The cold air draws me out of my slumber as I head for the basement. I know the sound every stair will make before my foot touches it, though each groans with greater intensity these days, a function of their age and mine. Grandpa descended these stairs every day to shave and to shower in the downstairs bathroom, even when the years and his hereditary bowleggedness had made it hard to do so. The two bathrooms upstairs had their uses, but in the morning this one was his.
He designed this house and built it 51 years ago, on 25 acres of the best farmland in the entire Midwest. Nestled in curves of the Grand River, the soil enriched by centuries of silt, his small farm brought forth a cornucopia of food that fed children and grandchildren nearly every Sunday, and visitors throughout the year, and during harvest time everyone went away not only full but carrying tomatoes and peppers and corn and okra and potatoes and cucumbers and cabbage and green beans—the staples of my grandmother’s table, lovingly canned or frozen and made into pickles and kraut, so that the harvest lasted through the long winters here along the Lake Michigan shore.
Twenty years ago, Grandpa passed away in this house, while taking a nap after one of those meals. Grandma knew that something was wrong when the snoring that had been the background music of her life for over 60 years finally ceased. For the next 20 years, she hoped that she too would breathe her last breath in the home they had built together. In the end, God had different plans.
Last night was the first Jacob had spent at his great-grandparents’ house, and it will likely be our last. We gather our sleeping bags, stop in the kitchen to make coffee and to sit for a few minutes with my aunt and uncles, then load everything in the car to head back to my parents’ house to prepare for the funeral. As we wind our way back to Leonard Road, steam still rises from the river, but the sun is burning off the fog. The sky is as blue as it ever has been; it will be a perfect day for a party.
Familiar faces around me
Laughter fills the air
Your loving grace surrounds me
Everybody’s here . . .
My cousins and I had planned this celebration of Grandma’s life fully expecting her to be here with us. She always had been; yet eight days before her 100th birthday, and four days before the party, she no longer was. And now she lies next to Grandpa, in silence this time, awaiting the day when our Lord will tell them both to arise and to join Him in a world made anew.
Back at the farm, cars pull into the pasture, and her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren and even one great-great-great-grandchild walk the ground that Grandma had trod for 51 years. Last night, these 25 acres and this house had suddenly seemed small to me. When I was a child, they were a world unto itself. I baled hay in these fields and fished in the river, harvested potatoes and sledded down the big hill with my cousins, celebrated birthdays and weddings and anniversaries and funerals, met aunts and uncles and cousins and more distant relatives for the first time. Some I only ever knew here.
Today, however, this house and these fields no longer seem small, but too big ever to grasp and to hold in memory the way they deserve to be held. I walk slowly from place to place, from room to room, trying to drink in every detail, so that I can remember it as it is, as it was, and as—I know—it will no longer be. There’s not enough time. There never will be, until, God willing, we’re all together again.
We talk for hours, eat the best roast pig my uncle and his sons and grandsons have ever made, and raise glasses of beer until most of the crowd drifts off, the sun disappears from the sky, and the chill creeps back into the air. Those of us who are left head inside, to sit around the kitchen and dining-room tables as we have so many times before. It’s an election year, but there are no heated discussions of politics, as there were when I was young. Only memories.
Time slips away from me, and I have one glass too many. In the walk-out basement where my grandparents used to retreat from the winter cold and the summer heat, there’s an empty couch facing the windows that look down to the river. One more night here, and perhaps, tomorrow, one last sunrise.
First published in the November 2012 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.