Bright Lights

The house is not particularly noticeable from the county road that cuts deeper into the yard with each lane expansion. It’s easy to miss, a mid-century ranch tucked under Auto Zone’s garish orange signage and dwarfed by the growing hospital complex across the street. If you happen to spy the house, it will be the young peach trees out front that catch your eye. Planted close to the widening road, the thin branches promise new life at odds with a house and home on borrowed time. The flowers in bloom also tell a story – one about a life measured by the star gazer lilies, gladiolas, hydrangea, clematis, and peonies that my grandmother coaxed from soil and seed each year.

I have been visiting this house, and the grandparents who once lived there, for most of my life. Although Batesville, Arkansas, is neither grand destination in its own right, nor on the way to other more fashionable places, it is the center of the universe. 1781 Harrison Street has long been the axis around which my world turns, in large part due to my grandmother Lou Ellen Harmon Ford who made that particular house my home. My grandfather called her Ellen, but to friends and family she was Lou. I called her Grandma. Gone four years now, my grandmother remains the world to those of us who bask in the glow of her memory that we trade back and forth like precious currency. An intensely private woman, my grandmother’s lifestory is not mine to tell. And even if it were, the rawness of her passing colors in too broad a stroke the bone-deep memories that ache when I probe them. On occasion, the next stage of this long grieving process rears its head and I find myself mapping outlines of the stories I’ll tell one day. For now, the closest I can get to this woman who was my shelter in every storm, is the house from which she lived a quiet life with an outspoken, iron-clad agenda: to raise and to raise up her family. 

My sister has taken to calling my grandmother her “fierce Lou.” Having inherited both my grandmother’s name and her spirit intuition, my sister assures me that Grandma is still hovering. We all know that she’s impatient for my grandfather; biding her time on the threshold of glory until she can welcome her beloved to their new home. Until then, she tarries among us, bearing stealthy witness to our sincere, if fumbling, attempts to right the universe that she ran like clockwork from the small house that served as her personal command center. 

And because I cannot quite capture my grandmother or her memory in one short story, I turn my attention to the house that was more than the sum of its many parts. Instead of telling you about my grandmother; about the hands that cooked, and cleaned, and sewed; and the mind that fashioned and managed a successful investment portfolio from an 8th grade education; and about the heart that loved Jesus, and the time and place that insisted he would love us better in pantyhose, full makeup, and our Sunday best. Instead of this lifestory, I can tell you only about the heating grate, and dresser drawers, and the kitchen table, and about the crack of light that shone under the door of my mother’s childhood bedroom. There, I would lie waiting on hot summer nights for my grandmother to come and preach a gospel that hung the moon and stars, bringing to my bedside an everyday holy that smelled like Merle Norman cold cream and bacon grease.

Much like Billy Collins pays homage to the bread and the knife – and somehow also the wine – to tell the story of what we are and are not to one another, I trace my steps from grate, to dresser, to table, to bed. All in the hopes of finding the things and places that might voice my grandmother’s story, partially staying the sentence of the unspoken and taming, temporarily, the power of that which remains to be sorted and said.

My grandmother was more than the bread and the wine; she was the whole goddamn garden. She was in every single cow she called “pretty girl” before assessing her value at auction; she was the ripeness of each vegetable she raised, pickled, and put up; and hers was the voice of generations of women who spoke only in hushed voices in the private sanctuaries of their homes, laying the whispered foundation for the growing chorus that now proclaims, #Metoo. She, like many others, had so much to share and too few avenues to be heard. This, then, is a story that tries to listen as much as it tells. 

After a long day on my best behavior as a precocious middle child visiting my beloved grandparents, I was often glad to retreat to the privacy of my mother’s childhood bedroom. The bedroom sat at the end of the front hallway that runs the full length of the house. The hallway was carpeted in ‘70s era mustard shag that caught the eye of housewives across the nation, many of whom—my grandmother included—took great pride in covering gorgeous hardwood floors with sherbet colored synthetics. While the shaggy green sea covered much of the house’s footprint, the old heating grate was spared. The grate was somewhat of a mystery to me and my siblings. It coughed and sputtered when my grandfather lit the pilot light that went out frequently, carried off on the silent drafts that flowed through the house year round.

We visited most frequently in the summers when the grate lay dormant, noticeable only to our bare feet that sometimes tripped on the rough iron grid. But in the winter, we would drag plates and cups from the kitchen and dine around our personal fireplace, burning our hands as we dared one another to hold onto the grate for just one more second. I have fond memories of this antiquated heater and was deeply saddened when my grandparents upgraded to a “better” system capable of blowing hot air out of tidy ducts in the wall. On cold mornings when I’m fiddling with my own thermostat, my grandmother surfaces in memories that warm from head to toe. And so, an ancient grate binds my feet to my grandmother’s soul. And that might be the very definition of how holy ground works. It’s everywhere we touch the essence of one another and find ourselves warmed by the silent presence of those who’ve gone before.

Looking down the hallway from that blessed grate, you could see the door to my mother’s room. A four-poster bed sat between two windows; one faced Harrison Street, the other opened onto the driveway where my grandfather parked the truck. From that window, you could see the stone wall that separated my grandparent’s lot from my great-grandparent’s yard. In addition to the over-sized bed, the room was filled-to-bursting with its matching suite of furniture, including a large set of dresser drawers where my grandmother housed scarves, pins, hosiery, and all sorts of mysterious lady things for her equally mysterious lady bits.

I spent countless hours combing through those drawers, trying on jewelry and giggling at undergarments I couldn’t quite put together. The top of the chest of drawers was covered in photographs held in place by a large piece of glass. My grandmother kept that glass squeaky clean so that we could see the dog-eared pictures that told the story of her greatest loves. It was more than a set of drawers, really. It was the place where my childhood hands touched, felt, and tried on womanhood masquerading in my grandmother’s intimate wardrobe. And so, a chest of drawers binds my hands to my grandmother’s body by way of the clothes she tucked against the folds of her most private parts. When I put on one of my grandmother’s scarves, I drape a whole host of ancestors around me. And that might be the very definition of woman. A human body that births generations who find in dresser drawers the cloths and stories that piece together a life.

My grandmother prepared food for much of the day. While my siblings and I wiled away the afternoon heat in front of the television, my grandmother would be in the kitchen where she put up produce from the garden and served three home-cooked meals per day. She did much of the work herself, until it came time to set the table and put ice in the glasses. My sister and I would grumble as we tried to time our chores to match the commercials, but we worked side-by-side with my grandmother, learning our place in the world as we laid the settings and called the men to supper. The table was round and sturdy, its glossy sheen a testament to many years of use and polish. Of course, it was also more than a table. It was the foundation from which my grandmother doled out daily servings of food and formation – a piece of wood whose grain taught the importance of looking for the nature of something to figure out whether to move with or against it. And so, the smells of home-cooked meals and the sounds of kitchen work performed by skilled hands bind my senses to the pageantry performed on my grandmother’s table morning, noon, and night. And that might be the very definition of sustenance. It’s in the humble preparations that call us to shared tables where we feed one another. 

There is one final place in the house where my grandmother performed a nightly ritual that brought each day to its proper close. Fed in more ways than one, I would retreat to the bed that my grandmother made with tight corners that I kicked out each night. I often closed the door before settling into bed, reading by lamplight until my grandmother appeared. She would enter quietly, hall light blinding, and leave the door propped open while making her way to my bedside. Settling in, she would begin evening proclamations that combined the fire and brimstone preaching of her childhood with a dose of Judge Judy and the storytelling of John Boy Walton.

I wish now that I had listened more deeply to my grandmother’s evening musings. At the time, these late-night conversations often interrupted the quieting of my own thoughts after a long day of living up to my grandparent’s loving measure. My grandmother didn’t seem to notice if my mind wandered and my responses dwindled away. She would press on regardless of my participation, imparting her often hilarious homegrown wisdom. Some nights, Grandma would visit for just a few minutes before reminding me to say my prayers as she closed the door and headed to the den where my grandfather was sleeping in front of the television. On others, she would settle in for a long while to cover a range of topics that invariably included the importance of my education and the salvation of my future husband. And so, my grandmother’s evening ritual binds me, wandering thoughts and all, to the ancient traditions of truth-telling and story-spinning. My grandmother might have been the first female preacher I ever sat under, although she would never say so herself, caught up in an unyielding orthodoxy eager to keep us all in our place. But as I weave my own stories and live into my own titles, I go forth with my grandmother’s words rattling around my head. And that might be the very definition of not getting above your raising, the carrying of word and people and place with you wherever you go.

This story about a house that my grandmother tended as carefully as her beloved garden doesn’t offer closure in the way of final words or testimonies. Instead, it opens the door for stories yet to come. And the house still stands, although not for long. Before too long, the medical center will make its inevitable move across the street, leaving little evidence of what came before. But I will know, as will all those who carry the bones of that house and the blessings of her mistress in the quiet reaches of our hearts. And that might be the very definition of belonging. To find yourself in the warm memory of a grate, a dresser, a table, a bedside. May we rise up and call ourselves blessed.

November 7, 2019