Her house was a childhood dream

The beds were amazingly high above sea-level, and Their altitude in proportion to their massy comfort.

My maternal grandmother was a house. I don't suppose many people immediately think of their grandmother as four walls and a roof, and ... well ... strictly speaking, mine was an old lady.

I remember her as someone who only appeared downstairs late in the morning. She sat in her armchair a lot and presided over the side of beef at lunch. It swam in a wonderfully tasty but watery gravy with sweet onions and carrots and dumplings. It was followed by stewed cherries and custard.

Then she would sit in her armchair again all afternoon. Finally, I think, she must have gone upstairs after tea, because I don't associate her with evenings at all.

We children had a somewhat disengaged relationship with this crinkly personage. She would occasionally accost us with a sharpish question, as if she were a hibernating tortoise who only stuck her head out for a bite of lettuce once or twice a day. She doubtless thought us oddly tongue-tied in reply.

But if I was a little in awe of her, I think now that she was quite tolerant of children. Maybe she just couldn't be bothered to interfere with our high spirits. We more or less had the run of the place. I was extremely fond of her house (and garden).

The extent to which a house is its inhabitants should hardly be a surprise. Yet there is something shocking about walking around a house you have lived in for years but are now leaving for good. The movers have come and gone, taking with them every rug and curtain, picture and ornament, book and cup. What had been the cozy skin of your daily life is suddenly a series of echoing, now-unfamiliar boxes with hard floors and naked walls.

While driving around Norfolk, England, with a friend recently, I stopped at the end of the driveway that circled a raised-up woody island on its way to the front door of my grandmother's house. I have no idea who lives there today.

To me it remains obstinately Granny's, and I don't choose to imagine its present inhabitants or the radical improvements they must have made to a place that was old-fashioned even when I was a child.

From the gate it didn't look much altered. The wall to the left of the front door against which I endlessly thwacked a tennis ball is still available for that purpose. The high window was often open to air the house, which was a good thing. My ball more than once shot into the bedroom, rather than smashing the pane.

The house was no mansion. An oversized cottage perhaps, though I don't think my grandparents would have countenanced this description, because they were not without importance locally.

During the war, as if to prove this point, my grandmother ignored rationing and continued to send her weekly order to the butcher, baker, and grocer down in the village. She ordered hams, belly pork, sugar, butter – all the things everyone else was short of. And all these things would faithfully arrive at her house.

This was a house with multiple ingress. Front door, side door (like French windows) into the garden room, a door out to the rose garden at the opposite end of the narrow hallway from the front door, and a way in and out of the kitchen into a small backyard. In this yard stood a large hand-pump.

By my time, the water was pumped with the aid of electricity. But it had not been long since the water had been pumped biceptually by maid or cook.

Antimacassars and shawls were draped over ancient, worn chairs. Above the dining table was suspended a large circular lampshade, like a tasseled drum. It was operated by a pulley system with counterweights, and could be laboriously lowered or lifted.

Also hanging there was a push-button on a cord, and Granny would tell us to reach up and press it to summon Elsie (the maid) when the dishes were to be cleared. I am ashamed to admit we often pressed it just for the mischief of it, and poor Elsie would appear, breathless, only to be told it was a false alarm.

She would then, laughing, shout at us in broad Norfolk, "You did that, di'n't you? Di'n't you? I know you, boy. You did that!" And then we'd get a clip round the ear if we didn't duck in time.

The beds were amazingly high above sea-level, almost like climbing up to a top bunk. Their altitude was in proportion to their massy comfort, because they were equipped with elaborate and enormous undersprings. How many mattresses perched atop these coily foundations, I am not sure. I imagine two or three.

Once you were up there and ready for sleep, you had a sensation of rocking, accompanied by strange twangings and clickings – almost as if you were in a moored boat and the tide was coming in.

Sounds were one of the things that made this house so unlike ours. The entire house was swamped in an impenetrable sea of Virginia creeper. This is not ivy. It has larger leaves that turn a gorgeous array of sunset hues in autumn. In winter, it sheds its leaves altogether. In spring and summer, this creeper was better than high-rise housing for birds.

Their rustling and twittering and loud morning song seemed almost to be inside your bedroom. And I seem also to hear now a persistent summery buzzing and humming of insects.

Sounds and smells. Clutter in the garden room: raffia and scissors and old leather horse bridles and tennis rackets and walking sticks. An enormous bowl of cowslips or bluebells in the hall. Heather. Darkness in the kitchen. Currant buns baking. Mustiness in the attic, where the maid had her room. Speckled guinea-fowl eggs. Fresh-cut asparagus dipped in hot, runny butter....

Up the narrow stairs was Auntie Jo's room, where the small bookshelf sported books about hunting and dogs, full of gray pencilly illustrations. And where her terrier, Sprigginsgrass, lapped from a saucer on the floor. In the rose garden, cabbage- white butterflies. By the front door, the crunch of gravel. And the thud and bounce of my tennis ball against the wall by the front door.

That old granny house was made for nostalgia.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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