The treasures of Grandmom's house
is the author of 16 books, most recently "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir"
In a certain house on the 6800 block of Guyer Avenue, they rolled the rugs back to dance. They hung lucky paintings on the walls. They taped paper snowflakes to windows in winter and filled Sunday afternoons with repeated rounds of turkey, ham, and pie. In the basement they piled treasure - my grandmother's peach wedding gown, my grandfather's desk, my uncle's portraits of movie stars, my mother's report cards, boxes of gift-shop cast-offs, hats inside hats, a cup of coins.
Thanksgiving lived here. Christmas. Easter. A big-eared TV in the sunroom, where Ed Sullivan conducted his business. And in the back, across the alley, beyond a fence, the ever-alive baseball diamonds and summer chlorinations of the J. Finnegan Playground.
We called it Grandmom's house. We understood, vaguely, that her terrain was Southwest Philadelphia - a rowhouse neighborhood set down among soggy meadows and scribbled creeks. We heard the stories about the lifelong friendships that sparked in the halls of John Bartram High, the lady faithfuls of Southwest Presbyterian, the Saturday afternoon matinees at Lindy Theater, the traveling photographer and his ponies, the Victory gardens that bloomed during World War II. We opened the door at the end of the narrow kitchen, slid out onto the deck, and watched the world Margaret Finley D'Imperio had chosen, the world into which our mother had been born.
It was, to us, a vast, good fortune.
I was 9 when my grandmother passed away. She had been sick for a very long time. She had called me Betty Boop and made me Easter baskets, and I knew, as children do, that I was something special in her eyes. She was my first great loss, and I feel that loss every time a holiday rolls by. My grandfather is gone now. My uncle. My mother.
What remains is the house on Guyer Avenue.
A few days ago, my father drove me south on I-95, toward the airport, past the new postal center, into the old neighborhood. We stopped, first, at Southwest Presbyterian, where, on Mother's Day, in 1992, in memory of her mother and brother, my mother had had a stained-glass window installed. There are some three-dozen parishioners at Southwest Presbyterian now. Many of them belong to a single family. Two of them arrived to unlock the door, to allow us in, to show us how, in a neighborhood that has endured sweeping change and historic tensions, they meticulously hold on.
Across the street, on a stretch of blacktop, the kids of Patterson Elementary played. In the original stone church, next to the "new" Southwest, a Head Start program was leading its charges on an "I Spy" hunt for color. Here, again, my father and I were invited inside. We climbed the stairs. The former sanctuary had become a staging room - an attic space filled with books and clothes, a CD player on the communion table, no pews. My father had married my mother here more than 50 years ago. The peaked ceiling, he said, was the same as it had been. And so was the sun in the room.
We arrived at Guyer Avenue by way of its alley. We drove along the backs of things until we found the deck that led to the door that led to the kitchen that opened into my grandmother's home. It was as it always is whenever we are gone and finally return - no longer ours. The deck was different. The door was. The treasures in the basement - the dresses, the hats, the photographs, the gift-shop relics, all proof of the child versions of my mother and her brother - had long ago dispersed, blown into the wind like the fluff of dandelions.
There were no paper snowflakes in the windows.
There were no sounds of dance on the floors where the carpets would get rolled.
There was nothing of the familiar aromatics.
I left the car, walked the alley - past the sideways shift of things, the raking satellite dishes, the angling rowhouse roof line - and entered the playground alone. The day was crisp. The sun was a spark. My mind was all of a sudden ripe with the memory of those summer days when I'd sit on my grandmother's deck and watch the world beyond. Sometimes my uncle would sit there, too, telling a movie-star story. Sometimes my brother and sister and I would huddle close, reporting on newly found treasure. Sometimes the kitten from next door would curl up on my lap and stay.
But sometimes it was just my grandmother and me, and I was Betty Boop, and she was sitting close enough to share a secret, and I was leaning close enough to hear, and this was the everything, this was the all, this was love that lingered.
She had green eyes.
She had clouds for hair.
She believed in me.
"Do you have what you need?" my father asked, when I finally left the playground, walked the alley, climbed back into his car.
"I always thought it was so special here," I said.
"It always was," he said, "especially to them."
Beth Kephart blogs daily at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.