Watermelon on the Fourth of July

A Reminiscence

Writing “The Barn Door” and “Lost Dog,” prequel stories set on July 4 and July 5, 1898, to my calendar mystery series, reminded me of a trip Mom, Dad, Dotty, our short-legged beagle mix, and I made one summer not long after they bought the first car I can remember our having: a used, white and light blue ’54 Chevy two-door.

Later Dad discovered a short cut to our destination, the farm in Clarion County, PA, where my grandmother Willman grew up. But the first time we visited there for that Independence Day back in the fifties—before there even were interstates—we came in through Lamartine, a town of maybe forty households, a general store, a school and the Methodist church. (You won’t find it on any map because the name was later changed to Salem.) The tiny town stretched along a country crossroads, north and south, then east past Daddy’s aunt Maude and his cousin Walter Kurtz’s houses, and on down the hill between sloping fields planted in wheat.

At the bottom of the hill, Daddy turned right onto a rough dusty road. As we drove between what Dad called the water meadow and the family’s wood lot, I sat up straight for the first view of the house across the pond. Built in 1877, white with black shutters, it had two windows upstairs and two down, balanced on either side of the front door, up a few steps from the yard.

I loved the house when I first saw it and fretted restlessly in the back seat to get inside it even as the car bumped up the lane past the pond, past the house, past the garden and stopped by a decrepit corn crib. The substantial barn, built by my great grandfather Shirey in the Centennial year of 1876, stood farther up the hill on the right.

By the time we went to family reunions at the farm, milkweed and slender scrub oaks, seven or eight feet tall, had over-grown the yard in front of the barn at the lowest level. But my uncle George Hickman kept the lane mowed up and around the barn to the big doors on the other side. Beams a square foot spanned the big space up there. Dad said they’d come from the property itself.

No doubt the logs for the cabin where the family lived at first came from there, too. The year after the barn went up, my great grandfather Shirey, undoubtedly with the help of his neighbors, built the house around the cabin, then tore the cabin down, leaving a V-shaped house.

After Daddy parked the car, Mom opened the passenger side door, and Dotty slid out, trotted around the car and squatted over some spot of grass indistinguishable from the rest except for her contribution. Mom, Dad, and I gathered our suitcases from the trunk and wrangled them toward the house beyond a line of big, dark pines in the side yard. A stocky man of medium height with thin, dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, my uncle George, came out, saying, “Here, here, let me help with those bags.”

We entered the house by way of the huge, square country kitchen ruled over by the white-haired dowager of the family, my grandmother Willman. She had as her minions  my aunt Mary Hickman and her daughters, all more reserved with our part of the family than Uncle George, largely due to a feud over money the decade before. By the fifties, the situation had reached détente, mostly I think, because Mom wasn’t about to let old grudges deny her more or less free accommodations like those in the old house with half a dozen bedrooms, large and small.

Later, I slept in a narrow bedroom just around from the stairs. Back when Dad was a kid, a maiden aunt had this room. She must have been a poor relation because the room was very spare, furnished with bed barely larger than a cot, an orange crate on end for a nightstand, and a chest of drawers. The room had two windows. One next to the orange crate that served as a nightstand overlooked the side yard and the privy. The other window on the far side of the bed looked out at the steep hill behind the house. On hot nights, the wind breathed in one window and out the other, making the little room pleasantly breezy and cool. I found some ancient novels from the 1920’s on the lower shelf of the orange crate, and inveterate reader that I already was, I tried them. They seemed quaint and a little dull.

The house didn’t have an indoor bathroom until quite a while later, after Uncle George retired, and he and Aunt Mary moved to the farm permanently. They built a bathroom, laundry room, and galley kitchen onto what had been the porch that spanned both legs of the V in the back of the house. They left the outhouse, though, and Dad visited it occasionally for old times’ sake. It was quite a ways from the house, on a narrow rill that ran down to the spring house. (The Shireys brought the drinking water into the house to the hand pump in the kitchen sink from the horse spring above the house, a good thing, considering the possibility of insufficient rock between the privy and the spring house to filter contaminants out of the ground water. My dad, the civil engineer, said it took fifty feet.)

During that first summer visit to the farm, Daddy and I went for several walks. One day in particular stands out. Dad and I climbed the long, steep hill behind the house all the way to the top. There we found several graves overgrown by prickly bushes. Field stones marked the graves, by then, shallow depressions in the earth. The graves with stones only two or three feet apart made us sad as we knew babies and children were buried there. Dad said that these graves were  probably from around the time his grandparents first settled in this part of Pennsylvania, back around 1875 or so, not all that long after the Civil War.

As it turned out, the highlight of our first visit to the family farm, at least for me, was a watermelon my dad picked up. The afternoon we arrived, we went out again in the car right after lunch, this time with Uncle George, so he could direct us to an open-air market nearby. On that hot July afternoon, Dad wore khaki wash pants and a short-sleeved shirt with the deep oval of his white undershirt showing at the neck, and rings of sweat darkening the underarms. A straw hat hid his thin, dark hair.

As we stood in front of the stacked melons, my dad said, “You don’t need to cut a piece out of it to tell if it’s ripe.” He leaned over and flicked a big melon with the middle fingers of his right hand. “See?”

“Uh huh,” I said, though I didn’t really know what that thump of his fingers against the striped green watermelon meant.

The clerk weighed the melon and Dad paid for it, twenty cents to the pound. There were lots of pounds. He hefted it up to his left shoulder and carried it over to the car. Though Dad was a short guy, only about five foot five, he’d trained himself when he surveyed the mountains of West Virginia for the CCC to stride exactly a yard every time his right foot hit the dirt.

Back at the farm, Dad got the melon out of the trunk. Instead of taking it inside to the refrigerator, already jammed with food for the forthcoming Independence Day picnic, he carried it downhill to the spring house, a low stone building built into the slope. I followed Dad into the dim, cool building. “Watch out for the well,” Dad said as he pointed to a dark square of water in the floor on the right. “My sister Esther went head over heels in there one time. Like to scare the daylights out of her. It’s deep and really cold.”

I skirted the well and followed Dad through a narrow doorway on the left and down a couple of steps. Two shallow troughs of water stretched on either side of the paved floor. I could imagine bottles of fresh milk and cream plus bowls of berries from the garden floating in those trough water. That day they held only water until Dad lowered the melon off his shoulder and down into one of them. I hunkered down and dipped my fingers in the water. It was icy cold. “We’ll come out and turn it every once in a while,” Dad said. “By the fourth it’ll be perfect.”

And so it was. On Independence Day we dined like hogs on Grandmother Willman’s Parker House rolls along with fried chicken, ham, meatloaf, deviled eggs, those weird gelatin salads that many of the women tried made back then, baked and green beans, the latter picked early that morning and cooked just with butter in a big pot. “These beans are delicious,” my mother said once she’d tried them. And that was really something since she gave few compliments, especially to Daddy’s women folk.

After the ladies commenced to slice the pies and cakes, Dad went down to the spring house and fetched the melon up to the barn on his shoulder. Cold water slid around his wrist and dappled his shirt as he carried it to the picnic table outside the barn, its doors flung open wide to let light and air in to the other tables. Dad laid the melon down on the oilcloth, cut the melon in half lengthwise with a long-bladed knife. The two halves split open to reveal the pink meat and black, slippery seeds. Daddy cut the halves into quarters, then the quarters into wedges and slices. I spat the seeds out into the grass as I ate watermelon, sweet and ripe to the center, and so cold it made my teeth ache.

In the evening, we snacked a little more, though not on the watermelon, long since devoured, its seeds scattered in the grass, its rind collected by my grown-women cousins in bowls and basins to pickle for next year’s picnic. Then we waddled to the cars and drove up the lane and out the country road, back to Lamartine to hear a fife and drum corps, just like they had back in the days of the American Revolution when western Pennsylvania was the frontier. After dark we watched fireworks out over the dewy hill, so close I smelled the gunpowder. Long after dark we drove through a countryside resounding with crickets and cicada, back to the farmhouse sheltered by the hillside.

I fell asleep in the narrow bed in the narrow bedroom, not knowing how special in my memory of that day, my folks, and that melon would become, long after it was devoured and yes, the watermelon rind pickles too.

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Juliet Kincaid writes the calendar historical mysteries and the Cinderella, P. I. mysteries for grown-ups. Stories and novels of both series are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.

First Crush

A Reminiscence

One afternoon back in the summer of ’52, I got in such deep trouble with my mom and dad that I got spanked for it. The guy I got in trouble with was gorgeous: medium height, he had wavy black hair and intense blue eyes. He looked great in (and half out of) buckskins. And he had wonderfully toned pectorals.

I didn’t know that word yet. (I guess we’d call them his six-pack now.) So I thought of that part of his anatomy, and thought about it again, and drooled over the memory of seeing it on the screen during the next few days, as his chest. That guy had great chest, liberally displayed when the doctor dug the bullet (or was it an arrow?) out of the adjacent shoulder. The fellow bore the pain most manfully, albeit with the help of that frontier anesthetic, whiskey swigged from a jug.

The movie was The Big Sky, the actor was Dewey Martin, and I was in love, or really some sort of pre-pubescent lust. And I was so taken by his performance, well his chest primarily, that I sat through the whole movie a second time.

This was a major error of judgment because once I reeled out of the theater another two hours later, I knew I was in deep trouble. When I’d paid my thirty-five cents to the cashier and got my ticket four hours earlier, it had been bright and sunny outside. Now it was almost dark. Crying, I hurried toward the bus stop a half block down the avenue in front of the columned bank building.

Before I got to the corner, though, here came my dad bearing down on me with the yard-long engineer’s stride he trained himself to take back when he was a surveyor with the CCC. I could tell he was mad, mostly from worry I understand now that I’m a parent. Or maybe it was because we went home by cab which cost lots more than bus fare, probably to get there fast to relieve Mom of her worries. (We didn’t have a car or a phone yet.)

For supper I had cold boiled cabbage and ham. (Mom and Dad must have eaten all the onions and the potatoes she usually put in that dish.) But I was so hungry it tasted delicious. For dessert I got my licking. Dad spanked me with his bedroom slipper instead of the razor strop he used on my brother after Dale played hooky from school to go fishing down by the river when we lived in Garden Court in South Point, Ohio.

I guess the spanking hurt and I never again stayed out late without parental permission until I was in college and my parents were out of town. And Dad only spanked me the one time during my childhood and adolescence, though Mom took licks at me a couple of times, once with the bristle end of a broom for not coming right home from grade school and later on when I was in high school, with the soft side of a plumber’s friend for giving her lip.

The spanking Dad gave me didn’t stop me from thinking about Dewey Martin. I bought movie magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen on the sly at Nick’s News downtown across the street from the library and scoured them for pictures of my favorite. One photo I found was tiny, but showed Martin bare-chested. Oh joy. I neatly cut it out with Mom’s sewing scissors and hid it in my dresser drawer among my underpants. Sometimes I’d pull the picture out and pet it.

The spanking my dad gave me also didn’t keep me from falling in love with a long series of men I’ve known only from the big or little screen. I can still list them in a long incantation of desire: Dewey Martin, Yul Brynner (another very manly chest) and . . . I’ll spare you the rest.

How about you? Who was the first star you had a crush on?

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Juliet Kincaid writes the Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-ups and the calendar historical mystery series set in Kansas City around 1900. These stories and novels are available as trade paperbacks and Kindle eBooks from Amazon. com. (And they’re always free on Kindle Unlimited.)

Dress Shields and Other Devices of Torment

A Reminiscence

Around the age of fourteen I had my one growth-spurt of adolescence and reached my full height of five foot one and three quarters. I also attained the full maturity of my glands, including those I sweat with. Soon thereafter my mother decreed that in order to protect my good clothes, that is, any article of clothing I wore to church and many I wore to school, I had to wear dress shields.

In case you don’t know about these little monsters, let me describe them. About the size of a shoulder pad, but meant to fold into the armpit instead of over the shoulder, a dress shield is an oval of layered cloth and rubber.  Many come with little straps.

Back then dress shields didn’t come in disposable like they do now, and after I wore my dress shields a few times, even my mother, the power-laundress and detergent-maven, couldn’t get the smell of sweat out of them. So I’d end up embarrassed over my possible body odor and therefore inclined to keep my elbows locked into my ribs.

My mother had other devices, too. Even now I have trouble keeping my bra straps on my narrow shoulders. So Mom came upon a solution when she discovered strap clips in a bin at Kresge’s Five and Dime close by the dreaded dress shields. This meant when gussied up for school or church in a bra, slip, and dress shields, I’d have wads of straps so thick and cumbersome that soon they slid off my shoulders and thus kept me from lifting my arms. What with the stinky dress shields under my arms and several straps across my biceps, no wonder I rarely raised my hand in high school.

The dress shields and clips weren’t the only devices of torment Mom hobbled me with. Though I never weighed more than one hundred and five pounds till I was past twenty and was, besides that, fit from twice weekly dance lessons and lots of walking, the conventional wisdom of the time said good girls wore panty girdles to hold up their stockings on Sundays and also to hold in the tummies they wouldn’t have until they got married and had a bunch of kids. Of course, a properly fitting panty girdle was guaranteed to dig grooves into the bottom of any girl as she sat through three hours of Sunday school and church.

My mom even managed to get my daddy in on the instruments of torture, for it was her contention that I was hard on shoes. Indeed, she believed this and kidded me about it until I was well into my fifties. So, to virtually every new pair of shoes, dress or casual, I got during my adolescence, Dad nailed heel taps, little pieces of metal shaped like flattened cashews. This meant, unless I wanted to make a clatter on wooden and tile floors, I had to tiptoe. On carpets, the taps tended to make me skid. Trying striding along confidently when you have taps on your shoes.

Now, to sum this whole torment up, picture me on a typical Easter Sunday when I was in my mid-teens. There I sit in the pew to which I tiptoed in my new shoes with the taps on the heels. On my little face I wear cat’s eye glasses that I push back up my narrow nose from time to time–when I’m not easing the clips that hold my straw boater firmly clamped to my aching temples like the claws of some vicious bird. Under my beige silk blouse and cashmere sweater with orange piping coordinated with a silk skirt, I wear slip, bra and dress shields into which I’m heartily sweating because of all the layers I wear including the panty girdle and hose.

From the perspective of several decades removed from that poor, challenged girl I was, I realize now that it was very hard for me to feel worshipful back then when I constantly fought my clothes. I’ve always thought going to college led me to rebel against church-going at age nineteen. But now I wonder if it was my dress shields instead.

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Juliet Kincaid writes the Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-ups featuring a favorite fairy tale heroine and the calendar historical mysteries set in Kansas City around 1900 that tell the story of Minty Wilcox and Daniel Price from newly met to newly wed and beyond.

You can buy Juliet’s novels and stories at Amazon.com as trade paperbacks and Kindle eBooks. (They’re always free from Kindle Unlimited.)

Juliet’s most recent publication is “The Barn Door,” a prequel short story to her calendar mysteries that introduces her dashing detective Daniel Price. Click on this link to go to it: www.amazon.com/dp/B073G7ZXMP

 

 

 

 

First Love

A Reminiscence

It’s Sunday just past eight as we leave Mom behind at home. Dad wears the same dark gray suit he wears to work. His shirt is fresh and his tie knotted close to his Adam’s apple. My brother Dale, seven years older, wears a heavy, white sweater over his shirt, woolen knee pants, and Argyle knee socks. I’m in my new red coat with the matching red bonnet. Underneath I’m wearing the plaid cotton dress I had my first grade picture taken in. Dad tucks his bible under his left elbow and holds my left hand and Dale takes my right hand. We walk down the street past the other little houses on our cul de sac called Garden Court in South Point, Ohio. We stop at the highway and look both ways before we cross with care. As we wait for the bus that will take us part of the way to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Huntington, West Virginia, I start to pop up and down, toes to heels, heels to toes, rock back and forth with excitement.

Then here the bus comes up the road. As my breath comes faster and faster still, the bus slows and stops with a wheeze of its brakes. The doors fold open and there he is.

“Hi, Jesse,” I say, with bated breath as Dad and Dale swing me up the steep steps, and set me down on my feet next to the man in the broad leather-covered driver’s seat.

“Hi, Jet,” he says, calling me by my childhood nickname.

His name is Jesse Lemaster and I’ve been in love with him since the moment I first climbed onto his bus two years before.

I’ve rarely seen him standing, but I can tell from the way he fills the space at the front of the bus between the big wheel and the lever he uses to operate the doors, that he’s tall and lanky. He has blue eyes and wears his nondescript brown hair short and slicked back. He wears his usual gray, short-sleeved shirt and gray wash pants.

I pay no attention to Daddy, who probably puts money in the till for the three of us, and Dale, who obviously gets on the bus because he gets off with Dad and me in Huntington when we make our transfer to a city bus. I only have eyes for Jesse as I settle in the seat at the top of the steps.

I wonder now why this seat was always empty when I got on the bus. Perhaps Jesse shooed other riders out of it just so I could have it on Sundays. I watch him pull the lever to shut the door, release the brake, and engage the clutch with one big foot. The bus eases back into traffic as I lean forward and start to talk.

I tell Jesse what’s happening at home with Mom and our cocker spaniel Donny Boy that Daddy had since before I was born and Jersey Bird, the parakeet I picked out from among a hundred birds raised by Mom’s friend after he lost his feet in an automobile accident in New Brunswick, New Jersey. We brought Jersey Bird home on the train in a shoe box with holes in the top to live in a metal cage in the living room close to the furnace.

I’ve already told Jesse about getting spanked in first grade for asking a kid across the aisle if I could borrow his red crayon, so I’m spoiled on the subject of school for a while.

Jesse listens. Sometimes he smiles and glances my way as he drives the bus into town on Sunday morning so long ago.

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Twenty years later, after I got my Master’s from the University of Colorado and returned to Huntington to teach at Marshall University, I called the bus company to find out if Jesse still worked for them. He did. In fact he drove the route in town I used to take to go to my dance classes. So I caught the bus one afternoon, climbed on, said, “Hello, Jesse, remember me?”

He did. And he reminisced. He said that when I was four, I was small and looked two. “But you spoke as clearly as you do now,” Jesse said, a man cooler and more remote than the man I loved when I was a little girl.

Back then I knew absolutely that the attraction was mutual. For after all, Jesse gave me gifts.

One Easter he was off-duty, so he sent an emissary. The guy who drove his route that day came up to our house with a basket wrapped with crinkly paper and filled with candy my mom must have parceled out to me stingily.

But the Christmas I was six, Jesse came to the house himself to give me a big blue rag doll dog with floppy ears. I hugged it to my chest and dubbed it “Blue Doggy.” The next time we rode the bus, I clutched my new doll and sighed, “Well, Jesse, I guess I’ll just have to marry you now.”

I didn’t, of course, but I think it’s absolutely no accident that throughout my adult life I’ve been attracted to tall, lean men with light eyes. (Hey, Clint Eastwood still works for me!

And I named my daughter Jessica. (I never told her father why I chose that name.)

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Juliet Kincaid writes the calendar mystery series, set in Kansas City about a hundred years ago, and the Cinderella, P. I. mysteries that feature Cinderella, twenty years, three kids and a few extra pounds after the ball. All her stories and novels are available as Kindle eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com.

A House in the Country

A Reminiscence

Whenever we went for a drive on Sunday afternoons and on long trips, too, back in the 50’s, Dad stamped white horses. If he spotted a white horse in a field by the side of the road, he’d lift his right hand from the steering wheel, lick the end of his index finger, punch it against the palm of his left hand still on the wheel, and slam his right fist against his palm to seal the deal.

On our rides, Dad and I competed to see who stamped the most white horses. So he liked to wait until we’d almost passed the horse and it was almost out of sight to stamp it, so I’d miss it and he’d win. He’d chuckle like crazy as I’d turn my head to look for the white horse and say, “Where is it? Where is it? I missed it. Oh darn it, Daddy.”

(Two can play that game.)

I don’t imagine we stamped too many white horses on a drive in Clarion County PA that we took close to the Fourth of July in 1955.

My dad’s mother, Grandmother Willman, wearing a faded, short-sleeved house dress, but as stiff-necked as usual, came with us. She wanted to find the house her husband grew up in. Though the area hadn’t changed as much as it would in the next decade with the building of the interstates and the subsequent development along them, it had been a very long time, sixty years or more, since she visited that house. You forget lots in sixty years, something I understand much more now than I did when I was fourteen going on fifteen, a supple young thing who didn’t understand how age stiffens necks.

Our usual seating arrangement in the car was Dad at the wheel. Mom rode shotgun. Our dog, a short-legged beagle mix with a big brown spot in the middle of her white back, sat in Mom’s lap. I rode in the back.

On that particular ride, Grandmother Willman sat in front, so she could give Dad directions. Mom, Dotty, and I rode in back.

Mom was obviously pissed off about the seating arrangements. She glared through her glasses with her snapping black eyes at the back of her mother-in-law’s head, covered with silky white hair pinned in two braided crescents that crisscrossed each other just above her seamed neck.

Mom always said Grandmother Willman was a bitch because before Dad married Mom, Dad sent most of the money he made working for the CCC home to his mother to save for him.

Or so he thought until his wedding to Mom on 7/11/37, he asked his mother for his money, and Grandmother Willman said, “Money? What money? I don’t have any of your money.” Whenever Mom told this story, she bellowed those exact same words in the exact same way. And so my dad had to take out a loan of $200, a substantial sum back then during the Depression, to start his married life with my mom.

I’m certain Grandmother Willman disapproved of my mom just as much. They were so different, the one a stern, church-going, teetotal countrywoman and the other a city girl with a New Jersey accent who didn’t attend church much, not even on Easter and Christmas, except for the social stuff like the annual picnic. Also Mom used words like “bitch” and “shit” and didn’t mind the occasional beer or cocktail.

Grandmother Willman’s disapproval of the girl Dad married the second time around passed down to me. Though my mom was a world-class housekeeper and kept a far tidier house than any of my dad’s sisters and his mom, she wasn’t teaching me crucial womanly kitchen skills. (She didn’t want me underfoot when she was in the kitchen fixing supper.) Also my mom earned her living as a nurse before she and Dad got married.

I was headed down the same wrong path of wanting to go to college and to earn my living instead of getting married, making babies, and keeping house.

But that day, given a choice between staying back at the family farm with Dad’s relatives that she barely knew and going somewhere, anywhere, in the car, Mom shut her mouth and glowered at her mother-in-law from the back seat. She was probably just waiting for Grandmother Willman to say something or do something Mom could bitch to my dad about for days, weeks, months, and years to come. (“And that’s another thing that burns my ass off about your mother, Homer,” she’d say.

The drive, maybe punctuated by Dad and me stamping a white horse or two, took a while because Grandmother Willman was unsure of the directions. It must have been a point of pride that in the end she did remember where the house was and finally the car bumped along a lane past a new farmhouse, white with bright blue shutters, till we came to an old house inside a square of dirt with a rickety barbed wire fence around it. Even I who’d never seen the house before was shocked by its condition.

“This must be it, Mother,” Dad said as he pulled the car close to the fence. He turned off the engine, opened his door and got out without closing the door on that side. He stared across the top of the car.

Mom squeezed against me as she looked out the window on my side of the car. “Is that really it?” she said. “I can’t say much for it.”

Staring at the old house, I tried to figure out what was wrong with it. Well, for one thing, it was the gray of weathered wood without any paint at all. There wasn’t anything green around it. Unlike my father’s mother’s family farmhouse, it didn’t have a pond sitting in front of it. And then I realized what I didn’t see, too. It sat alone inside that fence without a single outbuilding, spring house, outhouse or corn crib, shed or barn.

After a while, Grandmother Willman said, “I believe the people that own the place now are using the old house as a barn.”

“I think you’re right, Mother,” Dad said, his voice a little distant from outside the car. He turned and poked his head back in. “I tell you what. Why don’t we look around? The cows aren’t in the barnyard and I’m sure the new owners won’t mind.”

“Yes, let’s,” Mom said. “I hate to think we came all this way for nothing.”

Mom opened the door. The floppy-eared Dottie spilled out. My mom slammed the door and I jumped out my side. Grandmother Willman was the last out, helped by my dad though I don’t think she stopped looking at that falling-down house the whole time.

Dad went ahead and unlatched the wide gate, shut by a loop of wire, held the gate open while we trooped through, then closed it. A little closer, I saw that the windows didn’t have a bit of glass anymore though a rag of a curtain blew through a window on the second floor.

Glad to be out of the car, I ran ahead of the others, up the narrow stone steps and through the doorway (no door left) straight into the house. Momentum carried me through what must have been the kitchen and parlor, up narrow steps to a hall and into a bedroom. Finally, the sight of faded wallpaper shredded down the walls, straw littering the floor, mouse droppings, and the stink of must and decay stopped me. This is horrible, I thought. Finding the house in this condition was worse than not finding it at all. It was like walking inside a corpse.

I heard my mom and dad marching around downstairs, as they tried to figure out the layout of the house, but I couldn’t stand breathing the close, rotten air of that house anymore. By the time I got back outside, Grandmother Willman was there, too, gazing at the house through wire-rimmed glasses that reflected the sunlight so I couldn’t see her eyes.

I heard her voice shake, though, as she pointed toward a nearly leafless, thorny plant growing by the steps. “That’s a blackberry bush,” she said. “My mother-in-law made the best pies with the berries from that bush.”

Suddenly, I felt sorry for Grandmother Willman, in her faded house dress, stiffly corseted underneath, in her black granny shoes and stockings, as she remembered all the people she’d known and loved who’d lived in that now dead house, alone and solitary in a barren field.