I had many happy memories as a child, despite my recent portrayal of fear and chaos and extremism. So now I’ll share some of those, and I want to dedicate it to my Grandmother, Viola, who passed away several years ago, to Papa Bill and his new wife Judy, and to My Mom, who deserves some pride again after what I’ve put her through on this blog. Love you mom. And of course to Jamie and Jessica, my cousins, my playmates forever… I wrote this article in 2000 for a writing contest for Lake Murray Magazine.
Grandma and Papa’s one-story brick house, with its flowering bushes in front, lake view in back and immaculately pruned vegetable garden to the side, was a refuge and a playground for my cousins and me. As far as we knew, our grandparents, Bill and Viola Pebley, had lived on the Isle of Pines in Chapin (South Carolina) forever.
Standing on their dock, we could see Lake Murray extending for miles like a quiet ocean without waves and salt. The yard seemed bigger and more beautiful than a jungle forest. The rooms of their home were spacious with polished wooden floors covered by Oriental rugs and lush carpet; with high ceilings and high beds and fluffy pillows; with carefully selected paintings on the walls and crystal vases on the shelves. A baby grand piano and huge bay windows accentuated the dining room. We thought Grandma and Papa were millionaires.
My cousins and I never tired of going to Grandma’s house because our imaginations were never limited there. A new game or creation or adventure awaited us every time our parents turned into the long driveway.
Our favorite adventures always took place around the lake. Playing close to the shore in our orange life-preservers, we wondered what was beyond, like modern Columbuses ready to swim the sea of blue and discover a new world. After swimming, we would board the gently rocking pontoon boat and pretend it was a lifeboat from the Titanic. Jamie used a broomstick to catch our dinner of fish because he was the “man of the ship,” and Jessica later used the same broom to rid our houseboat of cobwebs because she was the mother.
We would sail for days, avoiding sharks and ducking as pirates passed us on jet-skis. Finally, “seeing land,” we would think we were rescued, only to tip-toe gingerly over pebbles leading to a “deserted island.” Papa Bill would take the role of a native or a hermit and help us build a fire. We boiled water for our berry soup, knowing that Grandma was inside the house, busily preparing a feast of chicken, potatoes, fresh fruit and green beans with nuts for us to enjoy later.
When Papa sneaked firecrackers into the middle of the flames, we ran for cover as Indians or escaped prisoners shot at us from their hiding places. Soon we would hear the blowing horn of a rescue ship, Grandma’s dinner bell on the deck, and run in to safety and delicious cooking.
At a table designated just for the “kiddies,” we would roll our eyes at the grownups’ table conversation about Uncle Andy’s fishing or Aunt Bankie’s Sunday School class and yawn at how boring it all seemed in comparison to our big plans for the rest of the day. We would gobble down our food, taking time to melt the butter on our rolls over a lit candle, then run to kiss Grandma and say as we had been taught, “I enjoyed it. May I be excused?”
Then we would play countless games of hide-and-seek, hiding under tables and beds, in closets and behind furniture until we ran out of places and energy. Sweaty and exhausted, we would head toward Grandma’s colossal bathtub. It was big enough for the three of us, and we would play in the peach-scented bubbles wearing our swimsuits and shower caps.
The wall that separated the bedroom from the bathroom didn’t quite reach the ceiling, and Papa would throw balloons over it for us to use as bath toys. When all of the balloons were popped, our skin was sufficiently wrinkled and the water was no longer bubbling and hot, we would leave our bath, change clothes, steal a piece of bubble gum from Papa’s shelf, and put “Benji” in the VCR. Snuggled between Jamie and Jessica on the comfortable couch, I was tired and full and warm.
Grandma and Papa’s house represents more to me than childhood memories. It represents a relationship with my cousins, a bond with them that has grown since those childhood days into a mature understanding of each other. The house reminds me of a time when we had no real worries, no responsibilities, no painful experiences, no regrets. That house was the foundation for the bond we have now — a bond that some siblings do not share.
In the years that have passed since we were children, my cousins and I have seen our family change. we have added new traditions and forgotten older ones; we have gained and lost precious family members; we “kiddies” have graduated from high school; and our younger cousins, the “baby kiddies” are now teenagers.
Jamie and Jessica and I have moved countless times. Yet through these changes, Grandma’s house stayed the same. Its arms remained open to us as a source of stability, a refuge, a meeting place, a bonding place. That house was our sanctuary in every sense of the word — our place to offer thanksgiving to G-d, to fellowship with each other, to hide from the world, to sing praises, to rest, to learn life lessons, to grow. That house was home.
Now that I’m older, the dock doesn’t seem to stretch quite as far into the lake, and the beds don’t seem quite as high. When did Jessica, Jamie, and I grow too big for the bathtub? When did we become too proficient at swimming to need the life-jackets? When did we become too mature for the imaginary games of house and office and island? When did we stop having to run and jump to brush our fingertips across the string that opens the attic? I don’t remember the exact time or date — there wasn’t one.
But while we were growing and trying to reach our dreams, Grandma’s house and all the people in it were nudging us closer to those dreams and to each other. They were making it a little easier to branch out into the world, to leave childish things, and to begin our lives of adulthood. I will always associate Grandma’s house with a feeling of pure acceptance, security, and warmth.
I cried when my mom called me at college and told me the house was for sale. I cried tears of fear — would our family be able to survive without it? I cried tears in remembrance of my childhood and tears of love for my cousins. I cried when I imagined the house empty of Grandma’s “pretties” and the yard void of her magic touch. I cried when I realized that soon our playground, our refuge, would be someone else’s property. I cried in sympathy for the house. I selfishly assumed that it would not be happy without us, that it would be lonely and sad to see us leave it.
But it’s just a house. I had to keep reminding myself of that in order to separate my attachment to the building from my deep love for the memories my family had made there. Love cannot be captured in brick and wood. A house is just four walls and a roof unless it has people, family to fill it. Grandma and Papa’s house was made strong by my grandparents who lived there, and any house occupied by people of such character will be a place worthy of visiting. Papa and Grandma’s arms will be familiar when their doors are new and unaccustomed, and both their arms and their doors will always be open to our family.
The off-key “happy birthdays” will continue in the new house. We cousins will keep burning our rolls on candles and teasing Grandma about her “nutty” cooking in the new place. The three kings will faithfully wail their appreciation to that “star of wonder” every Christmas in a new room.
The memory making will continue in Grandma’s new house as will the bonding and the supporting and the loving that is so familiar to us all. The same wonderful family will fill the new walls with noise and laughter. In future years, we will learn to call it “Grandma’s house” instead of “grandma’s new house.” These are the thoughts that comfort me and convince me to accept the selling of the house as a rite of passage, a conclusion to a fulfilling novel, a finale to a classical masterpiece.
But I still can’t help feeling a great loss knowing that soon the doors to that old house will not be ours to enter freely. The day we leave our sanctuary for the last time will be a sad one because Papa Bill won’t be able to drawl, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?!”
And we won’t be able too.
Jamie, Jessica, her baby Emmanuel, and I with Grandma and Papa, around the time this article was written, seventeen years ago.