Death is something everyone handles differently. Even when mourning looks relatively the same among people from the outside, the emotional details can be a lot different. For me, death has always been another part of life, and due to my strong Christian beliefs, I tend to mourn more when there’s ambiguity about where my loved one has gone in the afterlife. In other words, if I’m sure you are in heaven, I’m not as likely to cry much for you because I’m happy for you, even if I’m gonna miss you terribly during the time I have left here on earth. That’s the way it’s been for me after recently losing my grandma. Sure, I cried a little, but I’m happy that she’s not in pain anymore, and might be telling Jesus right now about the time she hit a neighbor kid in the head with a sack of potatoes when he tried to take her shoes. Yes, Jesus knows about that already, but maybe He enjoys hearing the story again from her, just like I did every time she told it. With all of that in mind, I surprised myself with what happened when I found myself alone in an empty house that was the backdrop for almost all of my memories of my grandparents.
You might want to grab a tissue, just in case. I have a napkin holder at the ready in the restaurant where I’m writing this, and I can already feel the water want to spill from my own eyes as I prepare to be really transparent about how I’ve handled moving everything out of my grandparents’ house on Washington Highway.
I’m Michael Blackston and I hope you’re spared ever having to deal with anything similar to this chapter of my Funny Messy Life.
If I’m going to share parts of my life with you, it’s only fair you get to peek in on the messy, as well as the funny.
For reasons more personal than I have a right to divulge here, it was decided to sell my grandparents’ house. After Grandma’s passing, it became necessary to move everything out, and prepare it to make way for the new owners. After a couple weeks of hardcore moving by my mom and stepdad, my mom’s two sisters, and my own sister, there were a few things I was asked to help with. I drive a pickup truck, so I knew my services would probably be needed. For the most part, there was just a lot of stuff that needed to be thrown out from decades and decades of living.
The house was built in the sixties, think, by my grandparents. That makes it even tougher. A young J.C. Mills wanted to provide a good home for his expanding family. In Elberton, Georgia, our industry is granite. Everything is granite. Even our high school football stadium - The Granite Bowl - is dug out of the ground and terraced, using the very stone that supports our community. The only place I remember my grandpa working was a granite company and a small photography business he had for the weekends. A large portion of the wedding pictures that hang on walls around the county were taken in the living room of that house on Washington Highway.
I’m not sure what grandpa did before granite, but whatever it was, financed the house. They had it built, and started a chain of memories for a family that became, to some, unusually close.
It was love that made us that close. Once the daughters started moving out and having children, they formed traditions that would forever shape the way we all lived our lives.
I dropped by a couple of times during the moving out phase. Moving is never easy, and this one was under-painted with a palpable sadness, but we all seemed to be holding it together okay. We laughed like we always do, took verbal shots at each other in a fun way, like we always do, and pretended this was just another turning of the page. I never cried during that.
They cleared the house and cleaned it as best they could. There are stains there, and faded places on the walls - testimonies, I believe, to good family structure and solidarity. We’ve been blessed in that regard. Those things will eventually be painted over, and ripped up and made new for someone else to make memories. Until I went back in there, alone, I didn’t realize how much power those things can have.
My task was to take any remaining junk off the property and haul it off. No problem. I can do that. But there was also one last thing inside that I needed to get. It was a cable box and its components that I was to take back to the utilities office. My sister had left them on a single, old, wooden chair in the living room. It was all the business that was left for me inside the house after 47 years, and I nearly didn’t make it out in one mental piece.
I described it to my mom this way:
Remember in movies when a person walks through an empty house and suddenly, as if like a dream, everything reappears around them, taking shape, as the memories flood back? I did it on purpose. I picked up the cable equipment and started toward the door, with no intention of allowing my emotions to have their way with me. After all, this was another page to turn in a story that isn’t finished for any of us, …….. Right? Instead, I put the stuff back down and found myself being tugged deeper into the house, almost unwillingly, but not really. I needed this, and later found out I wasn’t the only one to make the same final journey. I think my sister might have gone through the whole place, before they changed anything, and took pictures. I’m glad she did that, but I won’t need them to remember.
The front bedroom. Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom. When you walked in, there would have been a photograph of a military ship on the sea. We think it was the ship grandpa was stationed on during the Korean War. How odd not to see it there anymore! I stood in the middle of the room as visions of the way it was returned in full detail. Not much to remember here, other than it was pretty much off limits, unless necessary. We knew not to mess up the covers because Grandma liked a made bed. There was a time when there were a couple of rifles on a gun rack on the wall, but those had been gone for a while, since grandpa died. Under the rack was Grandpa’s desk, left just as if he was still using it. There were pens and things older than me in the drawers, and that always intrigued me. I wondered what the pens had written, and long ago they had written them.
Next to that was the back bedroom. The daughters all shared that room as the years passed in some form or another. Again, not many memories for me there, except that’s where I took my kids and shut the door when they were misbehaving and needed a “talking to.” One thing did occur to me all of a sudden while the walls were bare. I'll say nothing more than that I looked for the bullet hole. There wasn’t one, but I’ll ask somebody about it at a later time.
From there, the hall leads to the bathroom, and then the main part of the house. There is a small closet to the left and that, my friends, in a tiny space, is overflowing with memories. What didn’t that little closet do? That’s where the toys were kept, and the coloring books, and the zip-lock bag of crayons that was started sometime in the eighties and kept magically refilling itself over the years. That closet held the baseball and football stuff - the essentials for our summertime Sunday afternoon, epic sports battles. That tiny closet held the gloves, balls, and bats that led me to realize I actually did have at least some semblance of an athlete in me. The same stuff would also help me to realize on my thirtieth birthday, as I chased down a fly ball in the field next to the house, that my twenties were definitely over, and something was definitely wrong with my body. That closet was a place for hide-and-seek. It was a clubhouse, where we wrote childish things on the walls that are still there to this day. And it was the place where Grandma kept the blankets that comforted us on so many days when sickness kept us out of school, but mama still had to go to work.
The living room is to the right, and it’s here that I understood the depth of ugly crying that I was about to have to endure. I mentioned the traditions we made. The living room was big enough, but only just so, to hold the whole family if something big was about to happen on the tv with the Braves, or the Falcons. The room would fill up in the eighties when number 3 stepped to the plate, and somebody would inevitably scream, “Dale’s up to bat!”
Around me, standing center, the room filled with the smell of ham, and peppermint, and wrapping paper. The floor filled to my ankles with crinkled up gift wrap and the sounds of Christmas cheer. I turned behind me, and there was the tree with my cousin Chuck’s personalized Christmas ball - we all had them - holding its place at the top. Grandma and Grandpa were there, sitting toward the back, surrounded by gifts, and watching it all with pride because they had made that, and it was good.
The first real tear fell, and my face twisted. I was alone, so I didn’t put up a fight. What was the use? The dining room was next, and I would be powerless now.
The large table was gone, but not really. I could see it, and we were all around it. First it was Christmas and we were stuffing food in our faces, because the last memory was Christmas and the storyteller in me insists on a smooth transition. But then it was every Sunday afternoon that ever happened there. I was small enough that the table was enormous. Then I was a teenager and cared about two things - fried chicken and football. Then I was a young man, and my future wife was next to me, holding my hand under the table so no one else could see. Then there was Noah, then Merida. And all the while, the rest of the family enjoyed the company, talking, and laughing, and the echoes of kit all bounced from the corners of the room in the way I think heaven might sound like. Grandma and Grandpa were there for most of it, too, sitting back and watching, listening. Because it was good.
The tears finally fell free, and fast.
The kitchen area is small, and hard to navigate when more than a couple of people are in there, but it keeps its share of memories, too. Those mornings when Mama brought us to grandma’s because we were sick and she had to work … those mornings would start at the little table to the side. We’d sit there and talk to Grandma while she made us breakfast and little instant coffee with loads of cream and sugar. I still take mine that way. Later, when I sold insurance, I would come over for lunch and sit at that table with Grandpa. Grandma always made me two delicious grilled cheese sandwiches. I kept telling her I only needed one, and every afternoon there would be two.
And last, I walked into the small utility room off the kitchen. There were the washer and dryer in there, and also a large freezer, and ancient bureau with twin mirrors on the doors. My cousin and I - the one who did stupidly stupid things with me - spent a lot of time in front of those two mirror. That was easy before we did the stupid things. In those days, we did the things children do. We grabbed the binoculars from the bureau and tried to look through the trees toward the red dirt. To us, at five years old, the big stack of what I believe was asbestos, was actually Dracula’s castle. We hoped we’d finally get a glimpse of him, but alas, he slept in his coffin during the day.
We learned to stand up for ourselves in front of those mirrors. We pretended the boys reflecting back to us were not only two different boys, but our sworn enemies. We scoffed at the boys in the mirror and we threatened harm to them if they ever got brave enough to come through. We knew they were us, of course, but what a telling tribute that was to the truth of the duality we all struggle with. We didn’t know anything about that then, but I found myself looking into my side of the mirror for the last time. I had to bend a little lower to get all of myself in frame, and that’s when the finality of it hit me with everything it had. The boy was gone, or at least he wasn't alone. The years had flown by, and I’d been so busy, I missed a lot of it. Still, there he was. The other boy. The memory. And behind him, stood a man who wanted to hold on to the boy as tightly as he could, but knowing he had to let go.
I said goodbye because I had to. And in doing so, I've noticed since then, that every time I see my reflection, I’m not alone. The boy in the mirror will always be there as a reminder of that house.
Because some pages refuse to turn.
I’ll always cherish the letters on those pages between the boy and the man in the mirror.
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