It was not merely a house. Grandma and Grandpa had a four-bedroom, two and-a-half bath residence in West Covina, California, but the structure itself was not what made the house special. What was inside the house – the people, the possessions, the memories – made visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house an extraordinary experience. Each room had a special significance, provided a connection to one of my family members. It was inside those rooms that I learned the most important lessons about the people in my life and there was no better teacher than my own curiosity.
My mother’s parents moved west from Illinois in the latter part of 1961, just before Christmas. My mother lived in the West Covina house for four years before moving to Westwood to attend UCLA. By 1968 she had met my father, gotten married and had a baby named Julie. From that day forward, the house in West Covina was an official grandparent’s house.
I don’t remember much from those first few years, but the early 1970s provided many vivid memories of “going go Grandma and Grandpa’s.” Because I could not tell time, my parents would predict, “We’ll get there after ten songs have played on the radio!” I would sit in the back seat of the Chevy eagerly listening to the music, waiting to spot familiar streets. Once we finally made that last turn into the ivy-lined driveway, I could hardly wait to run across the entryway to see if the hardwood floors still squeaked. Leaping from the car, I would run into the house and charge through each room reassuring myself that everything was the same. The consistency of my grandparents’ house was a comfort I cherished; nothing ever changed.
Mornings began in the den. Grandpa would leave bright and early and, on tiptoe, I would wave goodbye to him from the window. Toasted bread with honey would be set down on the sill so that I could blow kisses and press my face against the frosty glass. He was going to work at some place called DuPont, but in the den, it seemed as if he had never left. Along one wall were wooden bookshelves which held wonderful books like Heidi and stories by Hans Christian Andersen. Grandpa would read these to me when he came home. In the closet was his accordion which he would play after dinner. And of course, in the corner, was Grandpa’s big chair which, unlike any of our chairs, could spin. It was easy to pretend that I worked at DuPont when I leaned back in his chair in the den.
Down the hall from the den was the master bedroom. Against one wall was a dressing table on which Grandma displayed lots of beautiful, sweet-smelling perfume bottles and jewelry boxes. She always let me try on her rings and clip-on earrings. In the closet I would play with her shiny belts and polka-dot dresses, wrapping her beads three times around my neck. They were still too big but they were Grandma’s. The room even sounded like Grandma. On the nightstand stood a music box which played one of her favorite songs called “Lara’s Theme.” It was a love song from a movie called Doctor Zhivago, and when I wound up the key, Grandma would start to sing, “Somewhere my love…..” I would lie on the bedspread looking at the ceiling, listening to her hum the rest. She could never remember the words to any song.
(This is a music box I gave her years later. It plays “The Wind Beneath My Wings.”)
When nap time arrived, I got to sleep in my mother’s old bedroom. Above the bed was a bulletin board filled with pictures of her when she was a little girl, a teenager, a bride, a new mother. These pieces were shiny and smooth and I would stare at them for hours wondering what she used to look at when she was falling asleep. On the wall opposite the bulletin board was a framed picture by Bessie Pease Gutmann. It was of a small child in a doorway. I thought it was a picture of my mother standing outside my grandparents’ bedroom when she couldn’t sleep either.
There were many other rooms and many other memories in my grandparents’ house. I will never forget their birdbath on the shady patio or the much-used croquet set spread across their lawn. In their backyard the flowers will always bloom and the swing-set will inspire its swingers to sing songs to the sky.
Grandma and Grandpa moved away from the West Covina house when I was eight years old and, for many reasons, I’m glad they did. Their house was a place where I never had to grow up. I would not have wished to see those special rooms change along with my attitudes and my perspective. To me, their house was as much a state of mind as it was an architectural structure. I was a child there and I saw each room through the eyes of a young girl who loved her family; nothing ever changed. In my mind, the hardwood floors in that old house still squeak when little girls run across them.
The above was the first draft of an essay I wrote for a comp course at UCLA. Our creaky, gray-haired professor informed us if we could get an A in her class, we should be teaching it. I probably got a B but if I could remember the professor’s name, I’d thank her for the assignment.
My grandparents moved again recently and returned to me the original yellowed pages they’d saved all these years.