When I was little, I thought my grandparents’ house was named Erie and my house was named Iowa. Erie was actually the name of the tiny town in Southern Kansas where my mom spent her teen years. Twice a year we made the eight hour drive from Iowa to the hundred year old house where my mom and her three brothers once lived.
As we approached the castle, crumbling stucco with grayed-white trim, my stomach would knot in anticipation. It was a castle to me because of the flat roofs and the wide, jutting porch front that was at least ten feet high from ground to graying trim. The stucco was not quite beige, not really pink, more like the color of the flesh of the white Kansans I came from. The ones who toasted in baseball fields as well as learned and taught in classrooms. The house meant cousins—games, stories, and extended unsupervised time over three floors.
We spent chilly Thanksgivings and unforgivably hot July Fourths at my grandparents’ house. Never Christmas, because my mom was a fan of festive, over-decorated Christmases where she showered us with presents. Theirs was generally a solemn, religious occasion. They had loosened up since she was a kid, though, because they started having a tree and some presents. When she was a kid there was no Santa Claus or toys, only one utilitarian present and observation of the birth of Christ. Once the lawyer for whom her mom worked as a secretary came by on Christmas and gave each of the four children presents. They were toys they never would have been able to afford. My mom got a doll with eyes that opened and closed. Her parents graciously accepted the gifts, and once the lawyer left her father fumed. She still loved that doll.
Like the July Fourths and Thanksgivings we visited, memories of my grandparents’ house are characterized by warm and cold.
The living room, heated by a wood-burning stove. There were mismatched couches and overstuffed recliners, one of which was occupied by my often-sleeping grandfather. We’d gather there with plates of food and boisterous chatter, filling up the chairs or leaning against couches from the floor. As kids, we’d sit in the middle of the floor playing cards while adults came and went. The TV screen became larger over the years and was usually on, people paying varying degrees of attention. I usually left during sports or televangelists.
The kitchen, full of women and then as they grew up, the older girls. I never got the memo to help. Like the men and the younger kids I walked through for snacks or a soda from the fridge on the back porch, sometimes stopping to chat and walking away.
Thanksgiving dinner in the dining room with the extra-long table and card tables popped up at the sides. The whole extended family, moving between side conversations and off-colored jokes, quieting to observe a playful sparring match between two uncles. We’d contribute our laughter and occasionally egg them on. When the table was clear, the dining room was also the home of the more spirited card games. We played Egyptian Rat Screw (only we weren’t allowed to say screw), BS, Texas Hold’em without real money, and Spoons. Spoons would often end up with a younger family member injuring themselves as they clamored for one of the spoons in the middle of the table, then storming away crying.
Fireworks. They were legal and barely regulated in Kansas and Missouri, so we stocked up on the exploding, the spinning, and the multi-colored fire-spitting novelties that could have surely put our eyes out. At sundown we each held glowing punks and took turns lighting the wick, scrambling back to the safety of the porch stairs when it started to spark. Burnt, sulfurous, lingering in the back of our throats and tearing up our eyes, the smell was exhilarating and a little rebellious.
Our receptions and send-offs with one-armed side-hugs.
The second floor. The draft hit you as you were coming up the stairs. There were extra bedrooms and a sewing room. I remember them with walls of cracked paint and bare metal bed frames, cluttered with old clothes and boxes stuffed with junk from years ago. The hall light was often burnt out, and the rooms were lit by bald bulbs, making this the domain of shadows. I didn’t like going into these rooms. Sometimes my cousins would sleep there on blankets and old mattresses. I was grateful that my family got to stay in the motel down the road. The motel room was a modern, clean, safe break.
The attic air. You could see the foreboding, unfinished staircase through the torn plastic sheet, always flapping in some mysterious breeze.
The reception to our politics and religion. The house was full of religion. Biblical quotes on decorative wood and cross-stiched onto wall-hangings mixed in with the family pictures from three generations and various decades. Babies, weddings, graduations, and Jesus. Piles of books about God, books about politics, sometimes books about both. When I was older, a wall calendar of George W. Bush, the faithful president and family man. The hallway to the kitchen had a series of the high school graduation pictures of each of my grandparents’ children in order of age. First, my mother, long straight hair, creamy skin and blue eyes, all enhanced by a soft-focused, semi-painted look of the sixties. The fourth and final child was my uncle, Russ, with hair below his ears and feathered bangs, sharp-focused and late-seventies yellow-browned. But placed before the series of children was an equally-sized portrait of Jesus, face turned toward the light, illuminating the soft golden brown hair falling to his shoulders. Walk up the stairs covered in green shag carpeting and on the dark second floor landing was a gold-framed painting of Jesus walking on the water. The portrait of Jesus that my older cousin, Jenny, had painted in high school moved around the second floor.
Other than my grandparents’ house, the only place I regularly encountered images like these were when I was a guest at someone’s church or at family weddings. Every church seemed to have a certain smell to it, and a feeling. The smell was a little like a doctor’s office, only older, a little musty. The feeling was eggshells. My dad was a skeptic and my mom had moved away from what she felt was the intolerance in the faith she’d grown up with. She still liked the community and music of church, and for a brief time when I was in first grade, we all went to one of the local Presbyterian churches in Iowa. All I remember is gluing cotton balls to construction paper sheep in Sunday school while a boy talked about how he liked looking up Barbies’ skirts. I’m not sure why we stopped going, but was relieved when we did.
It angered me that my relatives thought my gay friends were going to hell. I wondered if they thought I was going to hell too, not with indignation like with my gay friends, but with sadness and a touch of shame.
As kids, my sisters, cousins and I moved through the warm and cold. The attic was both. Adventures and danger, hidden treasure amid the piles of detritus stored in the terrifying, cobwebbed side closets that were more like low tunnels. We’d emerge with old board games, costumes, and once, a time capsule. Under the two bald lightbulbs, we told stories and secrets. In its one hundred year history, the house had been a mansion, an old folks home, and a mortuary, which inspired its share of folklore. “This is where they kept the bodies,” a cousin would say.
“An old guy died in the room we’re staying in. I woke up last night to him groaning.”
“A girl was murdered and buried in the backyard. She wears a red dress and walks around the halls at midnight. Uncle Russ used to see her all the time.”
The attic had a small stage on one end, no backstage wings, just a risen platform that made the ceiling too low for grown-ups to stand straight. The theory was that the staff used to put on plays for the old folks, but how could they get them up all of those stairs? For a while my cousins, sisters, and I put on plays every year, bringing chairs from the dining room for the family to sit. As we approached our teen years, we lost interest, disappointing the two youngest cousins who were still at prime family theatre age.
Natural light came from only one small set of windows that pointed to the front of the house. We could climb out and sit on the roof overhanging the porch, which we definitely were not supposed to do.
In the midst of an attic project, sometimes cousins would slip away, saying they were just going to get something and be right back. Occasionally I’d find myself alone, with the shadows and the sighing of a drafty old house, and scramble back down the stairs.
As I approached college, our visits became more infrequent. New waves of kids started appearing and growing up as the time between our visits grew. One Thanksgiving I’d be holding a toddler in my arms, the next he was a disinterested preteen, disappearing with neighborhood kids to play soccer.
I was in my late twenties for my last Thanksgiving in Erie. We drove twelve hours to be there, my older sister and fiancé from Minneapolis, stopping in Des Moines to pick up my other older sister, meeting our mom, because everyone was sure it would be my grandmother’s last Thanksgiving. My grandfather had died five years earlier, and the house was too big for her. She scooted around only the first floor with her walker, leaving the second floor remarkably bare. Now that we didn’t have money, we slept in the dusty second floor bedrooms. I was cold sleeping there, but only a little uneasy. Local relatives had gone through several big cleaning and discarding sessions, but stacked boxes of yellowed letters and assorted memories remained.
After dinner, the front yard was taken over by a swarm of unsupervised children, dogs, and balls. They were the new generation, ranging from ages sixteen months to thirteen years. I only had tenuous notions of how some were connected to the family. Some I didn’t recognize at all. “This makes me very nervous,” I told my fiancé as I watched the unattended children from the window. Their parents were out of sight, deeply engaged in sports or conversation or food. I watched a three year old climbing along the ledge of the porch, the one with a ten foot drop, and rushed outside to pull her down, to her dismay. As I tried to convince her not to break her neck, a shoeless toddler pushed his way out through the screen door and began wandering away. I privately ranted to my sister about the wild children, throwing in that the parents were also giving their kids Coke with breakfast.
“That’s the way we were,” my sister shrugged.
“What, the adults would be like, ‘Hey, six year-old, you’re in charge of the two year-old. Have fun!’”
After I said it, I scanned my memories and realized that was actually exactly how it was.
This house is the only one that could have fit all of us. Already, a few cousins have dropped off into their own lives and distant homes. I had been one of them. When my grandmother passes or moves out, we’ll fracture further into disparate holidays dotting the Midwest, a point on the East Coast, another in the Southwest.
I gave up trying to wrangle the wild kids, deciding they weren’t mine, and if their parents weren’t worried, I shouldn’t be either. I found my cousins, ranging in ages from twenties to early thirties gathered around the dining room table, cracking off-colored jokes and ribbing one another. Most were married, some with wild kids in the yard, but as I sat down it felt familiar. My older cousin, Cristina, was shuffling a deck of cards and insisted on a game of Spoons. Things quickly became serious. We were silent as we passed each card to the next person, periodically glancing at the spoons on the table to ensure no one had taken one. When someone grabbed a spoon, mayhem would break out, with cards flying and shrieking laughter. Cristina became a little too enthusiastic grabbing one of the spoons, and either because of one of her rings, a card, or someone’s fingernails, two of her fingers were sliced thinly across the top, bleeding lightly. She pressed a napkin to her hand, then continued to play. Her eight year old son raced through the room on the way to the kitchen, pausing at her chair.
“Mommy, you’re bleeding.”
“I know,” Cristina said, passing the cards without looking up, “Mommy just got a little too excited.”