At maybe six years old, in an oh-so-stylish red crushed velvet dress, I slithered between milling guests , darting my hand out to snatch cookies or crackers, yelling above the roar to my sister. My fingers reached, just grazing her long hair before she whipped it over her shoulder and glared me down.
It’s not time to open presents yet, she told me, so stop asking her; she didn’t make the rules.
She was gone then, lost among the taller bodies, probably searching for our Dad.
Flitting around the ground floor of my Grandpa’s house, the scratchy brown couches chock-full of people eating plates of ham, mashed potatoes, and corn, is one of my earliest memories. As it was Christmas Eve, I wanted to open the one glorious present I was allowed to touch before Christmas Day. But I had to wait; we were having dinner and socializing.
Socializing with my family is no simple task. As the youngest of ten siblings, my Mom gifted me with a large extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, second-cousins, and unrelated something-or-others we just welcomed into the fold. On holidays or for birthdays, we packed nearly 100 people into my Grandpa’s home, the heater barely needed even when the temperatures dipped below freezing.
I’ve opened more presents in front of the living room fireplace there than I can count, oftentimes with at least four cousins on top of me, asking what I’d gotten before the paper was fully peeled.
But we haven’t had an event there in years, instead coming together in the posh homes of my aunts and uncles.
And now I can say for certain we’ll never gather there again.
They sold the house. After over 50 years and ten children, the house isn’t in our family.
And I’m not even on the continent to say my goodbyes.
My mom and her siblings — probably with Grandpa — will make one more visit to clear out the last items; the Greiner name will be pulled from the mailbox; the toys cluttering the curving, secret servants’ staircase to the kitchen will be pulled out and the doors locked; the rickety black railing out front will keep swaying when wind gusts too hard, but my hand won’t steady it.
I did a lot of things in that house — some of them smarter than others. Sliding around on the wooden upstairs floor until my toes were dotted with slivers was not the highlight of my time there, but sucking in shallow breaths while my Aunt Ellen used a needle to pull them all out was memorable, if nothing else.
In the woods out back, I nearly broke my ankle when my cousin Lizzy told me to run, all because she thought she saw a bobcat in the tree. Shockingly, there was not a huge wild cat lurking in the tiny tree-filled area in Iowa, less than a square mile. We think it was a dead branch.
Despite still not fully knowing the order of all my cousins, I spent endless time looking at the row of aging, smiling faces resting above the bookcase in the dining room, updated yearly after school pictures, trying to remember if Kristin or Amber was older.
When we were forced out the door to Church in the mornings, I recall flinging myself onto the porch, panting from sprinting down the alley, believing maybe I’d finally won the race, only to see another hand scrape the yellow siding before mine.
The narrow staircase just to the left of the front door held us all in descending order of age or height at some point for a staged-but-still-cute photo. It also held more than a few of the cousins captive when they were positive their heads would fit through the white wooden banister.
The walls told me stories about my Mom I never would have imagined, like where the wall was dented in from a particularly vicious fight with her sister Loretta. She showed me which rooms she’d lived in at different points in her life; the room she, only a high school student at the time, carried her own mother in and out of when she was too frail to keep walking.
The only memory I have of my Grandma — fuzzy and dim as it may be — is in that house. I was just four, too naive to realize not every old woman talked in a raspy voice through a tube in her neck and got to ride in a cool scooter all day. I don’t remember her passing right after, or anything beforehand, but I have that one flash of time, sitting on her lap right in front of her ostentatious over-sized wooden rosary dangling on the wall.
Grandpa lived alone in the room Grandma left for as long as I can remember, before moving into the retirement home. If I had a dollar for every time I sat in that room while my mom fixed Grandpa’s computer, his exasperated cries of “I just don’t know, Reet!” filling the room, I’d be able to buy the house for myself. On that floor, I sat while Grandpa told me his favorite memories of Grandma and constantly reminded me that I was lucky to have her brains.
When my aunt and cousins moved into the house with Grandpa when I was a kid, I got a taste of what it would have been like to grow up there. It wasn’t ideal — I was forever afraid a bat was going to swoop down on me — but it was nice. Artwork my Grandma had painted decades ago still graced the walls, the colors faded. Needlepoint I knew her hands had painstakingly crafted hung in the kitchen. The basement, creepy even by basement standards, with its sloping cement walls and narrow steps that seemed to be decaying, still held all of Grandpa’s tools, which he’d happily use to fix anything I asked of him.
Thinking of all the things I was going to miss about home over the course of a year away, I’ll admit Grandpa’s house never even crossed my mind. I’d never lived there, I had no intention to, and we hadn’t had a big family gathering there in years. But it’s a staple and I suppose I’m not quite ready for it to just be gone from my life. I complained about the old smell in there frequently, but now I’m praying for that stale air to fill my lungs.
It’s just a house — one with bad wiring and curling wallpaper — but it was my Mom’s first home and a place I shared with every member of my family at some point.
So I hope the new owners appreciate what they’re getting — and maybe what they’re giving up by moving — because that house is a beautiful home.