Memories unleashed: How I got into my grandparents' house 50 years later

I heard about it before I saw it, when my cousin Jim held up a green vase to say, “This is about the color.” Someone has painted my grandparents’ house apple green, with maroon accents. The big old white house by the river that held some of my best childhood times was now a completely different thing. I had to see this for myself.

On the day of our planned trek up to the original family house in the woods, my cousin Jim made an announcement. If we wanted to, later that day, we could go see the old family house, inside and out. How? It turns out that just as I would always do a slow drive-by during my visits, he would too. He watched the decline and fall of the house into hands that couldn’t care for their cats let alone a big house, to a recent resurgence under the new owners’ care.

One day, Jim saw the man out in the yard and approached him, and they traded stories about the house’s past and present. At the end, the owner offered an invitation to visit when anyone in the family wanted to.

Well, we all wanted to. As we pulled up late that afternoon, the two owners came out to greet us. Bearded and busy Larry introduced his cheerful matter-of-fact wife Bettina. From that moment, it was a swap meet of stories and improvements, including a totem pole-looking wooden sculpture that now held up the stair railings, and an outdoor bedroom on top of the old porch that gave a view of the sweep of the river I’d never seen before. The old wooden stove in the living room had given way to a nice tiling job and a ventless fireplace that threw enough heat to not need a furnace at all.

Bettina showed us the kitchen where she had a delicious-smelling stew bubbling on the stove. Gone was the old (but quite new and spiffy at the time) electric push button stove with the bacon grease can sitting on the top, replaced by a pass-through window to the dining room. Where the old wood stove had been was covered over with a shiny tin decorative plate and a tasteful stainless steel range. From the downstairs bathroom, the only one at the time, the old claw foot bathtub had been moved outside, surrounded with shower curtains for the brave but modest bather.

The rooms, arranged so that a little kid could run in a circle from one to another again and again, were smaller than I remembered, of course, but packed to the rafters with memories of dinners, games, and endless joking.

I can hear Aunt Annie saying “Oh, Fred, leave her alone,” as he teased Grandma. And my mother warning, “Mama, wait, let me do that.” And Uncle Hall drawling to Hildred, “Come on, Dilly, we need to get on home.” And  Aunt Emma as she handed a jar to my mother, “I brought you some strawberry jam to take back with you.” It was the best I ever tasted.

I know that there were troubled moments too in that house, as there are in any house, but I wasn’t there for them, and they don’t seem to have lingered. Except I can still hear the clank as Grandma set Grandpa’s plate down in front of him when he irritated her, which was pretty often.

Now the gardens are gone, the garage is still not a garage, but a work shed with a brand new deck for the many projects it takes to breathe life and color back into this house. In the back is an expanse of lawn where the vegetable garden and outbuildings once stood. I used to love to walk through the asparagus, being tickled by the feathery fronds. I tried to follow my grandpa into the chicken house once but was chased out permanently by the flapping and squawking.  (After that I just watched with horror from inside the living room while my grandpa chopped the head off a chicken for dinner.) The flower garden in front is gone, now part of the lawn where we collected fireflies and chased butterflies and ate drippy watermelon.

The border with the river, once fenced off and overgrown with bushes and vines, is opened up, a gentle slope now from the yard to the bank with nothing in the way.

The bold bright colors inside and out proclaimed the new personality that would carry the house forward. Larry and Bettina were clearly the best things that could have happened to this place. Resourceful, unafraid of hard work and creative flights, accepting and tolerant of all people nearby, they proclaimed their love for this house. As they told tales of scraping cat leavings from room after room, I marveled at their industry and ambition.

On the new back deck, as we were getting ready to leave, Larry stared at the river and said, “There is no place I’d rather be. I love this place more than anywhere on earth.” Bettina smiled at him. Blessings, both of them.

The paint and improvements weren’t the last changes the house had in store for me. Come back for the rest of the story.

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