It was the kind of dream that I enjoy visiting. The place looked like I remembered it, only with a few new perks, like the fact that it was still there. We were just passing through, my grandmother and I, hand in hand, touring the house on Rivercrest Drive. Neither of us have been there in twelve years. Grandmother sold it in 1997 to a nice couple who promised to treasure the “history of the place.”
They vowed to restore it and preserve it as the space that housed generations; this gave my grandmother solace. She sold it at a third of its worth, and within five years, the couple tore it down to erect something bigger, newer. “We gave it a try; we really did,” they wrote us. “But it just wasn’t working.” The couple still sends a card to the private nursing facility at Christmas, and they have my Grandmother’s full forgiveness.
But there Grandmother and I were together, suddenly in the present moment, standing in the study. Sun illuminated dust in the air, where there was only a brief silence and emptiness. I used to explore the peach trees and the Rose of Sharon bushes that flanked the house like rare tropics in the dry west Texas dust bowl. Here, in the “dream” house, Rose of Sharon grew straight in, absent of window panes to trap it outdoors. It leapt inward in 3-D, the purple blossoms hyper-rich and as much a part of the room as the book cases and old rotary phone.
We were looking about us but never at each other. Through the arched entry to the formal living room with its old-timey velvet sofas, slick, shiny green dominoes lay scattered across a card table. Bacon crisped in the kitchen. There was activity there, but no signs of life driving it.
Grandmother’s space on the sofa was empty as was the chair behind it where her mother once enjoyed cornbread and buttermilk in aqua disco-era glasses. Until she died, I called my great grandmother “Mom Murphy” and danced with her in the living room, the one with the dominoes. We shared our last dance when she was ninety-seven. I was thirteen.
She liked to wear her favorite pink polyester dress, take me by both hands, and sway me around to Lawrence Welk on 8-track. Sometimes, it was Jim Neighbors instead. At nap time, we’d sink deep into her egg crate mattress, where she would tell me stories of our ancestors’ adventures settling the wild west. Then, without fail, she’d remind me that a good nap a day is the key to a long and happy life. Of course, I could never sleep. I’d marvel at the false teeth she soaked in Efferdent, their hard gums the same color as the dress she wore for dancing. The room smelled of baby powder and White Rain hairspray.
But Mom Murphy’s chair was just a mutual acknowledgment. A stop on the way. It was my Grandfather’s easy chair that caught our steady focus. Granddad was lucky in the way some men were in the thirties. He didn’t have many choices, and so he didn’t want any. He married his high school sweetheart, got a job he liked, had two beautiful daughters, and spent his weekends at a small cattle ranch with them and a few horses.
He rode in rodeos from time to time, though I never saw him in those days. By the time I arrived, the horses were gone, and he just had a few cows to feed. We’d ride out to “the place” in his big Ford pick-up truck. It was the same powder blue as their dining room, and it had a rack for the rifle he carried as protection against rattle snakes.
He’d gas up in Merkel and let me pick out enough penny candy to fill a small lunch bag: candy lipstick, fake cigarettes, wax lips, licorice. Then, we’d greet the cows by the water tank and give them a salt lick. I could never get close enough to pet them, but I wanted to. I loved their giant brown eyes that looked like love, if not loneliness.
When Grandmother joined us, she’d take me treasure seeking. We’d step through cacti and crab apple bushes, finding old pink “fancy” glass and boot spurs, surely remnants from a lawless saloon. I treasured the old shoe buckles most and then the horse shoes, buttons, and especially the arrowheads. I still keep them in an old shoebox in my dining room hutch.
But his blue valour easy chair was leaned out with the foot rest engaged. I used to climb up in that gaping seat when I’d sneak away from nap time to watch Yogi Bear and the other Hanna Barbera cartoon animals. I was too young to care much about longevity anyhow.
But now the chair was open for use, but no one was there to watch the huge, oak television set or to reach across and grab my Grandmother’s hand to tell her how lucky he still felt after 65 years. In his retirement, when he wasn’t painting in the summerhouse or feeding cows, this is where my grandfather spent most of his time. And he was happy.
Standing there together, the absence was all right with my Grandmother and I. The dusty air was all right. The near silence even felt fine. There was only the sound of the bacon. No dinner table chit chat at Christmas-time 1976, stopped short by a gunshot blast from upstairs. Not the kind of silence they must have experienced before rushing from the table, then finding their daughter like that.
To be honest, I always expected her room to be haunted. And even though I can remember her in it, remember her brushing her thick black hair, letting me dress up in her old pink taffeta prom gowns, it wasn’t. She wanted to be gone.
(So, perhaps this is the better question: Why did they stay in that house, dipping their cornbread in buttermilk, dancing to Lawrence Welk, playing dominoes? Why weren’t they the ones to tear it down?).
The dream continues, but the atmosphere changes. The house is gone and now my grandmother and I are walking down a dusty path at the ranch, looking for treasures again. I fade to the background and my grandfather’s palm replaces mine in my grandmother’s hand. I watch as they continue walking ahead together, leaving me behind.