She puttered around the house until well after midnight last night, washing one more glass, folding one more t-shirt. Later, she found another to fold. She also found, like an afterthought, a half-full bottle of aspirin that she slid, rattling, into a box of other provisions she’d set aside for my daughter, now off at college. She’d stashed most of a stack of paper plates in there, and bales of napkins she’d not yet opened, and other things from the kitchen she didn’t want to go to waste. She checked each kitchen cupboard for anything forgotten, offered me a brief tour of the tool drawer I already knew well, found one more photograph she wanted to take with her.
I sat at the breakfast room table for most of this, my back to the kitchen, but I could hear her feet shuffling across the laminate. She’d pass through, off to the laundry room, back to the carpeted dining room that led to the rest of the house—my house, she’d been calling it for the past few days, not hers. Not any more. After sixty-one years of living here, she was trying to give it up.
She and my grandfather had bought the home back in 1951. She was 33. My mom was two and a half, the youngest of three kids, all crammed with my grandparents into a tiny apartment at the back of my great-uncle Homer’s. Housing in town was hard to come by with the influx of G.I.s returning from the war.
The house on Elm Street cost my grandparents a few thousand dollars. It was, even then, one of the older homes on the street. It had belonged to the First Church of God, whose members fixed it up before selling it out of the congregation to my grandparents, who were Catholic.
The house always helped my grandmother feel grounded, though it often made her feel tethered, too. She worked for the county judge, and when he got promoted in the 1970s to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, she commuted to Harrisburg with him during the week. My grandfather, the town’s postmaster, eagerly awaited her return on the weekends. She’d catch up on the cooking and cleaning, settling into the domestic role she missed during the week but still loved.
When President Reagan eventually named the judge to the Federal bench, she commuted to Pittsburgh and to Erie. When my grandfather’s health took a turn for the worse, I moved in with them during my last two years of high school to look after him while she continued to work to cover the medical bills.
After retirement, after my grandfather’s death in 1990, my grandmother spent a lot of time at my mother’s in Ohio, at my aunt’s near Hershey, at my uncle’s near Harrisburg. She’d return to stay at Elm Street for a couple months—where it was up to me, as the family member in closest proximity, to keep an eye on her—before she’d head out on the circuit again. The house, her touchstone, would wait for her eventual return.
She’s ninety-four now—ninety-five next month—and only in the last year and a half has her vigor diminished. As it happened, I needed a place to land following my divorce, so I moved back into the house to look after her while she was in town and to tend the house when she was away.
I’ve lived there, but it’s not my space. I’ve just been holding it, keeping mostly confined to a study I’ve installed upstairs. Through the rest of the house, paintings by my grandmother’s best friend, long since passed away, hang on the walls along with a set of decorative plates from Paris and a print of Eric Enstrom’s Grace. A little statue of the Sacred Heart stands on a pedestal outside my grandmother’s bedroom, which she kisses lightly on the head each night. Pictures of all her great-grandchildren—my own children and the children of my cousins—sit on the end tables and bookshelves. These are the things she makes her home with, and I have served as their steward—and, when she’s been home, as hers.
Over these months, I’ve watched my grandmother, once a formidable woman, shrink to something little more brittle than a snap. At ninety-four, she’s put in some good innings, but I used to joke that she was once a battle-axe. Now the joke disheartens me because I see her so diminished, frail enough to rustle like autumn leaves.
She can still muster enough of a smile to put light in her eyes, but mostly, she’s worn a cobweb of worry on her face this past month. For days, she has fretted about her house, cataloguing her life, packing it up for moving or storage. She is in mourning—but too full of nervous energy to mourn.
“You don’t know how hard this is for me, Christopher,” she says every few days, her voice hardly above a murmur. I do know what it’s like, though, at least a little. I had to give up my own house not too long ago. That’s why I’ve been living among my grandmother’s things in the first place. The sweat equity I had in my own home, though, will never equal the sixty-plus years she has in hers. The memories from those years have been breezing in and out like Sunday afternoon house callers.
This is, it turns out, a time of leavings around here, sparked weeks ago by my daughter’s departure for her freshman year of school. While a little sad to see her go, I’m mostly excited for her. She is getting older, and this is the way of things. She’s supposed to fly away, and I am supposed to be left behind.
My mother, here for a few weeks to help with the packing, left over the weekend, spelled at last by the arrival of my aunt, who’d come to collect my grandmother.
And now my grandmother is leaving, too. Whether this, too, is the way of things, I don’t yet know. Going to her daughter’s certainly is. It’s the closest thing we have these days to living together on Walton Mountain. That must mean leaving her house is the way of things, too—but it somehow doesn’t feel like it to me.
I couldn’t be at the house this morning to see them off because I had class, so I said my goodbyes last night. After a move from the breakfast room to the living room, I kept working while my grandmother kept puttering. When finally she quieted, I closed my laptop and went in to her room to get her tucked in. I kissed her goodnight and whispered goodbye and turned out the light. “Sweet dreams,” I wished her.
They would be, I knew, the last dreams she would have in her own bed in her own house.
From the other room, I waited to hear the rhythm of sleep in her breathing before I turned out my light and went upstairs to bed. This morning, when I came back downstairs, I stopped by her door to listen. She slept soundly.
I hope she dreamed well. I hope the day she woke up to was a good one.