Grandma’s houses… and other things

Christmas at my Grandma's, age 4. There are a surprising number of pictures of me with that Tonka steam shovel in later years.
Christmas at my Grandma’s, age 4. There are a surprising number of pictures of me with that Tonka steam shovel in later years. (Click to embiggen)
“Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go…” as the song says. My paternal Grandmother lived for most of my life in a five-bedroom house that Grandpa built when I was 2 years old. And for as long as my parents were still married to each other, nearly every Christmas and Thanksgiving (a lot of the Easters) was spent at that house. When I was very young, my maternal Grandmother lived in the same small Colorado town as my paternal Grandparents, so I got to see her (and my Great-grandparents) at least briefly for each of those holidays as well.

Grandma lived in three different houses during that time…

The first was owned by the city itself, and was the official residence of the person hired to “manage” the town’s water plant. My mom’s biological father (and why I refer to him that way has been written about elsewhere1) managed the water plant until I was about five years old, and so they lived in the house that was on the water plant’s grounds. The picture above was taken in that house. I don’t have any specific memories of that house, but whenever I see old black & white family photos from that era, I get rather vivid color memories of the items of furniture and so on.

Grandma’s husband lost the water plant gig, and went to work as a mechanic at one of the two gas stations in town. Grandma and he rented a one-bedroom mobile home for a few years. I have a lot memories of that place. I had a particular fondness for sitting in the front window and looking out through the ivy at the road nearby.

Grandma’s husband abandoned her when I was six or seven, and Grandma moved into a duplex which was owned by her older brother (who lived several states away). Years before her brother had purchased the duplex and a small house next to it, with the original intention of renting the duplex to other parties, while my Great-grandparents lived in the small house. The small town was never a very good rental market, apparently, and one or both unit of the duplex was frequently empty. So my Great-uncle told Grandma to move in. She lived in both units, though she only used one of the kitchens. I loved visiting her when she lived there, especially when I was allowed to sleep over at her place instead of at my other Grandparents’ across town, because she’d set me up in the front apartment as my guest room, and it was as if I had my own house.

It was through the machinations of that Great-uncle that Grandma was eventually put back in touch with the man I call Grandpa, my Mom’s adoptive father. They remarried, but it meant Grandma moving out to Western Washington, where she and Grandpa lived in a small three-bedroom house and Grandma helped him raise his three youngest teen-aged sons.

That’s the house that Grandma lived in for the rest of her life. It’s the house I lived in with her for a few years while I was attending community college and trying to save up to go to university. And it’s the place I most associate with Grandma. Since Grandma died, my aunt has inherited the house and lives there now. She’s changed a lot of things both on the inside and outside of the house, so I don’t quite have the weird feeling I did the first few times I visited after Grandma died.

There were certain things that all of Grandma’s houses had in common. One was that she managed to cram unbelievably amounts of things in cupboards and closets and so forth. Things she kept might be teddy bears or spare microwaves3 or extra sets of dishes or boxes of art and craft supplies. Frequently we would be drafted to help her unpack one of the closets to get to a single thing she had packed away in there, and I swear that Grandma’s closets all had Tardis technology, there was just so much in there. And all boxed nicely and labeled!

Another was that she maximized the sitting space of every living room. Because she loved having visitors, whether family or friends, and wanted everyone to have a place to “sit a spell.”

All the other rooms were crammed full of furniture, too. And there were shelves fill of knick knacks and other dust-collectors everywhere. Not to mention how many of the boxes in all of those magically expanding closets were full of more knick-knacks and similar items.

And individual things had labels, too. If you peeked at the bottom of many of the knick-knacks and table labs and such, you would find a small label in Grandma’s handwriting identifying who was to get this particular object if something happened to Grandma. She often also included the name of the person who gave it to her, and a date. It wasn’t always clear if the date was when she received the item, or if it was the date she wrote the note. One of Grandma’s things that I was given after she died was a wooden jewelry box, that’s pretty beat up, but you can tell it was fairly fancy once. The note inside identifies it as a gift to her from her own Grandfather when she was 10 years old. She kept it for all o those years. And she wrote the information in a nice black ink directly on the wood on the inside of the box.

Just last week Mom passed on another of Grandma’s labeled things. It’s her fancy silverware set, the stuff she almost never got out because a few pieces had gone missing years ago. The note says that it’s to go to her daughters, then lists Mom and her sister by name, and then she filled in her full name, maiden, and both married names and dated it. I guess she figured that it would count as a legal document if she did that? She wrote this one on the wood, too, but it’s somewhat hidden by the cloth lining. Mom and I were trying to remember who made the box. We both thought that it was one of Mom’s half-brothers… but then we looked at the initials that were carved in the box, and they don’t match any of the brothers. We both remember Grandma telling the story of someone who made the box in Shop class at school, because the original box had been falling apart, but we don’t recall who it was.

Grandma didn’t just collect things. She also collected honorary children and grandchildren. At her funeral so many people got up to say how they had felt like she was the mother or grandmother they’d never had and so forth, that one of my cousins eventually said, “I didn’t know we had so many more cousins! Welcome to the family!”

When that Christmas song I quoted at the beginning of this post pops up, I usually think of good times spend at one of Grandma’s houses. And it’s when I’m remembering those times that I realize that while all her houses were crammed full of knick knacks and utensils and spare appliances, everything was always very clean. But more importantly, Grandma’s houses were always filled with laughter and love.

Maybe that’s what powered the magic.


1. Grandma’s husband abandoned her and their children (my mom and her older sister) when my mom was less than two years old. Grandma later met and fell in love with George, who she married, and he raised Grandma’s daughters. When they started the adoption proceedings, the biological father showed up and pleaded with Grandma to take him back, because god would want them to be together. Grandpa let her divorce him and go back to her first husband. Years later one morning the first husband left one morning as if going to work, but he actually just drove right out of town and across several states, having emptied out the bank accounts. There are more sordid details I could share, but this already sounds like an improbable soap opera2.

2. This is only one of many convoluted pieces of my extended family’s odd history. My early and intimate familiarity with such drama might well explain why my stories frequently involved a lot of sub-plots and many, many, many characters.

3. There were five microwaves in Grandma’s house when she died. Two different sized models in the kitchen, and three spares packed in different closets.

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