Inheritance passed along

Standing in the little square of a dirt yard, I almost changed my mind about going inside. The awkward, boxy house had no charm. It was my grandparents' last home, built during the lean decade following the depression, and finished without a single allusion to beauty or grace that I could see.

Yet somehow it attracted me. Despite its plain lines and peeling paint it seemed to promise a revelation - perhaps some gem of memory I'd long ago lost. As I started up the back steps I reached for my six-year-old's hand, but he'd found something more interesting, a regular battalion of black ants forging a path from under the house to some invisible point in the overgrown yard. He was entranced, so I left him crouched there in the hot morning sun while I climbed the steps and pushed open the back door.

My first glance inside quickly cooled my anticipation. The house was even smaller than I remembered, and as I walked through the empty rooms each one seemed darker and dingier than the one before. There were memories, of course - the old wringer washing machine on the back porch, Grandma plucking a chicken at the kitchen sink, dusty Venetian blinds at every window - but there was no magic. It was just a dirty, decaying old house.

And tiny - so tiny it would have cramped a couple. Yet for the two years my mother, my baby brother, and I had lived here there had almost always been ten people crowded around the dinner table - my aunt and uncle and their two children (who slept in a small silver trailer behind the house), my unmarried aunt, my grandparents, and the three of us. The congestion must have been a horror.

But I didn't remember being aware of it, or hearing anyone complain. In fact, the house in my memories was big enough to allow a five-year-old a private corner here and there. And the old clawfoot tub in the bathroom (still in its little bay) had always contained vast oceans of water when I climbed in with my unsinkable bar of Ivory and a head full of saltwater fantasies.

I remembered the little bedroom closet as a kind of fairyland overflowing with my aunt's fancy clothes and hatboxes. Seeing it now, I remembered the day my cousin and I spotted a rattlesnake on its floor amid the shoes and clutter. Panicked (and very pleased that such a thing could happen), we ran screaming to a neighbor who ventured into the house with his garden hoe and emerged grinning a few minutes later, dangling a cloth-covered clothes hanger from the end of his hoe.

A lot had happened to me here. I learned to play jacks, sitting barelegged on the scuffed floor. I learned to tiptoe around my grandfather when he sat reading his newspaper, silent and remote as his Cherokee forebears must have been. I learned about B-52s and rumble seats and riding on the back of a bike. And I started to school.

But I couldn't reconcile these memories with the peeling wallpaper, the stained ceilings, and above all, with the scale of the house. I could walk the entire circuit of rooms in eight paces. Far from giving up a secret, the old place bewildered me. It had no part in the childhood I remembered. The people who'd lived here must have been miserable, and very poor.

Feeling a guilty pride that my own son had a nice large house to live in with a room of his own, I turned and headed for the back door. As I passed through the kitchen my eyes happened to fall on the little window over the sink. Suddenly I stopped, frozen to the spot, seeing another kitchen - larger, warmer, and illuminated by a dazzling light that seemed to radiate from a point between me and the window. There was someone there, turned toward me from the sink, talking and smiling. The love I felt flowing from her to me and back again seemed tangible - a force that was at this moment creating the world I knew. I felt a certainty about my place in that world that was so strong, so undeniable, it seemed part of my physical body, and much more essential to my existence. And it seemed to begin and end in the luminous being at the kitchen sink.

I couldn't identify her at first, but I knew she was my unfailing friend, the person I spent my days waiting for, who made life possible. And I knew she would always be there.

Then I saw her - the dark dress, white apron tied loosely, high heels she hadn't taken time to change, curled halo of dark hair.

Of course. My mother.

After the moment passed and I found myself again staring at the little window in the dark kitchen, I stood still for a few minutes more, letting the wonder of it slowly settle into me. For an instant I had become my five-year-old self again, and in that flash of clarity had felt myself infinitely rich and secure.

When I went out into the sunlight again I found Peter sitting on the bottom step, still absorbed in watching the ants push and pull their treasures through the stony dirt. I sat beside him and watched too, wanting to give him the world and wondering if I'd ever know how.

The answer came when he looked up and I saw in his eyes the calm assurance of a child who's inherited a fortune and needs no more.

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