Friday, May 28, 2010
This Old House
I have been feeling contemplative the past couple of days. Today, I did a little bit of gardening around this old house here, and as I stood back to admire my work, once again I was filled with thought; of this life, of my family, my mother, my grandmother, this house.
I love this house. This was my grandmother's house. She lived here, with her family, since the 1950's until her death, last summer, at the age of 85. She would have been 86 had she made it to July. The house itself was built around 1928, and has internal architecture that fall within the period it was made. The story is that my grandparents bought it from two, old spinster sisters. There's something intriguing about this--two old sisters, never married, living in a house which had to have been rather ornate for a poor, trying time. It sounds like a book somehow. Maybe if I ever get to any decent kind of writing, it will turn into something one day.
My grandmother was taken from Poland by the Germans when she was not yet 20. They came to her house one day and that was that, she had to go. She was one of many people sent to do forced-labour on the farms in Germany. Luckily the German family she lived with were very good to her. I'm glossing over a lot of details, but eventually she came to Canada with two young children, and gave birth to my mother, far up north, in 1950. And then this was her house.
She made all of the food we loved so much at special occasions here: her special recipe pierogi (my mother tried last year at Christmas to duplicate the special pork/sour kraut filling with my aunt, and they almost got it right. This year my mother won't get the chance to work on the aspects she wanted to adjust), meat on a stick (mięsa na patyku, according to an online translator, but we knew it phonetically as "myenso nyeh pateechki"), her delicious yeast breads, and so many other things. My grandmother did all of this, on her kitchen table, in a kitchen with literally about 12 inches of counter space on either side of the sink, and that's it.
When I was young, if my parents were away, I would come to Grandma's for lunch. I can still remember sitting at the table and watching her make a real treat: Chef Boyardee pizza. Loved that. She also used to make great horror cakes: huge, heavy, and extremely rich. And she would be OFFENDED if you couldn't finish your whole slice. Let me tell you: a giant slice of "black forest" or mocha cake, with a tall, brimming glass of homogenised milk was a pretty tough job for a little kid. To this day I still hate mocha. She would cook for days making Christmas dinner, and be too revolted by food to eat anything herself on Christmas Day. Instead, she would circle around the table, looking angry, saying to me or anyone else; "you don't eat much!" You could never eat enough for Grandma. One time I was spending a couple of days there, while my parents were away. My girlfriend from up the street came to hang out with me. Grandma set a huge plate full of chocolate chip cookies down in front of us, and said in a very stern voice; "okay girls, FINISH."
Grandma would sit at the kitchen table, looking through to the dining room, where soap operas were always on tv in the afternoon. She'd either sit there biting her nails absently, or peeling apples or potatoes with speed that I've never seen duplicated. She'd never even have to look down at her hands as she did it.
On Christmas eve, we always went to my Dad's parents' first, and then to Grandma and Grandpa's. I'm ashamed to say we could not WAIT to get away from the first visit, so we could get to the second. At my Grandma's, it was lively--all of my Mom's family were there--and there were presents from my Grandmother and my Aunt. Presents! Hooray! In the meantime, my Mom, her two sisters, my Uncles and my grandparents would smoke like fiends in the little kitchen. The room would literally be blue, and they'd have to open up the kitchen window to let some of the smoke billow out.
The world's most idiotic poodle lived at Grandma's when I was a kid. "Fluffy" was white, stocky, and completely miserable. The only person Fluffy didn't hate was my youngest aunt. That stupid dog would often be chained up on his leash at the back entranceway, and when we'd come in would go absolutely berserk; teeth bared, ferocious barking, leaping at me--the whole bit. Grandma would say; "come in honey, it's okay, he won't bite you," and then she'd say to the dog; "SHUT UP YOU STUPID! Such a stupid dog!" No, this is not a story of dog abuse. That dog was nutso from the time it was young. I would sit up on the couch in the dining/tv room, and I wouldn't necessarily see Fluffy, but I'd hear his chain shnicking across the floor. Why was his leash on? BECAUSE NOBODY COULD GET IT OFF! If one of my Uncles made the "V for Victory" sign at the dog, the thing would lose his mind with rage. Horrid creature.
My grandmother would sit here in the house and crochet blanket after blanket--beautiful blankets--until one day her vision wasn't good enough to see fine detail.
When Grandma died last summer, the house sat vacant for a few months until this and that happened, and my husband and I decided to buy it. I'd been living far away from my family for 9 years, and I was ready to give up hope I'd ever return "home" again. I can still picture the house without Grandma: so quiet, stuffy and full of furniture, with fake flower arrangements everywhere. The feeling of Grandma was everywhere, which seemed so strange, because she was not there. It was as if she had just stepped out to go to the store one day and never returned. My mom said there were still dirty dishes in the sink right after Grandma died.
When we would come to see the house late in the summer, I would stand in the long, stretching back yard, just after the sun went down. I would note the breeze blowing from through the neighbours' yards, through my grandmother's yards. It was so quiet. Not a soul around. Somehow, it felt like home. We packed up our family in November, after cleaning my old house for 3 months, to prepare it for selling, and finally moving.
Before we moved in, my parents scrambled around like mad to help get this house ready for us. My mother fretted and worried, and was nearly sick trying to get too many things done. We had holes punched in all the walls, and then filled with insulation. The basement was insulated. The carpets were ripped up to reveal beautiful hardwood floors. We had them sanded and stained barely in time for us to move in. They were beautiful and gleaming. I brought my portable radio over one day, in September or October, and my parents and I and my husband peeled wallpaper off the upstairs bedroom walls. We had so many laughs. Then another time, after cleaning this and that, we all cleared a space on the junk laden kitchen table and had Chinese food. We had to dig through Grandma's cutlery, because the restaurant didn't give us any. What a nice time we had. I was excited--even though it was daunting. I was going to live 2 minutes away from my parents, and less than 10 minutes away from my brother, my sister and my nieces.
The day we moved in, Jon and I were exhausted. Then the toilet got backed up, and thanks to some archaic plumbing solution in the basement, waste water started bubbling up onto the basement floor. I didn't even care--that's how burnt out I was. "Welcome to your new house!" my mother exclaimed in total exhasperation. We still laugh thinking about my brother, plunging away down there, my sister saying; "I don't know why people don't like old houses," to which my brother replied; "yeah, old houses are great!" And this as he tried to get the poop water back down the hole.
I love this house. It feels like I am meant to be here. I had my family over for New Year's eve, and it was a great party. I sit here now, and watch the tiny black ants, that I can't seem to get rid of, stroll around the kitchen floor. I look at the pantry that I love. When I look out my son's bedroom window, I see the expanses of various yards. When I look out my daughter's window, I see a peaceful, quiet street below. There is a huge, old Linden tree in the backyard, that will soon fill with beautiful smelling flowers. I hang my clothes on a clothesline that my Grandfather erected. I do my kitchen prep work on the same table as my Grandmother. I go to sleep at night in the same room she did. I have taken curtains permanently away from some of the windows and replaced them with real plants. I watch the Robins hop cautiously across my back yard. I think about the house where my mother should still be 2 minutes' drive away. I had not even lived here for five months, and she was gone.
Today I planted a few flowers. I put window boxes with purple lobelia and pink geraniums under my kitchen and bedroom windows. Then I filled the tiny strip of garden in the back yard with the remaining pale pink and salmon coloured geraniums. I watered the three pussy willow sticks, which had sprouted roots while still in their arrangement--bought for my mother while she was in the hospital. They are guarded now on either side by the yellow tulips my sister bought, and the yellow daffodils I bought. It is my tiny shrine to my Mother. I miss her so. She would have admired my window boxes. She would have been interested to see that this house finally has central air after all these years. I could have asked her what the white flowers I planted are, and she would know. They look like teeny snap dragons, but there was no tag and I don't know what they're called. I stood back and admired my work, listening to the wind as it passed through the leaves. I felt like if I could just make my soul quiet enough, there would be a message in those leaves, like a whisper.
Perhaps, something about this life.