Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Today I drove past my grandmother's old house on my way to town. I was surprised by the welt of emotion that hit me. It's not the first time I've been by since it sold, but it was the first time that I took a good look at the old place in a long time. I guess I've been trying not to think about it.

When I was a little kid, I thought my grandmother's house was magical. Though I don't suppose, in my adult estimation, that the place is more than a century old, when I was little it seemed as if that house had always been there. As if God Himself had created it when He formed the heavens and the earth. That old brick house seemed ancient. And it was seeped in antiquity.

It was so much different than my own house. Every room was filled with books. Old books, new books, hardcover books, books with the covers long torn off. Books that smelt of mildew; books that I could wrap myself up in on a long winter afternoon. And books weren't all. It seemed as if there were endless rooms, and endless new discoveries to explore.

On the first floor, we always entered through the backdoor. It led into the kitchen, where there was an old timey woodburning stove. In the heat of that stove, my grandmother would tell me stories about being a little girl in Buffalo; how poor she was, and how she loved her father and mother, and the lessons they taught her. Her parents were both the children of immigrants; her mother grew up speaking French, and she had taught my grandmother some when she was a little girl. My grandma would teach me bits and pieces of what she could still recall as I sipped my chocolate milk.

If you walked through the kitchen to your left, it would take you to a giant dining room, the centerpiece of which, in my childhood estimation, was my grandfather's desk. It was always filled with papers, and if I asked him, he'd give me paper and a pen and I'd draw pictures for him. I liked to use his desk; it smelled of cherries, and it made me feel sophisticated to roll back the top and use his gold-tipped pens. And there were always pictures everywhere. Pictures hung on walls, tucked into the corners of mirrors and picture frames, scattered about the dining room table. Pictures of my brother and I, or pictures of my cousins; pictures of aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, relations so old and obscure that no one alive today can recall for certain exactly who they were. I liked the aged-brown photos, and when there was nothing to do, I would hide under grandpa's desk and make up stories about the people in the pictures. Stories like how the young man in the naval uniform and the beautiful girl with long black hair were lovers and married young. But the man died in the war, and the girl died of sadness soon after, and all that was left of them was the little infant in the christening dress, with tears running down her face. And that little girl grew up with a hard life, like Oliver Twist. But she grew up at last, and married a navy man, and they lived happily ever after, and had many children of their own. And sometimes, I think, on sunshiney days, that little girl grew up to be a pirate. And once, perhaps, I believe she became a mermaid.

But further back still, there was an enclosed porch. And in the summer, my grandmother would play games with me there. Her favorite was checkers, which she always let me win. But my favorite was Dominos, which, not coincidentally, she also always let me win. And when my cousins were around, we would go to the porch and play school. My cousin Julie was always the teacher, and I was always the bad student. My cousin Joey was the good student; he always was a suck up. Julie and Joey would always make me stand in the corner there, which I hated because it was filled with spider webs. I'd cry until my mother came to rescue me. Then all of the adults would bribe my tears away with candy and chocolate milk. There were perks to being the youngest.

Upstairs was my aunt Lilly's room. And of all the people in my family, I loved Lilly the most. She would take me to her room and let me rustle through her things. She would let me play with the little dolls that she had brought back with her from Japan. She'd tell me stories, and recite poetry to me that I was too young still to understand. But I would remember it anyway, and would recite it back to her again the next time I saw her. It made her happy, and I loved to make her happy. When she died, they cleaned out her room. And the room seemed so empty without her little pictures on the walls. Pictures of birch trees that she'd cut out of magazines. Pictures of her when she was young; pictures, for instance, of my grandmother, an aunt, and Lilly herself, no older than I am now, at the top of a tree they had climbed. It was strange for me then, and even now, to think of Lilly that young and that carefree. When I knew her, she was in her eighties, fragile and senile. She had never married, nor had children of her own. I'm told by my father that I remind him a lot of Lilly. There's always a tinge of sadness in the remark. But I'm glad to be likened to her. She was gentle, and kind, and no one who ever knew her disliked her long.

But upstairs, too, was the pool room. It was giant, and as far as I was concerned, haunted. The pool table managed to draw me in, but I refused to be left in there alone. On the wall there hung the picture of my grandfather's mother. It was a beautiful old portrait, and she was a beautiful woman. But something about her eyes bore through you, and made you feel like you weren't alone. I knew that she had died when my grandfather was only a baby, and that he loved her. I knew that I should love her too. But I didn't. Those eyes made me feel guilty, like she knew all of the bad things I'd ever done. It was frightening, but also somehow solemn. She wasn't threatening, really, just disconcerting. I knew she would forgive me for my faults; after all, I was her granddaughter. In my unreligious childhood, that old portrait of my great-grandmother was, in a strange sense, the closest thing I knew to the presence of God.

And that was just the house. Beyond the house there were miles of farmland. There was the pond, where we camped and went fishing. There were acres of woodland that we went hiking in. When I was little, I learned by heart every nook and cranny of that land. I knew where deer gathered to drink, where snakes slithered to avoid the midday heat, and where the Old Tree was. The Old Tree, my father always told us, had survived three lightning strikes, and though it never looked healthy enough to survive even another year, the gnarled old thing seemed never to die. It just grew more twisted, and more ugly, and I knew it was important. I knew that tree was sacred; a creature too stubborn to die. Beautiful because it was bold enough to be gnarled and disfigured.

Even now, as an adult, when I spend more time each summer checking my email than walking around in the country, when I need to escape the pressures of my life, part of me escapes to my grandmother's land. I unconsciously walk the path to the Old Tree. I lounge under the willows by the pond and listen to the bullfrogs croaking as evening comes down. I stare in awe at my great-grandmother's portrait on the wall. I think of all the characters in all of the stories I ever told myself as a child, and wonder about who they might have been. I try to remember my grandma's stilted, long-forgotten French. I try to remember how good chocolate milk was when you're little, and the stove is giving off warmth, and your grandmother is telling you what it was like to be a little girl in a time so far back when they didn't even have chocolate milk.

It's strange to think that I'll never walk those paths again. That I'll never take my kids fishing or camping or sledding or hiking back at the pond. It's strange to think that the place that I always go to get away is no longer a place I can go to get away, except in my dreams. I can't believe that anyone will ever love that old place as much as I did. But somehow I know that the magic supercedes my own interests. Ownership is a silly manmade construct. The Old Tree doesn't care who owns it; it doesn't have any such concept. It will keep growing, and gnarling, and twisting until it finally decides, of its own stubborn volition, that its ready to die. And it won't care if I'm there to see it. Real magic, real beauty, is like that. It keeps on being beautiful even when no one's looking. And somehow, that's a comforting thought to me tonight.

In the world, there's beauty. And it doesn't care if anyone's watching it. It shines because it was designed to shine. It lives because life's breath is all it knows and is ever-flowing through it. Eternal death can't touch it, and even the forgetfulness of man can't erase it. Beauty is; its an absolute. And sometimes in life, for a short while, we are allowed to see it; a foreshadowing, it seems, of the face of God here on Earth.