I never visited often and if it hadn’t been for my grandmother’s funeral, I’m not sure I’d go back.
I remember the rush to buy something special. I hadn’t bought new shoes or shopped for a new dress in years. What would I pack? Could I pack everything I needed in two small bags. Maybe I just needed one.
Once inside the department stores, the adrenaline rush I experienced took me by surprise. I’d entered the store thinking my emotions were intact. I’d picked that particular day with care. But no matter how much care I exercised, it didn’t do a bit of good. It was hard to make decisions. Should I buy a jacket and match it with a skirt I had in my closet? Or should I buy a suit? The shoes cost $89.99. Should I buy them? Do I leave in the morning? In the afternoon? Maybe mid-day.
Three-thirty on a late Thursday afternoon, my tires rolled along asphalt down Highway 75. Hours later I merged onto I-10 and drove to Houston as if I’d done it a thousand times. Littered all along the highway from Ennis, Texas to the Gulf of Mexico was one oil refinery after another. Sulphur filled the air. The refineries lit up the dark sky and guided me to my hometown like a beacon in the night. The giant Sam Houston stature always served as my landmark. It signified I was close to a place I’d spent years trying to forget.
Little did I know I’d never forget the places I ate, the schools I attended, the bullying I experienced, or the love of my grandparents.
When the time came, I picked up my two sons from the Houston airport the day before the funeral. Our hearts leaped for joy when we saw each other. We held each other tight, as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. The circumstances which brought us together created an unbreakable bond, a soothing peace, an undisturbed oneness.
My sons’ support at a time like this was irreplaceable. They understood everything I didn’t say. They never offered empty words, or pressed me to feel differently about the magnitude of my loss. We comforted each other with love and patience and constant prayers.
I felt enormous relief when my children took over the driving duties. They drove to the coastline as if they had done it a thousand times, as if they had grown up in this part of the country. In fact, they’d only visited my hometown a couple of times. But they remembered every story about every empty block now filled with tall grass, broken cement, and rutted tire marks.
As always, we visited their ninety-year-old great-aunt on their father’s side, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed to my grandparents’ house.
The family sold the house five or six years ago, but it always stood quietly in its proper place. It’s a long narrow house painted white with medium gray trim with a silver-painted chainlink fence surrounding it. One side of the double-gate sagged. The front gate squealed. The grass had perfectly straight edges and an evenly cut lawn, ankle-deep.
My grandparents sometimes sat on the front porch after a long day of yard work. Their kids and grandkids, including me, ran around the house playing and yelling and teasing one another into submission. The porch was a place where you watched all the comings and goings of neighbors, strangers, and the “strangest.” Some folks waved, keeping their stride in the direction of wherever they were headed. Others stopped, leaned on the fence, and talk endlessly, spilling a tidbit of gossip here and there. Some entered the squeaky gate and sat awhile, laughing over all their “remember whens,” before finally drinking the last of their lemonade or iced tea or koolaid and moving on.
It’s my recollection Granddaddy took that old porch out twice and built it up again, painting it in that same medium, steel Army-gray color. I meticulously watched him each time he sprayed his peach trees, always warning us to stay away so we wouldn’t have an allergic reaction to the pesticide.
I never could figure out how Granddaddy cut his hedges so straight. The tool he used looked like giant scissors to my young eyes. He’d snip and cut and pull and tug on those hedges until every leaf and branch was in its proper place. He even manicured the ditch to perfection. All my life I never saw a house on the block that was as well manicured as my grandparents’ house.
On previous visits, long after Granddaddy passed away, we’d stand on the sidewalk and I’d point to various windows and tell my children what we did in each room. To the far left was my grandparents’ bedroom. The front door opened to a combined living room and bedroom where we slept as children. To the right of the combined living room and bedroom was the kitchen. Farther right of it were rooms my grandmother sometimes rented to young famililes. These rooms included a living room, a second bedroom, along with a small kitchen and shared bath.
Trying to come to peace with my grandmother’s death, I couldn’t wait to see the house. After our late lunch, an hour before the viewing, we headed for my grandparents’ house so we’d go through the rituals of reliving my childhood. In my mind, I smelled the moth balls Grandmother used in her closets. I saw a back room filled with clothes she refused to give away.
Though I knew it wasn’t possible, I wanted to go inside and experience that dip in the floor right before you entered the kitchen. I also wanted to make a beeline for a second back room so I’d dig through thousands of black and white photographs and, in my mind, plead with Grandmother to let me take some of them home with me. Or perhaps I’d gawk at the whatnots on walls, or relieve my grandmother of the many antiques she had in the house.
Of course, none of that was possible. Someone else owned the house now.
When we finally rounded the corner, we sat unmoved, the car motor still running. No one exhaled. No one said a word. We dare not look at each other. It was as if someone had reached deep inside our souls and sucked the air right out of us. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t. I wanted to express how I felt, but no words, no descriptions, no language adequately expressed my devastation.
The house was gone!
Our silence continued for what seemed like an eternity. I finally heard the car doors open and I watched as my two sons got out. As they approached the house, I surprisingly noticed the only thing left was the fence. It surrounded the lot in its truest form. The double-gate still sagged; its paint barely chipped. The front gate squealed, as it had done many years before, as my children opened and went through it. For the longest time, I couldn’t move. I dare not think. My hands shook. My insides hopped around like mosquitoes looking for that perfect spot to bite and suck my blood.
When I finally spoke, all I kept asking was, “What happened?” I’d grown up in that house. Love poured from our grandparents in that house. I learned how to sew in one of its rooms; learned to cook; played 45s in the living room and panomized the latest love songs until I hit every single note flawlessly.
When we mustered enough courage, we asked my grandmother’s best friend what happened.
“The house burned,” her son said. “Owner set it afire on purpose because he couldn’t get his asking price for it.”
I was sick. I couldn’t stand. The man who bought my grandparents’ house had no idea what he had done. He destroyed the last connection to my past. I remember thinking, “How could he?”
Needless to say, this made my grief all the more unbearable.
Long after my grandmother’s funeral, the house became the central theme of my existence. I thought about it all the time. Then one day God helped me surrender. He took me on a journey and helped me recall Solomon’s wisdom.
“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” 3 What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” (Ecclesiates 1:1-11)
For many weeks, I cried as I thought about that vacant lot. I felt as though someone had taken a hammer and cracked my foundation. My grandmother was the last one in the family to go. No elders are left. She validated me. Whenever I’d talked to her, she took me back in time and rekindled my past, gave me hope for the future.
The lot upon which that narrow white house stood is empty now. Nothing is left. Creaks and noises and smells can’t be replicated, except in my mind. My point of reference has gone up in smoke. Why? Because of someone else’s greed.
But there’s another reason my grandparents’ house is gone. God shook my earthly tabernacle so I’d be reminded that above me is my permanent dwelling place. Heaven has more colors than the rainbow. Its floors, and God’s throne, are made of sapphire. (Exodus 24:10; Ezekiel 1:26) Every precious stone created by God will surround his kingdom. (Revelations 21:19) It has countless rooms. We won’t concern ourselves with walls, tight spaces, or if we left our real estate in proper hands.
God reminded me that the only thing that matters in this life is my service to him. Take Ecclesiates 1:1-11 to heart. People come and go. Houses are bought and sold. No matter how much care you give to your earthly real estate, it will eventually be resold and have new owners. After we die, we’ll only be remembered by the present generation, if at all. People will go about their lives as they have since the beginning of time.
But God’s word lives forever! Amen!
My children took it upon themselves to shovel dirt in a box so I’d plant a flower or shrub as a keepsake. No one prodded them to do this. My heart screamed for joy over their compassion. In my mind, I can still see the two of them conspiring meticulously, dropping me off, then head to my grandparents’ vacant lot to dig up a small portion of the land.
It’s a sobering thought to know all that time spent clinging to my grandparents’ house was meaningless. My times there were wonderful. I’ll forever cherish the memories, forever remember their love. But I have come to understand that as precious as that house was and is to me, it’s just not my . . .
Donna B. Comeaux
Freelance Writer, Poet, Novelist
[Please visit http://www.rubyforwomen.com to read Donna’s latest short story entitled “Selfish Ambition.” A new chapter is posted every Thursday.]