Home Again, Home Again
Nostalgia for the American Midwest
I remember it like it was yesterday. The blue paisley walls. The original hardwood floors. The twin metal bed frames, side by side, nightstands in-between. The closets on the far wall — built in for tornado season — painted over one too many times with off-white eggshell. Filled with dust and musk and so many memories of past lives lived. White shuttered windows opening out towards the Illinois river, letting in muggy wet heat and blinking, twinkling fireflies on summer nights. The room where my mother and her sister slept, now reserved for my parents during family visits.
All of those houses on that particular river bank shared a quality — like they all sprung up together from a shared epiphany. The old McGlachlan house next door, on display and beautiful in its decay. Several stories painted pink, lined with piled stained carpet, peeling floral wallpaper, black and white checkered tile and shuttered windows. Dark and slightly dank, the preferred site for playing make-believe with its history and perpetual mystery…Constructed from the ashes of the Great Depression, institutionalized by the survival of it.Insured by old money. Fathered into the region and settled down for good in the banks and the canning factories and the duck hunting trophies lining the blackened mantelpieces.
I really only kept coming back for the feel of my Grandmother’s hands. Mimi, Mary, Mother — and the smell of her basement. Yes, her basement. I could never describe it beyond the ever present, brand-specific laundry detergent, mildew, fallen oak leaves, river water, and constant humidity. The most comforting smell ever smelt. I used to spend hours in that basement, always making up there was some nook or cranny that had yet to be explored or exploited for magic making. In the closet, a three-story white and red dollhouse that used to belong to my mother. The washing machine tucked into a crawl space filled to bursting with old bicycles, appliances, Tupperware, toys, and photo albums filled with miscellaneous relatives she couldn’t bear to part with.
There were memories made in that house that slip through the spaces underneath the grown-up thoughts. Power Ranger suits and Catwoman costumes. Raked piles of leaves gleefully plowed together and dove into over and over and over again. Scouring the trees for buckeye “nuts.” Soft and shiny and wholly inedible. Wandering down to the river and listening to the water run its course. Scratching the skin off of my legs summer after summer when the swarm of mosquitoes descended without end. The yearly family reunions with wheelbarrow races, neighborhood potlucks, horseback rides, and days spent lounging by the stalwart family lesbian’s pool. The unimpeachable heat and solidity of the air when it was fully saturated. The lightning storms and torrential downpours that made the atmosphere smell sizzling and alive.
Just like my parents, I absolutely hated the Midwest. But I loved her.
Mimi, who wouldn’t let me take her picture for fear of preserving what time had done to her. Who wore a full face of Clinique makeup without fail. Whose wedding dress I couldn’t even fit into when I was twelve years old. Who wore masks with warts and teeth missing, and chased me around the house and held baby jazzercise classes with me when I was toddler. Who coined the phrase “Home again, home again, jiggity jig!” whenever her car pulled into the garage. Who played Ella’s early records and sang wistfully along — nostalgic for the real thing. Who told me her heart was singing in gratitude, daily. The only grandparent I ever really knew.
The feeling of first leaving her as an infant — her loose-skinned hands, painted nails and knobbly garish rings clutching my little baby fingers and kissing my tiny toes as we said goodbye on the move West. The first awareness of grief, before I even had words for it.
They sold the house when my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s became too much for Mimi to handle by herself. The siblings all felt they’d waited too long, but none had volunteered to help. About a year after he died, the couple who bought the house let us visit. I searched for that familiar scent like my life depended upon it, like my hope for safety, comfort, and control relied on its continued presence. Of course, the house smelled completely different. They were re-doing the basement.
She died Thanksgiving of 2011. We gathered in Chillicothe, Illinois, for a traditional holiday meal at the cousin’s house. We attended service at the Presbyterian Church she’d been a faithful member of, probably since birth. We made room for the insufferable presence of friends and family that didn’t know how to miss her in the way that I wanted them to. We grieved for her like the mother we always wanted but never had. The perpetual presence of parental acceptance and encouragement — without question, transaction, or condition.
She left me emeralds to remember her by, as one does when you share a May birthday. I have no idea where they are nowadays, and it doesn’t matter. Women like Mimi build themselves into the lives of those they care for. This was her life’s work — the utter selflessness she exemplified, the inability to not answer the phone when it rang, the constant inventories of every friend and neighbor and the goings-on of their particular existences, those trivial pleasantries and all-encompassing hugs that only grandmothers can provide. That feeling of coming home, even in a place that I never belonged to.
This is the gift of grandmothers. They never spend enough time with you to build resentments. Their stake in your life’s potential is never as strong as the mother’s. Their purpose is to feed you sweets while playing babysitter. To tell you that all of your dreams, and more, are absolutely meant to come true. To have just enough distance to be loved for who they are, over what they can provide. To strike the perfect balance between parent and teacher. To remind us of worlds that died long ago, and illustrate how far we have come. To sow the seeds of our potential, and ensure the watering of them.
Mimi, I miss you. Just like I miss the house that was never my home, only a safe place to hide in — now perfectly preserved in my fickle childlike recollection of it.