Discover Challenge / Journal

Where the Heart is

Discover Challenge: Finding Your Place

Although my hometown is but a short drive from where I reside now, I rarely go back.  My time there is filled with bitter sweet memories and shadows of ghosts that have been known to haunt my dreams even now.

My childhood home is no longer in existence.  It has long been demolished. Where once stood a tiny ramshackle dwelling of dubious construction, there now stands a home that, in my opinion, does not belong.  Growing up there was a stone driveway, wider than it was long.  It resided to the left of the little house with a walkway that was haphazardly thrown together.  It led to a porch that leaned heavily to the left and had several boards missing.  The posts may have once been green or possibly gray.  By the time I was thirteen they were faded and scratched without any color that could be discerned in the paint that remained.

Before I take you inside this small dwelling where resided far to many people and pets, I would like to tell you about the area that surrounded it.  My grandfather had lost control of his home to his daughter and her three unruly children, but the outside was his domain and had a beauty like no other.

To the left of the house was a chestnut tree.  It was the perfect size and shape for climbing and playing hide and seek until such time that the fruits arrived and their spiny thorns and their pungent odor kept all but the bravest at bay.  A little further and you came to a row of peonies.  The likes of which I have never seen again.  The blooms were as large as my head in colors of pink, magenta, pale yellows, whites, and variegated varieties I still can’t locate in any catalog.  The honey like smell filled the air.  Right before you got to the woods edge the forsythia grew in abundance.

Behind this was a “garage” and I say this with tongue in cheek as I am not very certain that a car or vehicle of any sort had ever resided in it’s dark confines.  We used to dare each other to enter it.  I used to fearlessly hide in there when I wanted to escape my siblings.  I was never one to be afraid of the dark.  Although know, as an adult, I can’t help but wonder what I was thinking.  The garage was basically a cemetery for unused equipment, fertilizer, moldy burlap sacks and other not so easily identified or remembered items.  Regardless of how scary it was someone had to go through it to get to the attached kennel at the back that housed the hunting hounds.

The side yard between the house and the garage was the only truly area that could be called a yard.  It was the most verdant green that I have ever seen.  In the Spring and Autumn it smelled horribly as grandpop spread a mixture of pig and chicken manure on it.  I hated that smell growing up, but the results were truly miraculous.  When my sister and I actually got along we would lay out there and picnic together with our dolls and teddy bears.

The back yard.  That is where the true magic happened.  Grandpop’s vegetable garden began about 30 feet beyond the back porch.  It wasn’t always that close, but each year he added about six inches until one day it just happened.  Right before you stepped into the right of the garden was a terribly old outhouse that was completely taken over by the sweetest smelling Wisteria bushes.  They were so heavy that I am not to this day certain how the rotting wood held them up.  The garden was a labyrinth.  A young child could easily lose their way through the rows and rows of fruit and vegetables.  Grandpop had a green thumb.  Most likely two and then some.  Along one of the paths was an old swing.  Along another was a deep well where bull frogs resided.  A bench sat in the midst of the strawberries and way in the back was the genesee shack.

So exactly what is a genesee shack?  It was my grandpop’s “secret” place where he hid from my mother and drank his Genesee cream ale and smoked his Salem Slim Lights and dreamed of the life he gave up.  Well, I don’t know that for sure, but I assume he did occasionally.  I didn’t realize until many years after my grandfather passed away that he was most likely an alcoholic, but it does not affect my love or my memories of the man who so lovingly shaped me into the woman I am today.

I digress.  The other side yard was an orchard.  It was filled with peach, pear, apple and nectarine trees.  At the edge was the swing set with the slide and the teeter totter.  The hand well was there too.  I used to love to help pump water.  It seemed so magical.

The final destination and the one I loved the most was the giant maple/oak tree that was at the edge of the property line closest to the road.  This tree was truly my sanctuary.  I would spend hour upon hour in that tree.  Sometimes to read, others to watch the cars pass by, sometimes to draw and many times to just escape the craziness that abound inside.

Would you like to follow me indoors now?

Using the old skeleton key to open the multi-panes front door that led into a mint green living-room.  I am not sure what offended you first.  The smell of two many cats that didn’t always use the litter box or the musty smell of boxes and boxes of “stuff”.  I don’t really know if the word “hoarder” was used back then, but my mother was well on her way.  She didn’t just hoard things.  She hoarded cats.  I couldn’t really give you a number.  Not sure I could count that high.  Then there were the dogs.  Plenty of those also.  I loved the animals and it wasn’t until I got a bit older and began making friends that I came to realize that not all houses smelled the way ours did.  There were many mornings when you would have to change our shoes because of an accident that was never cleaned up.

Again I digress.

To the left of the mint green living-room was a pale pink dining room.  Among the piles of boxes and bags filled with clothes, linens, papers and God only knows what else, were multiple televisions that no longer worked but acted as chairs for guests.  There was also a dining table with mismatched chairs.  At that table we ate some of the best food on the planet.  My mother could not clean to save her life, but she could cook.  Grandpop was a chef, a hunter, and a fisherman.  I am sure I have eaten things in my lifetime that would make most people cringe.

Once you passed through the dining-room you were in the pale yellow kitchen.  Do you see the trend towards pastels here?  As an adult I am sometimes appalled at the thought that I actually ate food that was prepared in this particular kitchen.  I wish I could truly explain to you what this area of the house looked like, but it would take forever to even begin. Lets just say it was less then hygienic.   Yet some of the best memories I have started in that room.  Learning to cook.  Thanksgiving.  It would start at six in the morning and the smell of the turkey cooking while we made stuffing and all the sides.  Christmas morning with ham and yams and every cookie you could imagine!!  In that room I learned to fillet fish, butcher deer, and create my own recipes.

To the back of the house off the living-room was a small bedroom.  When I was a very small child it was the room where my mom, my step-father, me and both my siblings slept.  I came to despise that room with a passion.  My step-father was a completely different kind of alcoholic from my grandfather.  He was the kind of drinker that got mean.  He was the kind who sat in a black recliner with a case on the floor next to him and watched television until he passed out.  I remember vividly the sour smell of beer laced urine when he was to drunk to get up and use the upstairs bathroom.

Oh the upstairs.  How could I forget!  At the top of the steep staircase with the creaking steps and uneven slant was a large open room.  That room was Granpops and I am proud to say that he never gave that room up.  He stood his ground and kept the one room in the house that was truly his.  Except for when I brought Sammy home and he was put into a large tank in that room.  I loved that bedroom.  It always smelled clean and outdoorsy and well, it smelled like my hero.

The only other rooms on the second floor was the bathroom, that had no shower!  Then a teeny tiny little room.  Eventually I got that room.  Freedom!  I no longer shared a room with four other people.

Until the age of thirteen I loved everything about my life, my home, and all the chaotic craziness it entailed.  I loved all the animals.  I didn’t know that all that would change when I went to junior high school.  My little home was located on the borderline between school districts.  I ended up in the cut that went to one of the richest schools in the area.  I showed up in my discount rack outfit on the first day and from then until the end I was picked on horribly.  I hated school with a passion!

I soon learned that the pot heads were the most excepting and took the long spiral down the drinking, weed and partying track.  I think grandpop knew more than he let on.  He would talk to me in his calm way with those piercing blue eyes and would remind me of why I was special just the way I was.  Of course I didn’t listen, not then anyways.

Eventually I started bringing friends home. On the porch me and my friends spent endless hours laughing, talking, sneaking smokes and drinks, and dreaming of the day we would escape Plumsteadville!  I stopped appreciating all the little things.  I felt embarrassed by my home, my life, and my grandpop.  I am truly ashamed to admit this.

Why?

Because this man taught me everything I ever knew and know about how to be a good person.  He taught me to love through the pain.  He taught me to appreciate the little things.  He taught me about empathy.  Laughter is the best medicine.  He taught me that what you see isn’t the whole story.  He believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.

 

So why does it hurt so much to go “home”.  Now it looks like any other well to do house in a well to do neighborhood.  Manicured lawns with just the right amount of low maintenance landscaping.

It breaks my heart to see it.

When I was a teenager though I couldn’t wait to escape.  We were the “white trash” of the neighborhood.  Only as an adult have I come to truly appreciate all the love that went into that home and the yard that surrounded it.  Only now do I truly understand how that home made me the person I am today.

The home belonged to my grandfather.  He took my mom, me and my siblings in.

While me and my friends sat on the porch and talked about escaping, none of us really ever thought about what this really meant.  Looking back now I realize that we weren’t poor at all.  I miss walking to the orchard to pick a pear, a peach, or a ripe red apple off the tree and biting into it’s crisp flesh and feeling the juice run down my chin.  I miss being told to go to the garden to pick whatever vegetable I wanted for dinner. The choices were endless.  In every season there was something growing.  Fruits and vegetables were plentiful.  We never wanted for meat because my grandfather was an avid hunter and fisherman.  It never occurred to me that other people didn’t eat food that they either grew or killed.

My first trip to a fast food restaurant didn’t occur until I was in about 6th grade.  Like any other kid I was amazed by the greasy, salty, goodness of the McDonald’s french fry!  It was also around this time that I began spending more time at other peoples homes and when I came to realize that our family wasn’t like other families.  I became embarrassed and ashamed of our life and grew increasingly verbal about how I felt.

If only I had known that I would only have four short years with the man who gave up all he had to raise us.  He was the buffer between me and my mother.  He encouraged me in all my endeavors and loved me through all my temper tantrums.  He was the gentle giant who taught me to love the outdoors.  He taught me how to cook and garden.  He never ran out of patience even when he should have.

I hate driving by that lot in the small town where there is no longer a leaning wooden “shack”.  It reminds me of how selfish I was in the last years of my grandfather’s life.  He never complained and by the time I knew he was dying I had moved out, but hadn’t moved on.

My grandfather lives inside of my heart.  It has been thirty-two years since he passed away from cancer and I still only have to close my eyes to see his crystal blue eyes and weather worn skin.  I can remember his deep voice and his quiet laughter without trying to hard.  I see my grandfather every time I look into the mirror.  I have his eyes.  It makes me feel good to know that.  Every time I rescue an animal; I know he is in me.

Grandpop believed in me and all my crazy dreams.  It has been years since I have painted or written, as is so obvious by this post.  I truly gave up on me, but here is where my heart is and that little house in a small corner of a town that wasn’t even on the map when I was growing up is exactly where I needed to be so that one day I would become the amazing, silly, eclectic person I am today.

That is where my heart is …

 

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