Hometown

            My grandmother’s house was a tiny, white clapboard little place in a tiny little town, in a tiny little county, in downstate Illinois.  My grandparents raised three sons in that little house.  At first thought you might think it cramped, but boys don’t stay indoors, you remember. They run outside.  And this tiny house had a huge grassy yard, and the houses on either side of it and behind it also had grassy yards. There were no fences and the grass all merged into one lovely park, with gardens, flowers, and bird houses, and friendly dogs.  There were no unfriendly dogs in Hometown.  What’s more the houses were on a neat tiny street which led to the safe little town, where everybody knew and looked after one another.  Beyond the little town lay miles of cornfields, as far as the eye could see.

            Whenever I visited Hometown as a child, it was such an exciting event that they published my name in the newspaper and everybody dropped by my grandmother’s house to see how much I had grown.  It probably helped that my grandfather worked for the tiny newspaper, but I think everyone got excited whenever anybody’s grandbaby returned to this magical place called Hometown.

            My grandmother’s place had a tiny porch.  On the porch was a swing – and my grandmother and I would sway on that swing late into a summer evening, watching the fireflies, and sharing stories of the people who lived in Hometown.  When it got really dark, we went inside where I could explore my grandmother’s bedroom with its lace curtains, hand-carved black walnut bed and wardrobe, and the tiny glass slipper and silver brush which were always on the dresser.

            I would peek out the window from behind my grandmother’s curtains to see if anything went on in Hometown after eight.  My grandmother would join me and exclaim,

            “O look, its Mrs. Whitney looking out her window, looking at us looking at her.”  Then she and I would giggle.

              On every visit, we would play the same game, and my grandmother would exclaim the same thing.  And every time, it was true – there was Mrs. Whitney gazing out her window.

            I loved Hometown, but my father didn’t.  He was glad to get out of the one-horse place, he said.  He lived inChicago.  I, on the other hand, was delighted to learn from my grandmother that when she was a little girl Hometown’s one horse, named Old Reliable, actually belonged to our family.  Old Reliable had gone blind, which sometimes caused my great grandfather grief if he should have to take the horse and wagon off the familiar route from home to store and back. There were many stories of Old Reliable’s misadventures which I can’t remember now, but my grandmother swore the rickety beast was, indeed, the last horse to live and work in Hometown.

            The back of my grandmother’s house had a big screened-in porch, with a squeaky screen door.  The porch had a big trap door in the floor and when you lifted the door and latched it to the side of the house, you could climb down into my grandmother’s cellar.  My grandfather’s workshop was in that cellar –where he would put the finishing touches on yet another new bird house for the neighborhood’s flock of purple martins.  Also in the cellar were baskets of walnuts and shelves of glass jars filled with vegetables, berries, jams, and applesauce.

            I was fascinated with the cellar.  My grandfather had partitioned it off into tiny rooms, each filled with something special.  One had paintings and china, and boxes of stuff from my great grandfather’s store back in Old Reliable’s day.  Another room had old toys and clothes that my grandparents were “storing” for their boys, in the hopes that someday they would return and take it all home with them.  Another room was full of books, and another full of coal. It was the coal bin for the old, iron furnace that kept the tiny house warm.

            But my favorite room was the one filled with books.  There were boxes of books and shelves of books.  There were piles of sorted newspapers, all tied with string. There was a table for over-sized books, and scrapbooks that my grandparents had kept for their sons.  There was just a little light that filtered into this room, so it was mysterious and dark, and not a little dusty, even dirty.

            When I climbed back up the stairs, put down the trap door, went inside the tiny house, and climbed under grandmother’s cool sheets at night, I dreamt of the room of books waiting for me under the bed, past the chamber pot, through the floor boards, down in my grandmother’s cellar.  As I grew older, I came to believe that the answers to all life’s questions were in those books covered with coal dust.  I would fall to sleep, dream myself back to grandmother’s house, climb through the trap door and find my book.  But each time when I had almost found the page with all the answers, and was waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, I would awaken -- frustrated that I had just missed the answer, yet again.

            Years later when I too was growing old, I again drove myself to grandmother’s house.  My grandfather had died and it was just my grandmother living there now.  When I pulled up to the little house, there was still the excitement for a returning grandchild.  My grandmother was a little slower, but she was still anxious to tell me all about the people who lived in Hometown. That evening I asked about the neighbor, Mrs. Whitney, who had always gazed back at us from behind her curtains across the street.  Mrs. Whitney was gone now.

            My grandmother was now the oldest living graduate of Hometown High, a status which had been bestowed upon her several reunions ago.  She laughed with the same Midwestern laugh, and let me drive her out to the Hometown cemetery to visit with family members and friends who had taken up early residence there.  She pulled some grass from around the headstones, and pruned a peony bush or two.  We drove by the “old place” where my grandfather’s grandfather had farmed after the Civil War.  Unlike some places, there was still a farm there, with sheep and an old horse.

            When we got home, my grandmother asked if I wanted to go down in the cellar.  There was no place I wanted to visit more.  Now in her ninetieth year, my grandmother walked to the screened porch, pulled up the heavy trap door, and led me down the darkened stairs.  At the bottom, was a light bulb with a long string to pull, giving off a strange, yellowish light.  My grandmother entered the room of books and motioned me to follow.  She knew exactly what she was looking for and where it was.  I watched as she moved boxes, put aside albums and scrapbooks, and found one little notebook.  She handed it to me with a smile. We went back up the cellar stairs, closed and locked the trap door and went into the familiar house.  One book was enough, I supposed, somewhat sadly.

            That evening after my grandmother went to bed, I crept into the kitchen, closed the door to hide the light, and began to read my book.  It was handwritten on lined schoolgirl paper by a relative whose name I didn’t recognize. It was a story of a family, beginning in 1640 in a place calledDedham,Massachusetts.  As I read further, the names and places became more familiar.  My grandmother’s grandmother was namedLydia – and here she was.  I turned the pages until the family arrived at Hometown.  There was some more recent writing with a much better pen.  My father’s name and my own name had been entered.  This was my family and its history had now been entrusted to me.

            My grandmother is gone now.  Someone else lives in the tiny house.  I have no idea what happened to the old toys, or china, or the books.  They are gone, too, except in the recesses of my mind.  So you see, my favorite, secret place is Hometown.  I often return there as I dream myself back to my grandmother’s tiny house, in that magical little town, and talk to the people who live there.

Dianne O'Connell

Published Summer 2008

Alaska Women Speak

1,420 words