What follows is the narrative I spent so much time on yesterday. It's rough, but I think it holds the main point I'm trying to make. Tell me what you think. Any suggestions will be noted and appreciated. ...but be gentle. I'm scared to death. :(
There is an abandoned trailer next door to my childhood home. Whenever someone mentions that property, my first thought is always of the grass. It is the greenest grass I’ve ever seen. The rest of the place sprouts up from that grass as if nothing else could exist without it. Two tall, thick trees stand in the front yard. A patch of irises grow unkempt beneath a high trailer window. Two levels of concrete blocks serve as steps up to a screen storm door, succeeded by a heavy metal one. The paint is chipping white with blue trim on metal siding. A shed stands about fifteen feet to the trailer’s right. It consists of three rooms, one upstairs, and the others down. One room juts out from the left side. This one is shabbier than the original building, obviously an afterthought. Regardless of its deterioration, the place is beautiful in its simplicity. You can tell by looking at it that it served its purpose well.
I was ten years old the first time I set foot in it, but I walked past it almost daily on my way to visit my grandmother. The dark woods behind the old home easily terrified my ten year old self. On my more imaginative days, I thought it must be haunted. Walking by, I’d stop and gaze at it in awe, but never stray from my path, and then double my speed to get away quickly.
However forbidding the place seemed, the curiosity it inspired was stronger. I would try to imagine the family that had once resided within those mysterious walls, or attempt to picture the man who built the little shed. But I’d never talk to anyone about it. Some strange fear would always catch my voice in my throat and prevent me from asking questions. Of course, eventually I had to know the truth. I was tired of mere guesswork; I wanted some answers.
I worked up my courage all morning and then, before I could make up some excuse to back out, I blurted out my question to my grandmother. “Mamaw, whose house is that?”
She was distracted. “What house, hon’?”
“The trailer between your house and Mommy’s,” I explained, attempting nonchalance as I tried on a necklace from her jewelry box. She looked up at me, perplexed that I didn’t already know.
“Well,” she said as I hung on her every word, “It used to be your Little Granny’s. That was a long time ago, before she got sick and had to leave.”
‘Little Granny’ was my rather short great-great-grandmother. She had died the year before. Now I realized for the first time that my grandmother was this woman’s granddaughter. I was amazed. She must have felt as close to her grandmother as I did to her. On some level, I understood the relevance of their relationship for the first time. This one fact sated my curiosity for a while, but not forever.
Eventually I began to crave more information. I wanted answers that I could only learn by venturing inside the place. I wondered if the walls were papered or painted, ugly or pretty. I wondered if light could shine in through the heavy drapes. And what was inside that shed? Probably more than what was in the house, I reasoned. It could have been used as storage after my great-great-grandparents went away. What treasures from the past awaited me inside those walls? Before I realized where my thoughts were leading, I was determined to see inside those buildings. I set to work immediately.
I tried everything I could think of. I stood on my tip-toes to look through the grime-coated windows. They were so covered with filth that I couldn’t make out anything. I pulled hard on the door handles to no avail. Both doors were locked. I even looked underneath the make-shift steps for a spare key. I did these things over and over; all while pushing back my fear of the ominous woods and tall brush at the edges of the lawn. When all my efforts failed, I kicked the side of the shed with a broken “humph” and sulked away. I had only one option left and it was the epitome of a last resort.
“Mamaw?” I addressed her, my eyes wide and pleading.
She eyed me suspiciously before answering. “Yes?”
“Can we go inside Little Granny’s place?” It took her a while to answer. She was probably considering the consequence of trespassing as opposed to the joys of keeping me happy. Since the place was family-owned, and since grandchildren are born with many persuasive talents, she finally allowed me my adventure.
“We’ll see,” she’d said in the end, and I knew it was as good as any “yes.” I was elated. I had wanted to brave it alone, but by now I was so desperate I’d accept any terms.
When we arrived on the morning of our expedition I skipped ahead across crunching leaves to the concrete block steps, but was surprised when my grandmother announced that I’d gone to the wrong entrance.
“Not that way. Come here,” she called, walking around to the back of the building.
“Where are you going?” I protested, not understanding.
“I don’t have a key. You’re just gonna have to settle for this old place, and we’ll have to go in through the back.” I couldn’t believe my stupidity. The back! Of course there would be a back door! Why hadn’t I thought of it myself? I was too excited to be frustrated for long though. I was about to see the inside of the shed I’d imagined for so long.
The back door was locked as well, but three of the large wooden planks were missing from the bottom half. With a little careful maneuvering we could duck inside the added-on room.
The back door had proved not to open into the entire place, but into the addition only. This room had apparently been used as a workshop of sorts. Buckets of tools were everywhere. Two handmade work benches stood one on each side of the room, and assorted odd objects hung from nails on the walls. A much used hammer here, an outdated calendar there: the place was in disarray. A pane-less, high, window was on the center of the inside wall, left over from the time before this room existed.
“So, how do we get upstairs?” I asked.
“The stairs are in there,” my grandmother gestured through the inside window. I climbed up onto the bench and peered through.
This room also appeared to be a work room, but this one had clearly belonged to a woman. A large, white, wood-burning cooking stove stood on the far wall with a curtained window behind it. A large pile of tin storage cans was stacked to my right and farther in that direction I saw a steep, rail-less staircase. A broom stood in one corner along with an old fashioned mop and bucket. The floor was warped in the center of the room, but had not begun to decay as it had in the other. This half of the building was built with more care. I noticed that a set of kitchen chairs was lined against the wall beneath the window I was observing from. They were upholstered in a yellow plastic with garish yellow flowers.
Before my grandmother could protest, I swung one leg through the window, hunched under the low top frame, lowered my foot onto one of the chairs, and pulled the rest of myself through.
My grandmother had no choice but to follow. Once on the other side, she grumbled: “You make that look easy, but it isn’t easy at all.” I barely heard her. In the time it had taken her to catch up I had become absorbed in my surroundings. Cautiously, not wanting to disturb anything, I reached out for one of the tins. When I pulled off the painted cover, I found it was full of buttons. There were big buttons and small buttons, colored ones and clear ones, gold edged ones, and some that looked like pearls. To a girl who had just begun a button collection it was a treasure chest. I slowly examined each object in the room, trying to memorize it. I didn’t want to miss even one tiny detail.
Finally, I approached the stairs. They were steep and made of splintering wood. I picked my way up carefully, holding tight to the step in front of me as I went.
The upstairs was practically empty. I was disappointed. I’d hoped to find more interesting things. I turned to go, and when I did I found something I had overlooked. Hanging on a low rafter was a military jacket, and a section of the wall behind it was covered in newspaper clippings. Carefully, I pushed the jacket to the side. Much to my dismay, the clippings were too worn. I couldn’t read enough of the words to piece together their stories. The pictures, mostly of men in uniform, were barely visible.
I sat there for a few moments, wondering what the significance of the clippings and the coat were. They captivated me in the same way the shed itself did, and I couldn’t pinpoint the reason behind either fascination. I found them inexplicably beautiful. I wanted to know who the clippings were about, who the coat had belonged to. Who had put the pictures there? Why?
Then, as clearly as if it were happening in that moment, I could see a middle-aged woman climbing the stairs and carefully smoothing the pictures onto the wall. Her face was kind, but weathered, as if she’d known a lot of life, and not just the good. Her expression was proud, but scared, too.
As quickly as it had come the image was gone, dashed out of mind by my grandmother’s impatient inquiries from below.
As we walked away I trailed behind a little, desperately clinging to the image of the woman and pondering her significance.
Nearly a week later I was once again going to my grandmother’s for a visit, but when I arrived she was waiting at the door with a key.
“What’s this?” I asked as she put it in my hand.
“That,” she replied, “is the key to the trailer.”
“Little Granny’s trailer?” I asked, delighted and beaming. She nodded her head in response. I ran to the trailer without another word. I swung the screen door open and pushed the key into the lock. It wouldn’t turn. Years of disuse had made it stubborn. I waited impatiently for my grandmother to come and open it for me, switching my weight from one foot to the other and back again.
When the door was finally unlocked, she pushed it open, forcing it back when it resisted. “Watch your step,” she cautioned, but I was already leaping in.
Inside, I stopped dead in my tracks, amazed. The house wasn’t empty at all. It was fully furnished, as if it had been expecting someone to return. The door had opened on the right side of the living room. Further right was the kitchen. I began exploring there. A kitchen table stood cluttered with a notebook and a globe, and a few food items. The sink still had a green and yellow sponge in it. I felt a little sorry for it. It seemed to be reaching out to be used again.
The living room was cluttered with furniture and knick knacks. Moving further in, I spotted a hallway that ran along the back wall. It led me to a tiny bedroom that held a twin size bed, a wardrobe, and a dresser. I began a full-scale investigation, and in the wardrobe I found three hand-stitched quilts.
They were well made, the stitches tiny and tight. There were none of the now common patterns and no pre-cut squares. These quilts were made of scraps of whatever material was available, and sewn together craftily to form an even length and width. They were crafted for purpose rather than decoration. Yet they were beautiful, absolutely brimming with her care. The emotion was almost tangible, it spilled over the edges and enveloped me in a haze of nostalgia.
And then I could see her again. The same woman as before, but this time she
was stitching together the quilt. Again, the image faded quickly. I traced the well worn seam along the edge of one quilt and then returned them to the wardrobe, allowing the home return to its expectant calm.
That night while lying in bed attempting to sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen. I couldn’t shake the images of the woman, and I didn’t understand her importance. I chased the idea for hours before I slipped into unconsciousness, still feeling cheated of something.
The next morning I woke up and dressed quickly. I had to unearth the rest of this mystery. I walked fast, determined. I stood in the road with my arms crossed to hold in my frustration and stared intently. I probed every corner of the place with my eyes. Then in an instant everything fell into place. The concept that had eluded me unfolded before my eyes.
I saw my grandmother as a child, running around the trees hiding from her mother. I saw my great-great-grandmother hard at work in the little shed that my great-great-grandfather built for her. I witnessed her tears when she mourned a son. I watched my grandmother age before my eyes, becoming a young woman. I saw her fall in love. I saw my own mother. I saw so many things, both terrible and beautiful. They were events I’d heard discussed, knowledge I’d always possessed, but never fully understood. I saw it all so fast and with such force that it ached in my very bones.
I stepped off of the road and collapsed into the soft, tall grass, dumbfounded by a simple discovery. They were real people. They had hopes, dreams, troubles, sorrows and joys. They were born, they grew up, and they had families of their own. They were the same as me, only separated by the gap in our years.
Time ticked away as I sat there in the grass. It whispered truth in my ear. I watched the home of a family become empty. I watched myself enter it for the first time, piecing together the life of a woman I hardly knew. When I couldn’t bear anymore I picked myself up and stumbled home, utterly speechless, and more terrified than ever by the place. I’d finally put a name on the fear that lurked in the shadows. It was the inevitable outcome of life: At some point, we’ll all leave it.
In a way, the place is haunted. It is saturated with relics from someone else’s world. The objects are distant and mysterious to me, the empty hull of my great-great-grandmother’s life. Seeing her home arranged and expectant after she was gone brought hard and fast my understanding of mortality. It shook me to my core, and posed the question, “What will I leave behind?”
Now that I’m older I return to the abandoned home often, and without fear. This place helped me to mature and see my elders as they really are: vibrant people who, like my favorite hideaway, are fading around the edges, caught up in swirling pools of time. I’m indebted to it. The trailer and the shed may be nothing special to the many people who pass them by, but to me they are the most beautiful buildings in the world. They have taught me things I couldn’t have learned any other way. They demonstrate the most precious secret in this life: the value of it, its beauty, and its potential.