Actually it was over the fence and through the door to grandmother’s house I’d go. Much to the chagrin of my mother, my grandmother (her mother-in-law) lived right next door to us when I was growing up. This was no accident. My grandparents had given my father the property our house was built on as a wedding gift. It was a way to keep their baby boy close by.
You see, my father was an only child. At least we thought he was an only child. It turned out he was actually adopted. But we didn’t know this until grandma died and my father was 59. But that is (and was) another blog.
My father lived with his parents until he was 35 years old. That’s when he married my mother. She was 25. I used to think it was odd that he waited until he was 35 to get married. That was until I got married at 47. Life is funny like that.
Anyway, rather than buy a new house for his bride, my father took the property his parents gave him (what used to be a fruit orchard and chicken farm) and built our family home. It was a modest two-bedroom rambler with a partial basement. My mother still lives there, though she has added on to it over the years.
Living next door to your grandmother has its perks as a kid. But for my mother, living next door to her mother-in-law was more like purgatory. Grandma had a nasty habit of just showing up and walking in. This was until my mother started locking the doors and having us hide behind the couch until my grandma went away.
I never really knew my grandfather. He died when I was four. I just remember this quiet old man with a hat sitting out in his backyard under a tree, watching me fish out of an old wash bucket grandma had. We’d fill it with water and I’d throw in some old washers. Then I’d try to fish them out with a paperclip hook, string and a stick. Amazing how easily entertained I was as a kid.
I don’t remember my grandfather ever talking. My mother said it was because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise being married to may grandmother. Because grandma was a talker. But that was okay. I was always a good listener.
As long as I can remember, grandma’s house was an extension of my own. There was a wire fence between our yards. Dad put a wooden box by it so all I had to do was vault over it to visit. And visiting grandma was like going back in time. The house had been built about 1908 or so. Everything in it was stuff my grandparents had brought with them when they’d moved to
All of her furniture was this old
So grandma’s house was a playground for me. But, as with all old houses, it had its frightening aspects as well. I was fine if I was in the bright dining room, kitchen or living room, but the rest of the house freaked me out. My dad’s old room was a dark, gloomy space with brown wallpaper. The bed was covered with the old souvenir pillows he’d sent home when he was in the Navy in World War II and it reeked of mothballs.
But it was the closet in dad’s old room that terrified, yet at the same time, fascinated me. It was a walk-in closet and huge by today’s standards. Sometimes, just to scare myself, I’d fling open the door and frantically reach for the string that would turn on a single light bulb in the closet, hoping I could get the light on before the monsters in the closet could drag me in.
The monsters were winter clothes and coats in garment bags, hanging like bodies on each side of the closet. With the light on, I could dash between them to the back of the closet where a mysterious steamer trunk waited. I’d run in, touch it and run out. I used to fantasize that it contained dead bodies or at the very least, a treasure. After my grandma died, we discovered it contained neither. Just old photos and papers (which are a treasure in a way). The trunk itself became my treasure and has followed me around since I left
But as scary as the closet was, it was my grandma’s basement that fed my nightmares. The stairs to it were just off her sun porch. They were steep and very narrow. It reminded me of steps that may have been chiseled into an Egyptian tomb and I could picture Howard Carter (the archaeologist that discovered King Tut’s tomb) descending into the basement with a lantern held high to cut back the murky shadows.
The basement itself was a dark, gloomy space with essentially three rooms and dirty concrete floors. The entryway housed an old wringer washer with a sump hole next to it where water drained. My young mind would conjure slimy hands reaching out of the sump hole and pulling me in. And I was afraid of the washer’s wringer attachment because my grandma had warned me that it was hungry for young hands.
But it was the furnace that truly haunted the basement. It was the original coal burning behemoth from when the house was built and it looked like a prop right out of hell. Numerous asbestos wrapped heat ducts branched out from it’s body to pump its hot breath reeking of coal into the various rooms of the house. Unlike the more modern coal furnace in my own house that had a feeder that automatically stoked it, this monster needed to be fed by hand. I can still picture my grandma with a coal shovel opening up the maw of that beast and shoveling black nuggets of coal into its hungry fire. Even with the door closed, you could see the evil glow of the furnaces flickering eyes watching you and casting demonic shadows in the gloom.
The coal bin housed god knows what kind of monsters beneath the piles of fuel. I was convinced that the minute the light went out, they emerged and mucked about in the basement creating the mysterious sounds I’d sometimes hear coming up through the heat vents.
Needless to say, I rarely went down in the basement alone. But when I was in sixth grade, I used to invite some of my friends to sleep over on a Friday night. Ironically we took our sleeping bags over to grandma’s house and slept in the basement in a room with a door that separated us from the killer washing machine and furnace. I remember that, in between telling dirty jokes, talking about girls and telling ghost stories, we didn’t get much sleep. My grandma had provided us with a chamber pot that we placed outside the door in the main part of the basement opposite the furnace. But a shared, yet unspoken dread kept any of us from using it. In the morning we’d run past the furnace, up the stairs and over to my house to wait in line for the bathroom.
The evil sidekick to my grandma’s basement was the root cellar in her backyard. It was essentially a roof covering a pit carved out of the earth that had been used to store garden perishables at one time. By the time I was a kid, the root cellar was mainly used to store gasoline for my dad’s lawnmower. God, I hated having to go down into it to get the gas can when I was old enough to mow lawns. I’d whip open the door and bolt down, grab the can and then dash out.
It was the sound of things scurrying around down there that wigged me out the most. And for what seemed like years there were these corpses of June Bugs in the corners of the root cellar that really gave me the willies. A June Bug or Beetle is this big orange insect that reminds me of an Egyptian scarab. They are as big as a fist (or at least that’s how I remember them). They also have what looks like nasty looking pinchers coming out of their mouths. And they could fly. At night, they’d bang into the window screens of the bathroom when I was taking a bath and freak me out.
As the years passed, I spent less and less time at my grandma’s house. Some summer evenings, when we were outside playing flashlight tag or catching earthworms for a fishing expedition, I’d look up and I’d see my grandma’s silhouette as she sat in her rocking chair at her bedroom window, watching the darkness ascend. For some reason it would make me sad.
My grandmother died when I was 17. My mother, for some reason, had my brothers and I file by her body in her bedroom right after she died. It was the first dead body I’d ever seen. She was buried at her own request without a funeral. She was buried next to my grandfather with an extra space available for my father so once again she could always be next to her baby. My mother got the last laugh there. My father was cremated and we scattered his ashes near the
We did visit my grandma’s grave once as a family. I remember driving through the cemetery in my parent’s old Chevy. It was cloudy. We finally found it and stood at her grave briefly before the clouds broke and we darted for the car to avoid the downpour. But when my dad tried to start the car, it wouldn’t turn over. My mother said something about grandma not wanting us to leave and a shiver went through my body. Finally the rain stopped and the sun began to come out. My dad tried starting the car again and it fired up immediately. I’ve never been back to the grave.
The house lay empty for awhile. My parents ended up selling it to one of my mother’s co-workers for about $6,000. I was pissed. One, I thought that was ridiculous price to sell it for and two, I had looked at it as my legacy and should have stayed in the family. My mother argued that it was so old that it would cost too much to renovate. Plus, she didn’t want to deal with renters…”you never knew who you’d have living next to you,” she reasoned. By selling it to her friends, she’d always have good neighbors.
Her “friends” moved in, gutted the house and totally renovated it. They then sold it for $40,000. Renters have lived in it ever since. I’ve never set foot in it again.
I get back to
But sometimes, I stand there at dusk and look over at what used to be my grandma’s house and I swear I can see her silhouette at her bedroom window, rocking and staring at the coming darkness.