I learned the way to my grandma’s house as a very young child. I knew it was thirteen miles from our house, on country roads, all gravel. I knew the turns and the spreading cottonwood trees in the pasture gullies, the houses we would pass. (There were few enough in those thirteen miles, and now even fewer.) I knew the way I would begin to feel carsick as the land became rougher, and hilly, close to her house.
There was her mailbox, mounted to an old water pump, and the long drive which sloped downhill to the house and always had big ruts where the water ran through. The Scotch pines to the north of the house, which sang in the wind, and the lilac bushes which Grandpa planted not long before he died, at the front of the house. The acrid smell of coffee as you stepped onto the back porch, and the kitchen, which always smelled even stronger of coffee, but also, vaguely, of cookies. Or perhaps of a tin which has had cookies in it, and has sat for a few days, holding crumbs. The smell of sugar, and vanilla.
Of course, there were always cookies. When I was young, there would often be several different kinds. Crispy, melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies, soft chocolate or banana drops, chewy oatmeal raisin, and giant monster cookies, studded with salted peanuts and M&Ms candies. The first thing anyone did at Grandma’s, was to get a cookie. “Get yourself a cookie,” she would say, as you stepped in the door, either because she saw you were headed there anyway, or she couldn’t resist the opportunity to feed her family as much and as often as she could. And we did, pulling open the lids to the tins to see what was there — and then, cookies in hand, we could proceed into the sitting room. “Now come sit down and tell me what’s new with you,” she’d say, as we settled into our seats, she in her favorite rocker-recliner, and you in the rocker across from her.
I don’t think there was any home that ever felt homier to me, than Grandma’s. It had so many problems — sloping floors and hideous wood paneling, a wagon wheel chandelier and dropped ceiling, a crumbling foundation and pipes that always froze in winter. The kitchen was minute, so narrow that two people could only just manage to pass one another in it, providing one of them pressed themselves over the enamel topped tables which served as the countertop. And yet it was everything wonderful and cozy and familiar.
I returned to Grandma’s house almost two weeks ago, now. I had not visited since the day the entire family, all her living children and grandchildren, descended upon her, and forced her to move from the “home place,” as she often called it, to the nursing home. It was a terrible day, one that I hate to think of. She lost her home that day, and we were all part of that happening. I will never forget her face. I was sure we were making a terrible mistake, even though I couldn’t see how she could continue on in her home.
In the end, it happened, even though I think some of us wondered if she would survive the trauma of it. She did. And she has come to accept it, mostly. When I visit with her recently, she talks of living on the farm like it’s many years ago, even though it’s not yet been eighteen months.
I spent a few minutes looking out the east windows of her sitting room, standing where the glider rocker used to sit, where children and granchildren sat to visit with her. I passed dozens of mornings sitting there in the dark with Grandma, she drinking coffee, rocking quietly with a cat on her lap, watching the sunrise. Without her chair and her orange globe lamp and stacks of books and letters and cards, without Grandma — that room doesn’t hold much for me.
But the kitchen still seems somehow living. So much happens in a kitchen, that perhaps some of the energy remains forever in the much-used enamel farmhouse sink, or the sky-blue-painted cupboards. I looked in all them, which still smell of metal bakeware, and one of them, of brown sugar and chocolate chips. One cupboard stood open, holding a few pieces of crystal dishware that hadn’t been claimed by any children or grandchildren. I took a small, clear glass whiskey bottle which Grandma often set on the windowsill above her kitchen sink, with a single stem of whatever might have been blooming just then.
I brought it home and put it above my own kitchen sink, which faces west, as hers did and still does. It’s a small thing, but it feels like home to me.
This post-it note has been stuck to the cabinet for almost ten years now. Grandma put it there after my Aunt Lesa’s memorial service. She found the photo slide show at the memorial too much to bear - I can imagine now as a mother, how it broke her heart again to watch it — but grandma is such a character. She was constantly making lists for different family members of things she needed, or chores and tasks that needed done, thoughts she had. So she wrote it on a post-it note and — this is my guess, because what post-it note ever could have stuck to a cabinet in a steamy kitchen for ten years? — superglued it to the cabinet for all posterity! I suppose I’ve read it hundreds of times. Look how faded it is. Well, she meant it then, and I know she still means it. And there will NOT be slide show at her memorial!