This article first appeared on The Refresh and has been republished with permission.
Dena* stood in the corner of the bathroom with a sledgehammer in her hand and a smile on her face. The pale pink bathtub and the ceramic tiles on the wall soon would be gone. As I scrolled through her photos, I wondered if it was a good idea that she and I had become Facebook acquaintances — I didn’t know her well enough to consider her a friend in any real sense of the word. My family had been in touch with her for a few months when my aunt suggested that she and I connect. Dena bought the house that had belonged to my grandparents for sixty years and now, she was dismantling it and making it her own — rightfully so.
I wasn’t expecting to have a visceral response to observing someone I hardly knew do home renovations. But, flashes of memories long forgotten flooded my mind. I knew the sound the door made when it clicked shut. I remembered standing on tip-toes to reach the sink during one of the many times my grandparents babysat for my brother and me while my parents travelled the world for my Dad’s job. My feet memorized the textures of the carpets in different rooms — the blue rug in the living room was thick and felt like walking upon a beach of fine sand. The carpet in the kitchen was thin and flat. Tiny water droplets usually darkened the spot right in front of the sink.
Technically, I was a guest in their home, but my grandparents had a way of making everyone feel welcome. If someone wasn’t related, by the time they left, enough laughter had transpired that they felt like they were. While my dad was in college, he routinely invited his classmates from overseas to their house during Christmas breaks so the other students wouldn’t be alone. Several of them wrote to my grandmother for decades after they had lost touch with my father. As my brother, cousins and I grew up, our friends came with us to their house. There were many more people who called them “Gram and Pop” than who could claim use of those names. They didn’t mind.
Physical spaces have a way of reflecting their occupants.
In the foyer was a decorative wooden table. A small lamp cast a glow on the small photos of my grandparents’ three children that sat in gold frames. After my aunt died far too young at 55, her picture was replaced with one bigger. She would always be there.
Light flooded in from the large picture window in the living room that overlooked their backyard where I discovered at 7 years old that I could sprint into multiple rounds of cartwheels without hitting any trees. In the space adjacent to the living room was the solid mahogany dining room table whose length expanded as the family grew. It was so heavy it required some configuration of two of the men in the family to move it. Judging by their proud smiles, my brother and cousins viewed it as a badge of honor in their early teen years when they had grown strong enough to help Pop adjust the table. All Christmas Eves, countless Sundays and many Easters were celebrated around that table. Every March and May featured combined birthday parties — I grew up assuming that all grandchildren shared the month of their birth with one of their grandparents. As a child, I also assumed that nieces and nephews all shared the day of the month of their birth with aunts and uncles, as that was also the case. It was the reason why when Pop played the Pennsylvania lottery, “his numbers” usually included 18 and 24.
Beginnings and endings cloak themselves in the passing of ordinary days.
The penultimate time I was at my grandparents’ house was like any other. Everything seemed fine. Because of their advanced age, I fought off underlying dread wondering if each time I hugged Gram and Pop goodbye if it would be the last time. Intellectually, I knew that day would come. But, emotionally, I was grateful for every time it wasn’t yet.
Their house — their presence — offered such a force of stability and permanence that it was difficult to fathom not having it. The structural stability existed in my own home with my parents, too, but my dad’s passion to see the world and do everything in it was vastly different from my grandfather’s mindset– his family was his world. My dad’s inclination was to bring his family into the world. Though seemingly antithetical, there is value in both ways of being. The combination prepared us to become an international family long before that was the reality. My brother, his wife and kids live in Europe. My cousin now lives in Asia. Frequent flyer miles and Skype minutes abound. The definition of “home” was able to stretch because it had such a defined meaning to begin with.
The day after my visit in 2010, Pop fell, which set in motion the events that led to his death in mid-October of that year. I didn’t realize it until after he had died, but my grandfather was the heart of the family. One of six, Pop was the child of immigrants who settled in Philadelphia in the early 20th Century. His parents instilled a strong work ethic, faith and an unbreakable family bond—both in practice and in the abstract. When combined, those elements offered seeds of resilience in the face of inevitable struggles and losses.
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Pop loved working with his hands and spent hours tinkering in their basement. It was like his secret lab. He could fix anything there. Whenever something broke, we gave it to Pop, he took it downstairs and as if by magic, it would be returned nearly as good as new. The staircase and that corner of the basement belonged solely to him. He decorated the wall next to the steps with black and white and color photos of the family. It surprised me the first time I saw that one of my elementary school pictures had ended up there. I thought it had been relocated because they didn’t like my picture. It took me a long time to understand that it was the opposite. Another year, I saw that he had affixed to the wall a birthday card I had given him. Up until that point, I never realized that words—my words– meant anything to him. Gram was a big reader; Pop was not. (Quite possibly because he was busy doing the things that needed to be done while the rest of us were lost in books…)
People love in so many ways from behind their masks.
In the early 1950s, Pop acquired a piece of land in a suburb outside of Philadelphia and ordered by mail a blueprint for how to build a house. Each day, he put in long hours at his job and then, longer hours hammering and nailing, giving tangible form to his life’s true work.
When he was in his eighties, Pop once told me that when he looked around the house, he saw what he would have done if he had known better. It was hard to see many imperfections at all — there were so many interesting details, like the etched pattern around the fireplace and the tiny shelves that lined the floor to ceiling window whose glass had a circular pattern next to the front door. I joked that he must have done something right because it was still standing. He smiled and pursed his lower lip while shaking his head back and forth. It was the simultaneous look of pride and resignation that surfaced when you knew something was imperfectly perfect, but yet you still questioned whether it could have been more imperfectly perfect. I had seen that look before.
Every Christmas Eve from birth until Pop passed away was spent at my grandparents’ house. The only way you could miss it was if you were on another continent. As was our tradition, my entire family went to midnight Mass at Pop’s parish. As children, my brother and younger cousins spent more time giggling and elbowing each other than paying attention. One of them would give the other a look that set off a chain reaction of laughter that culminated with Pop shaking his head back and forth, lips pursed in a slight smirk. It was late for little boys who already were hopped up on Santa excitement and cousin energy.
One year, I looked up at the manger on the altar and then, back to the line of familiar faces that took up the length of an entire pew and simultaneously felt something immediate and timeless with no separation between the two. There was only connection. In between the priest giving the homily and my aunt whispering to her middle son who was no older than seven to spit his clandestine piece of gum into the tissue in her open palm, I caught her eye. She gave the exasperated mom look, inhaled and smiled. All of the peace and chaos meant that life was being lived.
After the service ended, the boys dashed out into the cold night, jackets wide open and unaware that they weren’t going to get very far without the adults with driver’s licenses. We piled back into our cars and drove back to Gram and Pop’s to say our official goodbyes before my parents, brother and I left to drive an hour away to our home.
I am the only female of my generation on my dad’s side of the family. Fourteen years separate my youngest cousin and me. I hovered in a middle space somewhere between the adults and the kids. For decades, I occupied an interior space in the family without realizing it. It played a distinct role in designing and defining who I am, my own interiority. Now with my grandparents gone and my parents aging, I’ve become part of the foundation.
When Dena’s photos kept popping up on my Facebook feed in subsequent weeks after her bathroom remodeling project had begun, I noticed a stark change. With every design choice, the house became less ours and more hers. She was putting a lot of thought and care into redoing each room. It still felt strange witnessing the redecoration process through a computer screen at random and unexpected times. But, seeing that the house was in good hands made me increasingly less curious about what happened to it.
While Dena’s sledgehammer unearthed my memories, her work also yielded some final tangible surprises.
Behind the medicine cabinet, she discovered two cartoon caricatures drawn on the wall in thick pencil lines. Below the drawings were the words “him” and “her” and the date “July 14, 1954.” It was initialed by my grandfather’s youngest brother. All of the faces that had stared into that mirror in beauty and insecurity, sickness and health, excitement and mundanity — myself included — had no idea that there were smiles looking back at them.
In May of 2015, I walked through the house with my grandmother not long before it was sold. Most of the furniture and personal items had been moved out. The piano remained. Gram sat down and played by ear, despite being hard of hearing and well into her nineties. She never understood that other people couldn’t do what came naturally to her. She passed away that November.
I took pictures of the house the last time I was there, but gathering souvenirs is not the same as being on the journey. I never could recapture what had taken place there. I didn’t need to. I wasn’t nostalgic, only grateful. A part of me had been shaped not only by that space, but by what the space — and the years — had held. As I was leaving, the warm afternoon sun glistened in patches on the front yard just beyond the porch. I glanced back over my shoulder for one last look. The front door swung shut. There now was only one direction to go.