good warm with a splash of cream, arranged with Scandinavian precision along deep shelves. . . Papa's "man cave" with its worn, cavernous black (or was it brown?) leather arm chair flanked by a brass stand-up ash tray, the interlocked antlers of two leaping antelopes creating a handle  convenient for transport. Of course.

My mom's childhood bedroom and her brother Bill's were on the second floor. Uncle Bill's room was All Boy -- I seem to recall a fair amount of knotty pine paneling (the house was built in 1924 with various combinations of the Bailey family living there from the early 1930's to early 60's) and a small, mysterious door. Of course. I opened it each time I visited, always nervous with anticipation. And, of course, each time, a pitch-black crawl space dared me to enter and explore its shadowy, dusty contents. I can't say I ever did. But developed a healthy addiction to Stephen King novels later in life.

I loved my mom's bedroom. The comforter on her bed was a dusty rose sateen, pale with age but cool to the touch no matter what time of the year. The faded wallpaper was dotted with big cabbage roses, and her chest of drawers still filled teen-age treasures: Costume jewelry; party gloves; scented, embroidered handkerchiefs.

Those memories, and many more, crammed themsleves into the front seat of the Mom Unit's car as we sat across the street from the house on West 29th on Mother's Day morning.

"It seems smaller than it did when I was growing up," the Mom Unit observed. I had to agree. And snapped a picture with my cell phone.

We circled the block and parked across from where Papa Bailey's garden used to be. That was another great place for an 8-year-old's cocktail hour Sunday expeditions. Stern, stiff stalks of corn and voluptuous tomato plants mingled with ditzy dahlias and petunias. But everyone got along.

Papa Bailey's orderly vegetable garden was long gone, but The Current Owners obviously had a love for perennial gardening. Under the protective arms of a ginormous shrub rose, plants poked out of the backyard fence, here and there, like curious school kids.  I liked The Current Owners already.

I snapped another picture. And, on cue, one of The Current Owners popped out of the backyard, wisely armed with a rake. After all, you never know what a 61-year-old woman, her 89-year-old mother and one high-speed walker might be up to.

"Hi. What's your name?" he asked.

I introduced myself and the Mom Unit, adding that she grew up in his house. We told him it looked great.

Gary, aka The Current Owner Part One,  was cautiously pleased.

"Ummm. Would you like to come in?" he asked.

"Oh no. Oh no. We wouldn't want to bother you," The Mom Unit, ever the lady, demurred.

"Hell yeah," I said. Well, truthfully, that was the bubble over my head. I think I actually said, "Well, gosh. That would be great" and scrambled out of the car.

Gary disappeared inside to let The Current Owner Part Two she was about to have company and rejoined us in the backyard carrying a note book. Using city directories at the Vancouver Public Library, Gary had carefully recorded the names, professions and telephone numbers of everyone who had lived in the house on West 29th. There were the Baileys in all their glory!

The shrub rose that grew next to (and now over) the back door was truly magnificent.

Annnnnnd we were in.

Aside from new cabinetry and stainless steel appliances, the footprint of the kitchen hadn't changed a lick. Beautiful hardwood floors had long ago replaced  the comforting brick linoleum and, instead of a table for two, a buffet now stood under the little cupboard with the glass windows where Nana Bailey neatly stacked her Franciscan everyday dishes. But it basically the same. . . the same kitchen where I sat with Nana and Papa eating a bowl apple sauce, and a dab of cream, still warm off the stove. (Yes. Cream does have a recurring theme here. It's a Danish thing.)

Gary and Kaitlyn were thrilled to learn that it was my grandparents who remodeled and added on to the kitchen. It was a long-time mystery they about their house of 20 years they had always hoped to solved.
The Mom Unit busting a move to the living room.
On to the dining room. The Mom Unit and I both gasped a little. Beyond a new dining room table and curtains, we could be sitting down to Christmas dinner, Papa Bailey at the head of table, Nana scurrying back and forth with plates heaped with fragrant turkey and oyster dressing. The same two built-in china cabinets with leaded glass windows still stood at attention, timeless sentinels wondering whatever happened to the Baileys' Spode china.

(I whispered back, it has lived a long and productive life, first on The Mom Unit's holiday tables, now on mine.)

And the living room. My heart ached a little. The built-in bookshelves were still there where I could still mentally place each of Nana's treasured Royal Doulton and Royal Copenhagen figurines. The fireplace, still magnificent with its tile surround, had been preserved. I loved to run my hands across the rippled tile, counting and re-counting each coppery square. And why, why, WHY did it seem to take hours to light the Christmas Day fire, an almost unendurable delay to an 8-year-old itching to explore beneath a Christmas tree laden with foil icicles and popcorn garlands?

As for the rest of the tour, The Mom Unit confirmed that, yes, there was once a laundry shute in the downstairs bathroom but had been covered over at some point in the house's history. It's where they found the family dog, safe and sound, after a small house fire, she recalled. And, of course, she pointed to the exact spot on stairs where Uncle Bill, such a quiet, gentle man as I knew him, threw a typewriter at her during a rambunctious sibling squabble. (No one was harmed, but the typewriter ever was quite the same.)

And, although we didn't make upstairs, Gary and Kaitlyn were tickled to learn that decorating the second floor's small bathroom had been The Mom Unit's culminating high school home ec project.

We finally took our leave, thanking The Current Owners profusely for sharing the home on West 29th with us.

"It was a wonderful house," The Mom Unit said thoughtfully, once in the car. "But I didn't realize it was so small."

Small? Maybe. Or maybe not. What makes a house seem so large and comforting to a child?

Family? Traditions? Generations growing up and old together? Secret nooks and crannies? Or maybe it's cabbage roses and oyster stuffing? I know what I think.
L to R: Me (the bangs and jumper explain a lot about my adulthood), Nana B,
my cousin Charlotte and my Nana C.
How about you?

No comments:

Post a Comment