A dollhouse for grown-ups,
loaded with memories
By KENT HOLSATHER
Mama, are you there?
Yes, Im here. Come on in but keep the flies out if you can. Those little rascals seem to find their way in no matter how hard I try to keep that screen door shut.
There was a time in my young life when all that was important and central to me consisted of ant hills, ice cream cones and visits to my great-grandmothers house.
Her home was tiny; more like a dollhouse for grownups than a real house. Built long before anyone could remember, it was nestled only 50 feet from my grandparents home; a distance that made looking after Mama a little easier for my grandmother and extremely accessible to my older brother and me.
Hello little man.
Leaning on her cane, she would greet me in the same way that she would greet my brother and it made us feel special. At four years of age, I had precious little to compare her dwelling to but it was like an enchanted cottage to me. The wallpaper was bright and cheery and a small china cabinet bloated with old tea cups and plates thoroughly dominated the tiny room.
At the age of 92, she had begun to stoop from the arthritis that was blanketing her body and the mere act of her answering the door must have taken great pains.
Can I have some tea, Mama?
Her name had been derived from my brothers inability to pronounce Grandma and although her name was Elizabeth, she was known as Mama (rhymed like Santa) to just about everyone. She had been widowed since the 30s and as was the custom of many families at that time, my grandparents provided for her needs; rest homes were out of the question.
Are you sure you're old enough, mister? She would quiz me with a twinkle in her eye.
This was a routine that we always went through but the answer was never in doubt. As I watched, she would put the water to boiling on the stove and shuffle to her rocking chair.
Come and sit on my lap young man.
I would climb up and nestle down like a bird in a nest as she would tell me stories of her youth. Being totally uninhibited, I would play with her fatties the loose skin that drooped from under her arms. She would ignore my horse play much like a mother cat ignores a kitten that plays with her tail. Being young and curious, I studied her features with great intensity as I sat on my perch.
The woman had said goodbye to her teeth many years earlier and her toothless smile was comforting to me. Maybe it represented a wisdom only achieved through many years of life. Maybe each tooth represented a struggle that was won or lost in the passing of time. Her skin was as transparent as parchment and every vein protruded like a road map.
The stories she told have never left my memory to this day. On her 13th birthday she received her first Winchester rifle. Her mother held her up to see president Lincolns funeral train pass by when she was only two years old. At my age, it was as if she was talking about another person who inhabited another life. I would sit in awe as she described the day that she rode bareback at a full gallop while standing on her horse. As I listened, I found myself riding with her, holding on to her waist as we flew across the South Dakota prairie.
The whistle on the tea pot would break the spell and we would sit at her small table and have tea. She would pour mine first and add an equal amount of cream with three sugar cubes to make it more tolerable to my young palate and together we would sip from her delicate china. Im sure that the passing of time has biased my memory but to this day I have never tasted tea that had half the flavor that her brew possessed.
When I was seven, she fell and broke her hip. Her bones were becoming brittle and she just shattered like one of her beautiful tea cups. My grandparents had no choice but to finally move her to a rest home where she remained for the rest of her life. When my brother and I would visit her, she would greet us with a big smile and a kiss. She was always happy in spite of her infirmity and would give us money from a small plastic coin purse to buy ice cream cones from the store across the street. She had so little money but what she had, she gave with all her heart to us.
It was in the fall of 1959 that she passed away. My mother and grandmother were there when she left. Her body had given up but her mind was alert to the end and she was at peace when she closed her eyes to the world.
For years afterward her little house was stripped of anything useful and it was turned into a kind of warehouse for charity paper collections. Once, while visiting my widowed grandmother, I ventured the 50 feet to the house and stepped inside. A dank mustiness of old paper and dry-rot enveloped me as I looked around. The cheery wall paper was now faded as it hung down in long shreds from the walls and the room seemed even smaller than I had remembered. Water damage had taken its toll on the ceiling and nothing of remembrance remained, save for a bare floor and some stacks of newspapers. I left as quickly as I had come in. It would be the last time that I would visit the place.
As the years went by, my grandfather passed away prompting my grandmother to finally sell off the property and move to assisted living. A new family with fresh aspirations quickly moved in and began to modernize the home, but Nanas little house next door stood---untouched.
I would try and drive by the place whenever I could and over time, witnessed the fall of the chimney into my great grandmothers house. The apple tree that Mama would harvest fruit from had fallen down in a wind storm and her old, weathered roof had completely collapsed. It was a never ending march of decay until one day, while driving past, I noticed that the house was gone. It had been torn down and a garden had been planted on its spot. I pulled off to the side of the road and sat there for a moment.
Mama would have been happy to see the garden. She loved to work the soil with her hands and watching the miracle of life that sprang forth in the spring always gave her great joy. I scooted back in the seat and grabbed the steering wheel. As I began to pull back onto the road I somehow had the feeling that Mama and I would be waiting for the water to boil again someday and I would be sitting in her lap--waiting for the tea-- three cubes, please.
©2005 by Kent Holsather. The illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted
Aug. 1, 2005.
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