The House My Grandpa Built
By Clara Kroll
Where over forty years ago there was a small field, now stands a house, white in color, a matching garage out back. In the kept yard stands a small group of trees, maybe eight trees or so, standing with their trunks and branches thick, arms extending outward and low enough that children could climb their branches – adults too, if they tried. The trees hold memories of children now grown, and their children as well – days when they would swing from branches, build a makeshift badminton net, or a wooden swing to fly off of. In the front of the house, walking on the stone driveway, you’d notice the old basketball hoop, unused since my aunts moved out, and a tree growing right alongside the driveway, a small divot in its branches, where it once cradled a robin’s nest. Inside the garage attached to the house, there is the permanent smell of pipe tobacco, which has a sweetness to it that, in an odd sense, gave me a warm feeling, reminding me of a plush carpet that seemed to absorb me as I lay on it. In the kitchen of the house, one of the first rooms you would see when walking in, there was no escaping the bright orange floors, a sheet of fake tiles that had fittingly earned the nickname of the pizza floor, with varying circles and shades of orange that could only resemble pizza. The countertops used to be a dull orange as well, but my dad had long ago convinced my grandpa to replace them with white ones instead. At the end of one such counter, there was a tall swivel chair resting in front of a half wall, with rails extending into the ceiling, reminding me of the sides of long staircases. To more inventive, creative young children, they might be the bars of a jail cell. The living room carpet was in theme with the floors of the kitchen, matching the pizza floor with a slightly different shade of orange. The carpet though, was much softer, kind of like wearing a pair of fuzzy socks, although you could only feel them every time your feet touched the floor. The fireplace at the back of the living room was solid stone, and decorating the unused fireplace were pictures of his family, of his four daughters, but mostly, his grandkids. The bedrooms where my mom and her sisters had slept contrasted in their own way; one was pure white, with simple dressers, the other white as well, but the dressers took up more space. The first room seemed brighter, and even though both rooms were the same color, the first having two windows, both of which let in the sun better than the single window bedroom on the other side of the wall. In both closets, there was tape marking the halfway point, some of the little evidence that sisters had shared those rooms. My grandpa’s room was much darker, the change coming after his divorce with my grandma. At the foot of his bed however, was a chest that had belonged to his mother, my namesake. The basement was much colder than the rest of the house, but when I was older, that didn’t matter, since my brother, cousins, and I had discovered there was a pool table down there. It also held the army uniform he had worn so long ago, hanging from a pipe that ran across the ceiling.
But when my grandpa moved out of that house, it was the memories and the life that he had lived there that he kept seeing over the course of those two days of moving. It had taken months for my mom to convince him that moving would be best, but still, my grandpa had been hesitant. Over the years, with my grandpa’s growing back issues, the lawn had become unkempt, and he was struggling to keep up with the care of the house itself. Pictures on the fireplace had been coated with a thin layer of dust, dulling the shine of the golden frames, and the wooden ones seeming to gray with age.
My parents, one of my aunts, my brother, and I helped my grandpa move out of the house. Although memories weren’t haunting me nearly as much as they were my grandpa, I would still look at the kitchen table, remembering the many games of Connect 4 that had been played there, the black and red circles bouncing off the table onto the floor, or the living room floor, where my grandpa had sat watching from the couch as my brother and I bickered over the rules of checkers and whether or not we’d just made a legal move, and where my brother and I had dumped the box of old toys – dump trucks, dominoes, trains, small toy cars and tractors, and stuffed animals – onto the carpet and made up our own little world.
For my grandpa, it was those memories, and the more than thirty years of memories that had come before it: building the house from the ground with his former wife and oldest daughter after returning from Fort Benning, Georgia, the births of his other three daughters and watching all four of them grow, the arguments with my grandma, to standing with her at their eldest daughter’s wedding, and the divorce that followed, my grandma and the younger three daughters packing their bags, leaving my grandpa alone and regretting not being there more for his family in the house he had built for them all those years ago.
As he walked around the house when we were helping him pack, he dragged his feet, shuffling more than usual, the reminders of the memories written all over his face, his eyes drifting to the now empty stone fireplace, where pictures of all his family had been. The barer the house became, the slower he became, and with every box carried out through the door to the garage, the sadder his face became, his eyes becoming duller, and mouth drooping down. As my grandpa watched my dad help load boxes into the moving truck, the pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth, the less he said.
I do remember that he became picky about what he kept, not being able to keep everything in the move to his new condo, and I remember that he did argue with my mom and aunt on a few things, my brother and I chiming in, especially when it came to the toys of our childhood. But with less room, as my mom told the three of us, there needed to be sacrifices. Grudgingly, we submitted to her requests.
As we moved things into the new condo as well, I remember my grandpa becoming picky about how the fridge was placed, becoming grumpier each time the fridge had to be shifted, or complaining about the new setup of his living room. Again, my mom reminded him, there were sacrifices; this wasn’t going to be the same as his old house.
Standing in the new condo, at the mention of his house, my grandpa seemed to droop. We all knew that he loved that house, and still does, and even though he knew he couldn’t stay in the house forever with his bad back, we could tell he missed it, even on that first day, when he wasn’t even fully moved out. His life was at that house, with its memories of the children that once inhabited it, the many years he had spent with and without my grandma, and the new generation that gave the house new memories to hold.
With everything my mom, aunts, and grandpa have told me, I know my grandpa wasn’t always there for his kids, having worked a lot, and interacted with his kids little, and he regrets not having done better. Never having been a fan of babies, my grandpa had a harder time connecting to kids. But when I was born, my mom, who had remained the closest to my grandpa throughout the years, was determined to change that. My mom forced my grandpa to hold me, showing him how to cradle my head in the crook of his arm, and how to gently place his hand so he was supporting me properly as he sat in his big blue Laz-Y-Boy. To say the least, my grandpa was freaked out, nervously cradling me in his arms, becoming more nervous as my mom walked to the kitchen to get my formula after determining my grandpa was doing perfectly fine holding me. My mom did the same thing with my brother a year or so later, forcing him into my grandpa’s arms as I waddled around on the floor.
To me, it seemed like my mom literally pushing my brother and me into my grandpa’s arms was a revelation for him. Maybe, not in that moment, or any specific moment, but over the course of time as my brother and I grew, my grandpa realized he had the opportunity so few get. “They’re my second chance,” he once told my mom. He wasn’t planning on wasting it, and so far, he hasn’t. My grandpa has been an active part of both mine and my brother’s lives, making it to at least one of our sporting events during the year, and if he can’t, he’s always asking us. For me personally, he always asks about my piano lessons, and what I’m doing in my school’s choir, what songs we’re learning, what I’m practicing, and whenever he visits, he always wants to hear me play. There have been a few times where I’ve put the phone on speaker and played for him that way.
When my grandpa moved, my brother and I drove with him back and forth between his house and the condo. As he drove, at first the car was silent, except for the radio, my brother and I figuring out that my grandpa was just trying to seem okay in front of us; he didn’t want us seeing how upset he really was. So instead, my brother and I made conversation, awkwardly, but we accomplished the task well enough. We talked about the most random of things: the weather, the road, our young lives, probably even the weeds growing in the ditches. My brother had long ago found the secret stash of candy that my grandpa keeps in his truck, and when we all got quiet again, my brother broke the silence by asking if he could eat the candy. “Only if you share,” was my grandpa’s response.
Change has never been easy for my grandpa. After my grandma left with his daughters, he didn’t deal with it well at all. He doesn’t talk about that time period much, but I do know that my mom stood with my grandpa, helping him get back on his feet and get back to living his life. I also know that if not for my mom, my grandpa may not have gotten his second chance or watch three of his daughters become the women they are today. Choosing to leave the house where he spent the majority of his life was not an easy change for him to accept either, and in any conversation about the condo, he finds some way to tie in his house, even though it no longer belongs to him. There are some days in which he regrets the move entirely, but others in which he remembers that moving was better for his health.
Even though the house has stayed in the family, bought by one of my mom’s cousins, it has changed a lot since my grandpa lived there. But to him, the house seems unchanged. Despite the fact that he now lives a couple towns over from where he used to live, my grandpa maintains the same love for the house and its memories, and the life he had lived there for almost half a century. He has a lot of pride in the house, as building a house from the ground up took a lot of saving and wasn’t common in the small farming town of Posen. With all the life he’s put into it, it remains his home, and always will.