Miss Annie’s House

Posted by on May 7, 2005 in Great grandmother | 0 comments

She was barely 17 when this wedding picture was taken on July 4, 1907. The childhood she remembered was a golden dream, and her father, a magical figure. She loved to talk about his farm in Hickory NC, a mini factory that turned out every item used in daily life; woolen and cotton cloth, shoes, cured meats, cheeses, canned and dried vegetables and even the coffins for the community. She never said who built the coffin her father was laid in 1909, but she grieved always for the years the typhoid had stolen from them. She kept true to her rural roots as much as was possible, while living on a small city lot in Durham. The backyard was an explosion of beautiful flowers in all seasons, kept with such care that no random weed or leaf was allowed to lie peaceful in it for a day.

Her stiff-necked German husband built her an exquisite house, but he did not agree with her ideas on appropriate interiors. To furnish the house in the style she wanted Grandmother took to her sewing machine and made quality clothing for “the finest families”. When Mr. Gantt refused to waste money on a college education for their girls, she sewed up enough money to put them both through Duke. When I met her in 1972 she was as tiny and fragile in appearance as a sprite, but I soon discovered she had an almost magical strength of body and spirit. She told me stories that her granny had related to her about the civil war, and held tightly, against all reason, to a hatred for the Yankees. She talked about barn raisings and corn huskings and grand parties that went on for days. With a twinkle in her eye she told me that when a boy pulled back the husk on an ear that contained colored corn, he got to kiss the girl of his choice. Even in her last days she had a style that made me certain that she was the girl most often chosen. I treasure those talks, because she gave me a window into daily life of a bygone era, and introduced me to my children’s relatives.

They were all gone when we met, taken like characters in Greek tragedy. Eva, her daughter, and the namesake of my own child, died after a valiant struggle with cancer in 1961. Her husband went in the summer of 67, spared from the awful blow of their grandson’s suicide that fall. Early the next year, her only son fell from the top of the winding stairs he helped build, and died after striking his head on the needlepoint loveseat at the bottom. She was left alone in a 20-room mansion where ghosts lived like invisible cobwebs in every corner. When we came to visit we slept comfortably in the beautiful old rooms filled with their whispers. No one was allowed to sleep in “son’s room” which was kept as if he had just stepped out for the night. Left alone for so many years, she was in the habit of talking out loud to them, keeping them tied tightly to her side as she had in life. It was a house where one could imagine pathways into other worlds, perhaps through the doors of a massive wardrobe, or taking an extra turn on the stair. My children were fearful on the winding staircase, because I cautioned them so often. I did not mention the tragedy that occurred there, but I’m sure they could sense it in my tone. I always felt safe with the ghosts of the house, and imagined them brushing past me, smelling of magnolia and the slightly acid-musty odor of mahogany wood and heating oil. Even today when I open the china cabinet grandmother left me, a tiny whiff of that smell still lingers, but the ghosts seem to have departed with her.

In February of 1984 my daughter Eva awakened one morning and startled us all by saying, “Grandmother will die in the spring, after my birthday.” It did not take a seer to know that a 94 year old had little time left, but we never spoke of the possibility and could not imagine a toddler having a concept of death. We celebrated Eva’s 3rd birthday on March 31. The call came from Durham in mid April that grandmother had a stroke but was doing well. I called her in the hospital and assured her we would come down and stay with her when she was able to come home. I told her about my garden full of new peas and asparagus, so she asked me to save a few for her. She related an odd dream to me that was recuring every night. She was in a garden with a tiny picket fence, only a foot high. All her dead family members were standing on the other side of the fence, hands outstretched, asking her to take the one step over and join them. We got the call that she had taken that step on May 7, the eve of her beloved grandson’s birthday. Even with every warning, death always surprises.

When my husband remembers his dreams they are often of that house, cool in the evening breeze, the kitchen warm with the smells of cooking. As the son of a minister who moved every four years, Durham was the home of his heart. I have had a recurring dream that I go to her attic and find amazing treasures and mementoes that were forgotten when the house was emptied and sold. It is a dream of nostalgia for all things we have romanticized about the past and a longing for those ghosts to have been flesh for just a bit longer. My children barely remember her now, but her mark is on them, clear for every eye to see, passed as an organic memory from generation to generation. Someday they will inherit the furniture she defied her husband to purchase, but they will not understand the price she paid and they will not turn to search for her when they smell magnolias in the summer.

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