Morning in a small town in western Kansas, the wind whipping across endless green and tawny fields beyond the big bay window where my mother-in-law’s red geraniums thrive in intense sunlight. Even from inside the house, you hear the wind, thick and muffled, as it bashes into the walls and windows; and see the wind, in mighty gusts, as it buffets every which way the branches of the few trees out here.
This sprawling split-level, 1960’s tan-brick ranch house in an unincorporated Kansas town, pop. about 100, could not be more different from the upright two-story, early 1900’s red-brick row house in Easton, Pennsylvania, pop. 26,800 today (probably more when I was a kid in the 1960s) where my grandmother lived and I spent many a summer and holiday, visiting from Michigan.
But as I got up today and padded into this big empty home on the range in my bare feet, I felt like I was back in Grama Betty’s small house on the East Coast. Both were once so full of people and life, our lives, and now they’re not. Gradually they filled up and just as gradually, they emptied out, the shift going unnoticed at first and then suddenly painfully obvious.
Both remain so full of memories at every turn, memories big and small, of celebrations and gatherings and laughing fits and hurt feelings and big moments but even more, of commonplace, everyday events, the minor moments, I guess, but not so minor since, combined, they became the stuff of our lives. This is where we once were all together.
In the struggling industrial city along the Delaware River where my Grandma lived (once the proud home of Dixie Cup and Crayola, who needs the neighbors’ steel!), her three-bedroom house at the corner of 8th and Spring Garden Streets had small well-defined spaces, each with a clear, distinct purpose. Her house, our house, was one of many packed closely together on a narrow street, each with its front porch and tiny yard out back. My grandma’s block was toward the top of a steep hill and from a second story bedroom, I loved looking south down to town, at the fraying city way below. And that’s where the view ended. It was a vertical view, all up and down, top to bottom, so unlike the view from this big rambling house in a speck of a town surrounded by wheat, cattle, corn and the occasional feedlot, kill plant, wind turbine farm and nitrogen fertilizer factory (owned by the infamous Koch Brothers, no less).
Here outside Dodge City (which has about as many residents as Easton), the house’s main room is a high-ceilinged, open plan affair where the kitchen flows into the dining area which flows into the living room, shades of The Brady Bunch house, a precursor of today’s pompously-named Great Room. A smattering of other homes, tiny battered bungalows and more spacious, contemporary ranches, form a loose cluster around the tall, humming grain elevator, the town’s focal point. The houses seem to have sprouted up willy-nilly, as need be, with plenty of space between them and wide front lawns and oddly configured backyards, sitting along dirt roads only recently named (so ambulances and fire trucks can find them, if need be).
The view from my in-laws’ house, beyond the small graveyard where my father-in-law and my brother-in-law are buried (a brother-in- law I never met; he died at age 19, as a soldier in Vietnam) is never-ending. Land and sky. Land and sky. Land and sky. Sometimes a few cows, a tractor, a pickup whizzing by on the paved two-lane highway. The view is horizontal, all wide and across, all horizon, a view that never stops.
Yet oddly, I feel like I am in Easton today. Or maybe, not so oddly.
My grandma’s house is further along in the inevitable process of acquiring that ghostly aura, that sentimental presence from the past, of becoming what was rather than what is, of attaining family shrine status. It has not been ours, technically, for years. Grandma died in the 1980’s, and grandpa way before that. Years ago, staying in Easton during my 20s, when Grama was in the hospital, I had the same jarring experience that I had here today, of being alone in a house that was always so busy and crowded. Now, on the rare occasion when I pass through Easton I can only lay claim to our house from an awkward perch on the sidewalk, in front of the porch where I spent so many hours as a kid rocking in a big white wooden chair. Someone else owns the house. But it will always belong to me, to us, our family.
My mother-in-law still owns this house but she doesn’t live here anymore. Her husband of 50-some years died last year. Approaching 90 and increasingly frail, my husband’s mother now lives in Dodge, in a nursing home. My husband is picking her up, as I type, to bring her back home so she can go to her beloved Sunday morning church service at the town’s sole church. So this house is still ours, more theirs since I’m an in-law, but very much my Iowa children’s, who will remember it as deeply, in an almost tactile or physical way, not just through their emotions, as I remember my Grandma’s house.
Here, there are still family photos at every turn, familiar furniture and knickknacks and paintings by the family artist, reminders everywhere of the lives led. The scorecard from the family Scrabble game last Christmas (when L. proudly triumphed), the ancient wedding photos and awkward adolescent photos, the souvenirs from family vacations, the unreturned library book from God knows when, the gifts unused but always thoughtfully displayed, the battered, out of tune piano, the McGovern campaign buttons, the South American handicrafts.
There’s still some beer and viable food in the frig, left behind by the last visitor, and viable pots and pans to cook with, once you find them., although I found out the hard way that there was a hole in one plastic bowl, after eggs I’d cracked and set aside to scramble started dripping out from some opening, forming a sticky yellow pool by the time I noticed them. (Here’s an idea for a reality show: Cooking in your mother-in-law’s kitchen! Better yet, cooking with your in-laws for your in-laws in your mother-in-law’s kitchen! Think of the possibilities, the drama, tensions, conflicts, disasters, heartwarming moments. All this and recipes!)
There are some years left to be lived in this house but not as many as there once were. A lot of the clutter is gone, more kitchen shelves are bare, the old cereal boxes and the old wooden bread bin finally thrown out. The commotion is gone too, for now. We will all gather here again, at Christmas at least, and no doubt for other occasions to come. But this morning it is so quiet. Maybe that’s why the wind sounds so loud.