Friday, May 20, 2005

Over the river and through the woods…

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 Boise from Portland around 1920. She never owned a television. She had this old radio from the 1940s that she’d sit and listen to. She also had an old Victrola record player that I loved to crank and play old 78 rpm records…Barney Google with the Goo Goo Googly Eyes and Eddy Cantor.

All of her furniture was this old Mission style oak stuff. I still have some of it in my home. I think that’s where I grew to love antiques. I’d stand on a chair and wind this old pendulum clock. Or we’d take the tablecloth off her old pedestal oak table and play dominoes. Sometimes we’d bake cookies. Or she’d simply let me mix mysterious spices from old spice cans together in a science experiment I would create.

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 Boise. Now it houses my old photos and papers.

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 Boise River where he liked to go fishing.

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 Boise once or twice a year. It’s odd now to stand in my mother’s yard and look over at what used to be my grandma’s house. They’ve long since cut down the tree in the back yard where I fished for washers. The root cellar is covered up and the garage she had has been replaced by a modern structure. I’m also pretty sure the monsters in the basement have been silenced by carpet, fresh wallboard and paint. I’m not sure how they got the furnace out, but I fantasize it was carted away like Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs and is locked up somewhere where it sits waiting to be stoked.

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.


Naughti Biscotti said...

Damn!!! I really enjoyed this. It kind of reminded me of "Stand By Me" or "To Kill a Mockingbird"; when children are afraid of their own shadows. I look back at those white-knuckle episodes with nostalgia. The things we fear now...actually do hurt us. It was much better to think that people were good and the washing machine was a monster...then to find out that it is usually the opposite.

It pissed me off that your parents sold the house for a mere $6,000. I guess one's man know. It was obviously more important to you.

I have gone back to my grandfathers property many times. His trailer and old 50's era cars were hauled away decades ago. But one thing still stands...our treehouse. The very one my brothers, sister and I built. I love to run my hands over the trunk of the tree and remember when my tiny child hands gripped the wooden stairs to climb up into our secret world.

My children will most likely never know that lifestyle. But I suppose they will have cherished memories of their own.

Thanks for posting this. I truly enjoyed every word. You are a fantastic writer.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story. Thank you.
It reminded me of where I grew up in Southern Maryland. We lived in a house on the edge of the woods. They started not 50' from our backdoor. There was a dirt road that ran though the woods for about 1/2 a mile to the water tower that served our neighborhood. We used to shoot BB's at it and it would make the coolest pinging sound if you hit it in the right spots. About 100 yards from the tower was an old civil war era graveyard that scared the crap out of us. It had about 20 headstones and most of them were in sad shape from vandals. One holloween some friends and I worked up our courage and decided we would go to the graveyard and wait until midnight. We went in about 10 pm and made it all of 15 minutes before something moving in the woods sent us screaming. None of us ever went back there at night. I went back to attend my uncles funeral last year and visited my old neighborhood. The woods were all gone and replaced with houses. But the graveyard and water tower were still there. It looked very small and not very scary, but I was surprisingly happy that they had left it. I'll bet it is still scaring the hell out of the neighborhood kids. Good for them.

Time said...


I'm glad you liked the entry. I wouldn't have thought to write it if you hadn't suggested it from my dream entry. So thank you! I appreciate the encouragement and wish you were a publisher :)

Lights in the wake,

Thank you as well. And I enjoyed your story, too. You should be writing a blog.

We used to shoot our bb guns in the backyard, but unfortunately we didn't have a water tower for a target. We shot at the transformer on the power pole. Kind of stupid in retrospect, but if you had a bb-gun, you needed a target. I still have mine. I reclaimed it on a recent trip to Boise before mom purged it.

Maybe I'll look for a water tower...

Anonymous said...

If I win the lotto I never play I'll buy both properties. Since I have no interest in living in that city someone else can deal with it - but at least the property would be back in the family.


Time said...


You're heart is in the right place even if you never win the lotto.

Your cousin Meredith did ask mom if she would go ahead gift her house to her. But I think she just wants to sell it so she can buy a horse.