So, I almost started bawling in a stranger’s kitchen.
This weekend, my family was given a tour of the house my grandparents built. They lived there from 1961 until they moved to assisted living in 2001. And lemme tell ya – those 40 years were packed with kids and grandkids and cousins and meals and card games and the stuff of life.
My brother and I grew up about seven minutes away. So, we spent a lot of time with our grandparents. At a certain age, I came to feel like I was being dumped at their house. But my grandparents were kind, loving people, and they just rolled with it. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re looking down the barrel of 80 but still offering to watch your grandkids. You make them oatmeal in the morning and tomato soup at lunch and something with green beans and rolls at night and you just roll with it.
Their home was always well-tended, even as such tasks became more difficult. After we sold the house, it fell into disrepair. My mom warned us never to drive by. I would gaze upon it from down the hill, two blocks away. From that vantage point, it seemed OK. I could roll with that.
Now, a couple my parents have known for a while (OK, like 40 years) has purchased the house. They fixed the moldy soffits and dug all the trees out of the gutters. On the spur of the moment, they invited us in.
We stood in the garage that my grandpa had paneled. The screen door to the kitchen was the same. My grandpa had undoubtedly built the cabinets next to the door, too. And as we stepped over the threshold, I felt a tidal wave in my heart. I’d stepped through that door thousands of times – most notably to rush to the kitchen sink to puke after a particularly bumpy school bus ride. This time, I didn’t worry about which side of the sink had the garbage disposal (I’d gotten it wrong last time – sorry, Grandma.). This time, I wondered if I would cry.
The floor was new and lovely. The cabinets had been painted a cheery cream. The dinette was tiny – how did we fit five people around a table in such tight quarters? The brick fireplace had been painted and a rustic mantle hung where the plastic fruit used to drape out of a metal basket thing that can only be described as, “You know, like from the 60s?”
The new homeowners had done everything that every HGTV show tells you to do to make a home your own, to freshen a house that may be a bit dated.
I wanted to tell them that their furniture wasn’t quite in the right spots – the TV goes *there* and you need to make room for a piano against *this* wall. But if it had been the same sea-foam green carpet that I remembered, that would have just been sad.
These folks were obviously very excited about their new home and the changes that they’d made. It looked lovely, even if it was a bit jarring to find that it had changed at all. The pink bathroom was gone – the tile had crumbled when the plumber tried to repair the shower. And what was always my room – what had been my dad’s room during his high school days – had become an office with an expanded closet to hold the laundry.
But that’s where I sorted my grandma’s clothes after she died. I sat on the bed and smelled her dresses.
But that was also the same bed where Grandma lay with her arm over her eyes, too exhausted from the stress of moving. I had been tasked with keeping her company while the movers loaded up furniture for what she was sure was a temporary move to an assisted-living facility 90 minutes away. At the time, not many small-town Iowans of a certain age got to stay close-to-home.
I tried to keep her mind off the fact that her home was being emptied. She told me about how on their last night of a European vacation, she and Grandpa had been too tired to do anything. So, they went to the movies and saw “My Fair Lady.” And she listened to me talk about a dress I’d just bought, and how I thought my boyfriend was emotionally scarred from his parents’ divorce and it was keeping him from proposing.
She kept her arm over her eyes, but she listened to every word. “Well, he just needs to get over it,” she responded.
Get over it.
When the new homeowner was showing off her new washer and dryer and how it fit into the new, larger closet, I gave a cursory glance. Then, I walked back down the hall to wait for my family in the entryway. The new homeowners had a little table where the grandfather clock was supposed to be, but I rolled with it.
When we left, I touched the woman’s arm. “We had such good, good times in this house,” I said. “I’m excited for you and your family to do the same.”
Ohhhhh, I would certainly cry if I ever had the chance to visit either my grandparents' or my childhood home again. I mean, do you know the song, "The House That Built Me"? I'm guessing you don't love country music, but no matter. That one makes me cry every time.
Heck, I ABSOLUTELY cried! My grandparents lived across town and we spent SO much time there. Grandpa died when I was four, but my Grammy was so wonderful; and I don't remember she ever got her feathers ruffled. And what a peculiar little house–it had been hauled from a nearby town where it had originally housed workers who built Shasta Dam in far northern California; there are still "dam houses" here and there around town. Oh, Grammy Grace, how I miss you! Becky, thank you so much for writing this post!
What a great experience! I bet it was bittersweet, but I'm glad that you got to see it.
As a new homeowner who bought an older house, it's interesting to hear your take on things. We bought our house from a lady who bought it from an estate. She lived in it for five years and didn't do anything to the interior (obvious, given the floral print wallpaper). Maybe someday the children or grandchildren of the previous owners will stop by and we will get to show them what we've done.
The current owners of my grandparents home ripped down my granddad's garage and put a huge addition on. It mostly blends in, except for the concrete block on the foundation. And that kills me. I haven't gone inside, but I have stood on the property line at the back yard, from the side of the Catholic church – the one my parents were married in (among other family milestones) – at the back door of the parochial school we attended (my parents met there in first grade) and then proceeded to sit in the graveyard where my aunt and cousin are buried to realize I can't quite go home again, but I can at least have a picnic in the back yard. For that, I'm grateful.
That was a lovely thing to say to them. That house will go on to shelter love, how good to have people care for it. This was a great trip down memory lane in a way for me, too, since my grandma died last year and we gathered for final times in the house and now a new couple live there and are updating it in a myriad of necessary ways. Bittersweet.
It's the little things, like the position of a TV set, that flood our senses.
I have wondered the same thing about the house my dad grew up in. I spent almost every day of my life until I started kindergarten in that house. My grandpa passed away and grandma moved into an apartment in the fall of 2000. She planned to have sale and already had a buyer ready for the spring…my freshman year at Mizzou. I spent winter break in that big, old house by myself instead of at home because I needed that. The house is at the end of a dead-end street, so I have to want to drive by it when I'm home. So much about it has changed on the outside. I want so badly to go inside, but I think I would have the same mental reaction you did. Maybe when my kids get a little older and can appreciate it, I'll knock on the door and ask the new owners for a tour. I'll remember your story when I do. My mom's childhood home and farm were torn down last winter. My uncle, the terminal bachelor, lived there until he and mom sold it. My grandpa died when I was four – my only memories of him were on that farm. I asked to see it one more time before they pushed it over, but never got back there to do it. It needed to be torn down and I can accept that, but I'll never have closure. I just have to close my eyes and remember back to when things were easier and someone else was responsible for stuff like paying the bills and fixing my hair 🙂 Not gonna lie, I usually end up crying. Glad I'm not alone in being a sappy nostalgic!!
Oh, friends. THANK YOU for your kind comments and for showing me that I'm not the only nostalgic sap. Or, if we're being kinder to ourselves … "present human who remembers stuff."
Mary, I had to look up "The House That Built Me." Oh, maaaaan. Ugly tears, here. Woo.
Jenny, I love the idea of "dam houses!" My Guy has an uncle who is a "dam kid" – his family moved in to build a dam. Funny how those things that seemed so normal and off-the-cuff can become precious with time.
Bent, I, too, live in an older home. I'm lucky that one of my neighbors has lived on the street for 40 years and remembers everything, but I have a fantasy that some little old lady will show up on my porch and tell me she grew up here. I will absolutely let her in and ply her with baked goods and beg for stories.
Becky … it's all so bittersweet, isn't it? It's like the past is so close and yet so, so far away.
Green Girl, I'm sorry about your grandma. You're so right about the changes being necessary but … oh.
Kristen, I hear you. I think this heartache is the dark underside of having the privilege of growing up in a place where you have such deep roots. It makes change all that much harder.
I love you all!
Late to the party here. I've been lucky enough to tour my childhood home (ages 5-16) and not much had changed (ugly carpeting gone) because the owner was just beginning to make upgrades. But I've only been able to drive past my mom's old house once since we sold it a few years ago. I wonder what changes have been made there and I hope it is a place of happiness.
Your words to the new owners are a treasure!
I had this bookmarked for a while and finally got to read it today. It is so sweet and reminds me of when we broke up our parents home after they died. Such a bittersweet time. I love how you captured it. You touched my heart.