On Saturday, they tore down the house where I grew up. It was never “my house,” but rather always “grandma’s house,” until she died in 1983. I really only lived there full time for six years, and even during those years I stayed with my mom most weekends. Still, those years are the only years I remember as “childhood.” Even though I was only 12 years old when grandma died, nothing after that felt like childhood. And that was the house I always returned to. An anchor in my drift toward adulthood and away from Idaho, and the place I find myself in dreams.
The house was small. It’s hard to believe a family of five lived there when my mom was growing up. It’s also frankly amazing how much stuff grandma managed to cram in that house. Frosted glass, wicker furniture, Avon perfumes, glass sea floats, millions of old tins, mid-century “oriental” knick knacks… Most of her stuff was cleared out years ago, when grandpa updated the house with some amazing modern technology like an electric stove.
The wood cookstove was a benevolent iron monster in the narrow kitchen. Even on 100 degree summer days, grandma had to fire it up to cook dinner. The house smelled like dry wood, presto-logs, and smoke. A second wood stove sat in the middle of the front room, protected by a glazed metal shell that I would perch on top of on cold days, until it was too hot to stand.
The house was dark inside. It never quite seemed to get enough sunlight, and the front room had dark wood paneling that absorbed the weak electric light. The room centered around the giant old console television commanding all eyes to the corner of the room. Next to the TV, the telephone table held the clunky black rotary phone well into the 80’s.
My bedroom was a tiny room off of the breakfast nook, with a steeply sloped ceiling and an unusually short doorway. I could hear the murmur of the TV on the other side of the wall as I fell asleep. I slept with the door open, and light from the kitchen streamed in until grandma went to bed around one or two a.m. She was up again at six to boil eggs for breakfast. When she got sick, she felt a bit guilty that she didn’t have the energy to even boil eggs for my breakfast. I started staying with my mom more often during the week so I wouldn’t be a burden. Not that this improved my breakfast scenario. My mom kept yogurt, graham crackers, and Hungry Man dinners around so I would have something to eat. She subsisted on tofu, alfalfa sprouts, and kefir.
Grandma kept a small garden just under the kitchen window, where she grew parsley and tulips. I’m sure there was more than that, but I remember it as a fairly unambitious project. I would snack on the parsley, wild rose petals, chamomile flowers, nasturtiums, and the wild catnip that grew all around the house. I was a forager.
The screened-in back porch had a trap door to the cellar. There’s something altogether creepy about trap doors, and I didn’t like to go down there. The unfinished half of the basement was crammed with boxes of great-grandparent’s musty stuff, and one wall lined with shelves of canned food from the 1950s, in case of an atomic bomb. There was one finished room down there, where my mom and her sister lived as teens. Another staircase inside the house led to that room, but by the time I was around the way down had been blocked by still more boxes of old things. Going down to the basement was a rare and treacherous adventure.
The house was the color of pea soup, with a green tin roof that snow avalanched from in the winter. Snow days were the best, because grandpa would plow the driveway area with his backhoe and make a small mountain for my cousin and I to sled down and tunnel through. The house was also positioned at the bottom of the best sledding hill in town.
On Christmas eve, family and friends crowded the overly hot front room. The smell of smoke and Christmas tree were comforting. After grandma died we did one or two more Christmases at that house, but it never felt the same. Grandma made a big deal of Christmas, so it was always kind of her deal. We ate out on Christmas day (usually somewhere “upscale” like the Holiday Inn), because grandma only signed up for one feast preparation per year, and that was Thanksgiving.
On Thanksgiving we hauled the big table into the front room, because it didn’t fit anywhere else with all the leaves in. There were mis-matched depression era glass goblets, and the old China plates that came out once per year. Grandma made the best stuffing and her signature butterscotch pie. She loved food, but didn’t particularly enjoy cooking.
My grandparents had an unusually tall bed with a worn, knobby, blue bedspread. My collection of stuffed animals and raggedy Ann dolls lived at the foot of that bed, and sometimes I clambered up there to sleep if I had a bad dream. Grandma and I played many hours of “pretend,” Clue, and card games on that bed. It was the most social bedroom I’ve ever known, where the women and children often hung out after supper to avoid the evening news. If I was sick, I would stay in that bed all day, with grandma coming in to rub Vick’s Vap-o-Rub on by chest every few hours. During the remodel, they found a mountain of used tissues under the bed. Above the bed there hung grandma’s collection of sailing ship prints, and on the headboard there was always a tin cup of metallic-tasting water we all shared.
Next to the foot of the bed was grandma’s art table, where she worked on her meticulous old-timey watercolors. She never had aspirations for her art beyond giving them away to family and friends on various holidays. When she was young, she dreamed of being a fashion illustrator in San Francisco (perhaps married to her first love, Zip, who ended up in the bay area after the war), but three unplanned pregnancies rooted her in North Idaho for good.
The large, gravel “parking lot” in front of the house was the home for grandpa’s machinery. He ran an excavating business for over forty years, so my childhood playground was heavy equipment: a backhoe, tractor, dump truck, and crane. He kept the antique cars he collected in the two garages, and parked his light blue Ford F150 next to the back porch. Machinery has a distinct metal and diesel smell that I strongly associate with childhood.
It wasn’t worth trying to save the house. The foundation wasn’t sound, and it was full of asbestos. It was the family home for over sixty years, but it was time to say goodbye. My cousin will build vacation rentals where the house stood and eventually live on the property next door, so I will still get to go back… just not to that rickety old shack where my childhood happened.