Archive for Wednesday, May 4, 2005

One last trip to Grandma’s house

May 4, 2005

The heavy front door swung open with a creak, and though little looked the same, everything was magnificently much the same. The rooms were bare, but my memory was vivid, enhanced by the sweet smell of old wood that still permeated the house.

I could picture Grandma's antique table by the front door and the brown and white polka dotted ceramic bowl that always sat on it.

The mirrored coffee table was posed in front of the couch, and nearby, a box of toys Grandma kept ready for the grandchildren -- empty wooden thread spools linked with string, canning jar rings tied together to use as a baby rattle, and dozens of marbles.

Across the room, beside the stone fireplace was the RCA Victor TV which Grandma faithfully tuned to the Lawrence Welk show every Saturday night.

I could picture the family dinners, my aunt ringing a bell to claim the attention of the boisterous family so she could whisper grace before a holiday meal. A dozen or so children running here and there, and various aunts and uncles, and other friends gathered. Then there was the food -- the anticipation of Grandma's chocolate meringue pie, along with a turkey dinner.

But that was then, when Webster's dictionary could have defined an American Thanksgiving dinner by showing a picture of those gatherings that took place in that house.

Grandma has been gone now for 33 years. Her daughter, who next lived in and owned the towering house, has been gone for nearly eight years.

In the meantime, the 100-plus-year-old house in a nearby Kansas town, its ownership confused by a will in which there was no clear-cut owner, slipped from the family.

I've been told that, according to my aunt's will, the person who inherited the house had to live in it. And if that person didn't want to live there, the house would pass to the next of some half-dozen people in line. But in the end, my aunt's plan failed. Apparently, she hadn't considered the fact that none of her intended heirs would want to live in her home.

Because during the years after her death the ownership of the home was muddled, property taxes were not paid. In January, the three-story house was sold for back taxes. It sold at auction on the courthouse steps for $21,000.

After learning the sale had taken place, I contacted the attorney who handled the auction. It was likely, I thought, because since 1948 the house had not been emptied, some of my grandparents' belongings might still be there. The attorney was sympathetic to my call. In fact, he said a similar thing had happened to him years ago when his former grandparents' home had been purchased by someone else. He called the buyer and wound up with family photos that otherwise would have been thrown away.

The attorney gave me the name and address of the person who had bought Grandma's house. I wrote a letter that day. Weeks passed, then finally, the new owner called. It was mid-March and he was in the process of emptying the house. The previous occupants had taken what they wanted and this man had taken what he wanted. So he told me I was welcome to sift through the rest. If I didn't, it too would go to the dump, he said. We set up a time to meet. My youngest son went with me.

There wasn't much left, but we did return home with an oil painting my mother made when she was in her 30s and an aspiring artist. And among the photographs there were a few pictures of my grandparents and of my aunts and uncles that I had never seen.

Clearly in that attic some of the items -- such as family photos and a notebook my father compiled when he was in grade school -- were frozen in time, likely having been hauled up the stairs in 1948 when my grandparents moved into the house.

The owner, who plans to remodel the house and sell it, called again a couple of weeks ago, to say he had finished clearing out the house, and he'd located more photos. My husband went with me.

We loaded a couple of dusty boxes in the trunk of our car, the last tangible remnants of my family's ties to the house. Among the items were a tan canvas mail satchel my father had sent to his father in 1951, a few more photos and a box of letters and cards sent to my grandmother.

This summer we'll have a family get-together at our house. Everyone can sift through the items and take what they want.

Most people say goodbye to their grandparents' house when their grandparents die. In this instance, the stretch lasted 33 years.

As we drove away, I took another look at the empty house on the hill, knowing it will never be the same.

But also knowing that, for me and for others in my family, the fond memories of Grandma's house -- the way it used to be -- will remain.

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