Right before Christmas, Henry had a bunch of my old 8mm tapes transferred to DVDs. It was pretty much the greatest/worst thing he could have done, because I am a sucker for nostalgia. And once it baits me, I’m tough to reel back in. He picked ten tapes at random, because he had a Groupon. One of those tapes happened to be the oldest one in the box, and it started with one of the Christmases from when I was in middle school. So, maybe 1991? 1992? Henry was dying because even with my back to the camera, my body language was a neon sign for This Girl is Pouting. “Oh good lord, were you kids spoiled,” he muttered while I smiled sweetly at the memories of these past Christmases. But then the video switched from my family’s house to my grandparent’s house, and for the first time in 15 years, I heard my Pappap’s voice and tears simultaneously sprung forth. Just seeing my parents, Susie and her then-husband Mark, my grandparents and my great-grandma sitting around the table, while Sharon supervised us kids opening more presents, and hearing everyone laugh at whatever hilarious joke my Pappap had made….it started out like a kick to the gut, but then, surprisingly, I was able to watch it without tears in my eyes, while making fun of my pre-teen self. For years and years, I clung to the past in a really unhealthy way, wishing that my Pappap hadn’t died (OK, I obviously still wish that; that hasn’t changed) and that our family hadn’t broken apart like Pangea, that we still all got together for holidays and I hadn’t been basically banned from my grandparent’s house.
So we’re watching these videos and Chooch is getting super pissed.
“I bet your Pappap gave you like, a lot of money for your birthday, didn’t he?” he asked angrily.
“Not really,” I answered casually. “But, we were usually in Europe for my birthday….”
“Oh my god, I hate you,” Chooch cried. “Like, really hate you.”
I’m not going to lie. While there was certainly dysfunction under my own roof, and my relationship with my grandma was strained at best, my Pappap did everything in his power to make sure that I had a charmed childhood. And I love him so much for that. He’s the reason why I try to give Chooch interesting/weird/cool experiences. I might not have a lot of money, and I certainly can’t take him to Europe every year for his birthday, but I will still do whatever I can to give him good memories. My Pappap kept me from turning into a spoiled brat (OK, I have my snobby moments even as a poor person) by being a kind, humble man.
This was taken one of the last times I was over there, in 2010.
Once my grandma’s health began to decline about 10 years ago, so did the house. It was just her and my aunt Sharon living there, in this house that could comfortably shelter multiple families, and they just couldn’t keep up. Occasionally, they would call Henry over to make minor repairs, but there were larger issues that weren’t being addressed, landscaping that had been overlooked for years, a pool that hadn’t been maintained since the late 90s. You get the picture. Just like our family, it was falling apart.
When my grandma died in 2011, we thought for sure the house was going to be taken. My mom and Sharon have been in a world of financial struggle for more than a decade, and I couldn’t imagine how they were going to afford to keep the house. But Sharon continued living there, alone, and it just seemed like they kept dodging bullet after bullet that the bank was firing at them. And even though I am so removed from them and the situation these days, I was secretly glad that they were somehow stealing more time. Because this house was all we had left of my grandparents and the memories of The Good Days. The BBQs and pool parties and sleepovers and Christmases on the porch where there was usually one person mad at another person, but it was still so much better than this, how it is now, this nothingness, where we’re no longer a family but basically just a bunch of strangers with chunks of matching DNA.
Two days ago, I was at work when Corey texted me a Realtor.com listing.
Sharon finally did it. She put the house on the market.
I could taste the bile rising as I scrolled through the pictures of peeling wallpaper and dust-coated glass tables. I sat at my desk, willing myself not to cry. I will never be able to put into words how much this house means to me, how all of the best memories of my childhood were born under that roof, in that pool, among the woods in the backyard. It was my happy place. It was where I sought refuge in my teen years when my dad and I hated each other. It was where I would stop on my way home from school to sit at the kitchen counter and help my grandma with her puzzle while the Guiding Light theme song bleated out of the small kitchen television set. It was where my friends and I would hang out in high school, watching the hockey game and horror movies on that huge wraparound couch in the game room. Sometimes I think, if my memories of that house are this beautiful, it must be like looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for my mom and aunts.
I know. It’s a house. It’s just a house. No one died.
But…the memories. The nostalgia. The scents and the feels and the sights of that crazy velvet wallpaper and the gaudy opulence of the clown room — it’s not just a time capsule of my childhood, but also a veritable set design for the strange aesthetics of the 60s and 70s, like if you could walk into the word “Groovy” and pop a squat. Their interior decorator (yes, they had one; his name was Herbie) definitely went for Liberace Lite.
When I show people pictures of the house now, they’re like, “Are you fucking kidding?” But this was normal to me. This was real life. This was what I grew up in. I thought every house had hidden rooms under the steps where Pappaps kept a collection of Cameos brought back from the War, a house-wide intercom system, a master bathroom with Roman-esque pillars, a basement with three separate game rooms: one with a bar, one with a pool table and arcade games, one with a poker table and furniture made from barrels.
Corey said that he spoke with Sharon that day and that she seemed OK, like she had finally come back down to earth and understood that this is what she needs to do, that it’s time. And even though it hurts so bad, like an entire limb is being taken from me, I know it’s the right thing, too. And I hope that once Sharon is out of there, she can finally let go and start living life again. Maybe this is what she needs to do to finally start healing. Because she hasn’t been the Sharon I used to know, not since that traumatic night in 1996.
Corey and I are trying to gently convince Sharon to let us come over for one last time. We just want to look around, run our fingers over the curios and crystals, take some pictures. I just want to breathe it in one last time before some asshole buys it and completely remodels it.
A few years ago, I posted the only pictures here I could find, taken from 2007-2008. It’s mind-blowing to me how a house that was once so open and inviting (it was surprisingly warm and cozy in there, like a sanctuary) turned into a bolted-up, secretive fortress. I haven’t been inside there since 2010, and that was for about 30 minutes before Sharon was shooing me out.
This painting was supposed to be mine. This was all I wanted, plus all the old photo albums. I don’t care about the money. I would rather continue living in pseudo-squalor than taking their handouts.
Chooch in the Clown Room, standing near a sharp-edged glass table, wooo parenting!
Master bathroom, one of my favorite rooms as a kid.
Someday I hope to have a house to cover in strange wallpaper.
Sharon wasn’t home one day so my grandma let us take pictures of Chooch in the gameroom. Sharon is real weird about me being in the house, like she expects me to start pocketing the Lalique and Lladro. (Not gonna lie, I wouldn’t mind giving all of those clowns a new home.)
His shoes were on the wrong feet—parental duties on lock.
My friend Evan always liked to play chess at this table back when we were in high school.
My grandma let Corey and I have a photoshoot in there one day until Sharon caught wind and made us feel so tense and nervous that we eventually just left.
Someday, before the house is gone, I want to break in and take more pictures and just get one good, long look at what seemed so normal to me as a kid. I spent some of the best days of my life at that house, watching “Golden Girls”, “Empty Nest” and “Hunter” during Saturday night sleepovers, eating grilled cheese, and playing PacMan in the game room while “She Bop” blared out of the jukebox. Until I convince Sharon to let me in, I’m going to tear through every last photo album I have for more pictures. I feel absolutely panicked about this.
Spending so much of my youth in that house stimulated my imagination and cultivated my eclectic tastes. I owe so much of who I am today to that strange, magical place on Gillcrest. It was my refuge.
I came home from work the Day the House Was Put on the Market and was looking through an old tin of mixtapes, in hopes of finding the one I had just written about the other day. It’s been a good 10 years since I had rooted around through this tin, and the first thing I saw when I removed the lid was this picture of my grandparents from 1991 and my heart split in two:
Sometimes I believe in signs, and this was one of those times. I feel like this was their way of saying it’s OK. That we don’t have to keep that house in the family to keep their memory alive.