Arrive. DING-donggggg. Shuffle shuffle inside. Tentative door open that got less tentative once she saw who it was. Echoey voices in the hallway leading up to the kitchen, where we’d say our hellos and have The Punch – filled with sherbet from a punch bowl and served in little teeny cups. Also sometimes, crab-stuffed mushrooms that tasted better than any other stuffed mushrooms you could make or buy. Sometimes, there were no mushrooms, just the crab and we’d have crackers.
Those moments when my family would pull up to that house in Merrick, New York and step inside were some of the very happiest of my entire life. My grandmother baby-sat me so my mother could work part-time when I was little. I specifically remember telling my mother to race the other cars when we were on the Meadowbrook Parkway towards my grandparents’ house. “Faster, faster!” I’d cheer. Partly even then just to troll, but I really did want to get there as soon as I could. In retrospect, there was something so reverse-glamorous (in a good way) about how in the morning, my grandparents’ kitchen didn’t smell like roasts and the usual bustle of holidays. It smelled like sunshine and Body Buddies cereal. Not coffee, because my Pop-Pop always lamented how much he loved the ice cream, but hated the drink. Instead, there would be juice out of tin cups and my Nanny never forgot to ask which color cup I wanted that day.
The yard was a place to both explore and find haven, as it was always mysterious but always unchanging. There was a pink rose bush in the front, and every time since then that I bury my face in a rose, I feel the sun on my face and the splintery wooden fence on my hands. And I smell the rose, even though most roses you get don’t smell like anything.
And there was the basement. That smell never changed. It was clean but unfinished, and smelled like time standing still and board games and the television from the ‘50s or ‘60s that had the perma-veil inch of static that would make your hands tingle. When I was eight and sick one day, my Nanny baby-sat me again, and randomly thought that “Cujo” would be a great movie to watch. The dulcet sounds of the horror dog lulled me to sleep on her lap, and salved the pain of my sickness. When I was 11, it was the fitting TV on which to sneak downstairs during a Sunday dinner and watch “Married with Children,” another inappropriate viewing choice for a child, yet so innocent, overall, as I knew my grandmother would have LOLed at Kelly.
There were two other rooms in the basement. One was my Pop-Pop’s office. There was a lamp not unlike the one on my desk right now – a banker’s lamp, before my cat broke the shade. There were papers everywhere, many yellowed with age, and a closet filled with my grandmother’s clothes from various years that even when I was costuming myself for a repertoire theater that did a lot of period pieces, I never wanted to invade because some things should just get to stay as they are, as they were.
If you opened a different door in that room you’d find not a closet, but a small concrete staircase that led to metal doors you could push up and enter the yard. Not sure whether it was for tornadoes or bombs or just a design trend of the time, but there was never a time that I pushed up those doors where I didn’t feel like a kid all over again, and where the world didn’t feel like a magical place.
The third room had the washer and dryer, and around the bend from that, it held all of my grandfather’s records from his meteorologist days, as well as the tool area where no matter how busy or how tired he was, when many men especially from his generation could have just passed me back to his wife to deal with, Pop Pop always gave me a (dulled, though I didn’t realize at the time) saw, so that I could join him in whatever project he was working on. He’d ask me about my life and seem genuinely interested, even though I was only four. That basement has changed very little, over the years, and that room has never changed since he died in 1991.
And my grandmother has never left that house. I mean she has in the literal sense, but she never wanted to move from the house where Pop-Pop shunned sleep in his off hours so that he could redo the kitchen floor, fix up and paint what became the dining room, and transform half of the upstairs from an attic-esque storage space to a beautiful bedroom and bathroom.
Nanny’s had her stays in physical rehab places, because as she always says, “Growing old is not for sissies.” But what’s awesome is that her out-of-home stays are sometimes related to her eternal sassiness, such as the time she tried to take out the garbage during a storm. The wind knocked her down, and firemen and neighbors helped her get back inside, then fixed up again.
And when she was fixed up again, she went back home. To the place that will always be not just a part of my memory, but my soul. As terrified as I was to fly again this past February, there was no way I could say no to the opportunity to go back to Hemlock Street, to the house that built me, and to the magnificent woman that is and will always be, one of my VERY favorite people.
Happy 91st birthday, Nanny. I love you so much.