Published Friday, January 11, 2013

Grandma's House

I was reminded recently by a young friend about how special memories of a grandmother could be. My friend housesits for us on the rare occasions that we have to travel and cannot take our dogs. “Your sheets smell like grandma’s,” she said, quickly explaining that that was a good thing.

It’s been more than 25 years since Grandmother Wethington passed away. I hope I never forget all those nuances that linger in my memory; the sights, smells and sounds from her little house in Durham, North Carolina that always bring her to mind.

Grandmother Wethington’s house was on a busy street. As children we spent a considerable amount of time indoors or in her yard. I would discover - long after I grew up - that her little house was in a mill town and her yard was teeny tiny.

Her house had a wonderful concrete porch with a zillion layers of gray paint that was cool in the summer and slick as could be when it rained. Cousin Laura and I would sit for hours on the edge of that porch or on one of the shell backed metal chairs that bounced when you moved just so. But when it rained we’d slide from one end of that porch to the other, fast as could be.

Grandmother’s screen door made a perfect wood-to-wood slamming sound that I couldn’t wait to duplicate once I grew up and had a door of my own. Inside, the tiny house smelled wonderful with vegetables simmering on the stove, fresh corn steaming and pats of butter melting into delicious golden puddles. Many times we’d gather at her table, eager for cornbread to cool so we could eat it with delicious blackeyed peas.

After a full summer day of playing in the yard and sloshing across the porch in late afternoon rain, bathtime was on our agenda. Grandmother’s bathtub was deep and the water was held captive by a little white rubber stopper that dangled from a chain hooked to the spigot. It was an epic curiosity to this suburbs kid, second only to the wire soap rack and the stand alone sink, or the tiny patterns of black and white checked subway tile on the floor. The intrigue didn’t end there.

Grandmother Wethington collected figurines and enjoyed having them in select nooks and crannies of her home. There was a small village of characters on a set of low shelves near her living room. Milky white poodles with feathery pink fur adorning their necks and tails were made even more fancy by rhinestone collars. They were linked by dainty leashes to grand porcelain ladies in beautiful Southern Belle ballgowns. Each pastel-colored dress was adorned with porcelain flowers and gold glittery paint. The parade of ladies and pups were lined up as if strolling through a pleasant park.

But Grandmother Wethington, for all her love of dainty things, was a no-nonsense woman who threatened us within an inch of our lives if we dared touch the little collectibles. I remember reaching out ever so carefully and with all the stealth a six-year-old could muster, and with one finger, gently touching the feathery tails of those porcelain pups. I’m pretty sure she knew but I never got in trouble, perhaps because she also knew I loved those little figures as much as she.

Another curiosity was a metal grate in the very center of her hallway. In the winter it was hot as could be which caused us to walk around it to avoid certain scorching. In summer the grate was sharp and painful to delicate kid’s feet. As we grew older we’d compete to see who could stand on it barefooted, winter or summer. I was always first one out and didn’t mind losing one bit.

Grandmother’s house must not have had closets because she had a huge wardrobe in the guest room, a room I thought was where her husband slept. I would be an adult before the topic ever came up and mom told me the old man in the house who died when I was young wasn’t grandmother’s husband. He was her father, and he served in WW1. I regretted not knowing sooner and to this very day would have liked to have asked grandmother a billion questions about his life.

For some it’s things like fresh sheets, for others it may be a certain perfume or flower. For me it’s mill houses, gray concrete porches and tiny porcelain figurines living imaginary lives in elegant parks that bring my grandmother to mind.

There was a time I wanted to purchase some of the quirky corn-themed tableware like hers. The collection sat in the center of her formica and metal table and she served salt, pepper, butter and cream from them. Every time I’ve seen the little porcelain figurines I’ve thought of buying them. But I haven’t. I just don’t think it would be the same. As a result, I’m happy to enjoy those unsuspecting moments when a wisp of memory is sparked and I recall those North Carolina visits at grandmother’s house.

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