“You’re an optimist, Sis,” I told her. Mama and her parents abandoned the old place in the fifties, just walked away after the wreck. Even though it happened fifteen years before Ainsley was born (seventeen years before me), that wreck dominated the landscape of our childhood.
Granddaddy drove an Edsel in the days before they invented good taste. Mama said he loved that ugly old thing, but she and her brother thought the vertical grille looked like a sour faced aunt puckering up to kiss them the worst hello ever. Granddaddy had his kids out there washing the car with him every Saturday. He waxed it to a shine and drove his family through the countryside every Sunday.
On one of those drives, a logging truck lost its load coming around a corner. The Edsel rounded the same corner going the other way, and Granddady swerved straight down a steep embankment. Nobody wore seatbelts in those days. They didn’t even put them in vehicles. So the whole family tumbled and rolled with the car. Granddaddy’s leg stuck in the steering wheel and snapped. Grandmommy slammed into the windshield. Uncle Pete nearly suffocated when Grandmommy landed on him. Everybody was hurt in some way. Everybody but Mama. She flew out her open window and landed in a soft patch of clover. Knocked the breath out of her, but she didn’t even have a bruise to show for it. The trucker radioed for help or the whole rest of the family might have died there.
The Edsel was totaled. Granddaddy lost his leg below the knee. Grandmommy forgot who everybody was for three weeks, and Mama and Uncle Pete had to stay with their Aunt Suzy. When Grandmommy’s amnesia lifted, she stayed at Aunt Suzy’s, too. And when Granddaddy finally, finally got out of the hospital, he couldn’t drive a car anymore. He never worked again.
They moved into the city. Grandmommy went to night school and became a nurse. Granddaddy tried to be her housewife, but it never worked out quite right. Mama had to cook, and UnclePete had to do the yard work. Mostly Granddaddy sat out in his workshop and built nothing much at all. Oh how Mama idolized that house they left behind, where Granddaddy worked hard and Grandmommy baked pies every Friday night.
“It wasn’t much to look at,” she told us. “Kind of like the Edsel. But it was our house. Your Granddaddy built it with his own two hands just so he and Grandmommy would have a place of their own back when he had two sound legs and the world hadn’t fallen apart.”
Mama became a nurse like Grandmommy and met our Dad when he was a young soldier recovering in the VA hospital where Mama was working. They scandalized their families by marrying within a week of that first meeting, right there in the hospital. Dad got sent back to Vietnam almost as soon as he was released, but Mama was already pregnant with Ainsley.
Dad never really survived Vietnam. He came home. That was better than a lot of kids’ fathers. But he never made it above sergeant, either. He got his honorable discharge in 1973 when I was six years old. By then, we lived in Ohio, and that was where we stayed.
Ainsley and I grew up in the seven hills of Cincinnati, with the Ohio River our constant uneasy neighbor. Dad went to work in a machine factory, went to drink in the bar at the end of our street, and when I was sixteen, he went to die in the basement, with a revolver he bought for that express purpose.
We three girls, Ainsley, Mama, and I, did our best. Mama raised herself two more good nurses, and she met three grandchildren before the cancer took her away last May. And when she lay dying, the morphine confusing her while the cancer poisoned her, Mama came back to this old house in her mind. She talked to her parents and to our Dad, who had never even seen the old place. She believed my daughters were Ainsley and I as children, and she spoke to Ainsley’s son as if he was a young Uncle Pete. She didn’t see the real Uncle Pete at all, sitting quietly in a corner of the room murmuring his sorrow.
Pete gave us the directions the day after her memorial service, and said, “When you’re ready, I think we all know where she wants her ashes to go.”
It had been over a year, and we were as ready now as we would ever be. Pete himself couldn’t come. But he helped us match up old maps to new ones and find solid directions on the internet. We had a good idea of what we were looking for in spite of not ever having seen so much as a photograph of the old place. The satellite pictures showed nothing but pasture. I doubted we would find more than a foundation. But Ainsley said, “Those images are always off, even In the suburbs. If you look up my address, you get a picture of my across the street neighbor. It’s a brick house. Somebody lives there. It’s been sold and sold down the years. And now we’ll come to the door and find some family not much different from ours, and we’ll say, ‘Our mama grew up in this house, and we’d like very much to scatter her ashes.’ I’m just worried they won’t let us.”
I couldn’t argue with hope that strong. We both knew there wasn’t a listed phone number for the address, that the address hadn’t been updated when the old rural route became a state highway. If Ainsley needed to fantasize a family into a home we’d never seen, then I wouldn’t stop her dreaming.
Her first dose of truth came with a large real estate sign and a grass lane. I pulled onto the grass, and Ainsley wrote down the agent’s number, in case we needed keys to get access to the house. For my part, I read the sign. 200 acres. Will subdivide. No buildings listed.
We inched the car through the thick grass, which differed only slightly in color from the surrounding landscape. It was a grass road, demarcated by rows of pines on either side. But it wouldn’t be for much longer. Finally, we came out of the trees and saw the old house squatting in the distance. Still standing, then. But, like the grass road, not for much longer.
“Oh!” Ainsley wailed. As we drew closer, she buried her eyes in her fingers and began to sob. I stopped the car to pat her back and console her. Kudzu grew in vast trails from the trees, across what passed for a lawn, and all up the sides of the building. Hardly an inch of the place remained visible under the riot of green, though I could see the remains of the brick walkway granddaddy laid himself. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Ainsley that I thought this was still an improvement on what the house would have looked like before. It squatted in the middle of its clearing, the windows looking like squinting, angry eyes. I guessed Granddaddy meant to build it up more, because a second story jutted out over half the building, lending the roofline a lopsided, unfinished look.
“Come on,” I told my sister. “Maybe it’s better inside.”
“Oh yes,” she said.
We collected Mama’s ashes and picked through the Kudzu to the front door. Years of humidity had swelled it shut, and for several minutes, we struggled to force it open. For all that the wood was pockmarked with age and weather, it wouldn’t give.
But the windows weren’t nearly so solid. The glass had been long since broken out, and it was a small work of vandalism with a loose brick to destroy one frame enough to gain entry. I boosted Ainsley up, but she slid right back down my shoulders. “Well aren’t we a pair of geese!” she said. “The back door’s fallen off its hinges.”
So we walked around back and came in that way. Of course, the inside was no better than the out. Stale air choked me at the threshold, and I couldn’t follow my sister in. So I stood on the back steps and stared, instead. The faded and stained wallpaper was peeling and drooping grossly towards the floor in long pieces. Like a snake shedding its skin. “Oh! If these walls could speak! The tales I’m sure they would tell,” said Ainsley.
“They’d say ‘your sister has a mildew allergy, and she’ll be waiting out back,” I told her.
“No, I’ll come,” my sister said. “It’s really not much to look at, I don’t see a single piece of furniture, and I don’t trust the floor to let me explore upstairs.” She came out back with me. “I don’t guess it really matters where we do this,” she went on. “But I think close to the house is best. That’s what she really missed.”
So right where we stood, we opened the urn and sprinkled its contents, gray ash, lumpy bone, sharp silver fillings, and a few whole teeth that somehow avoided pulverizing. We put her where we guessed her flowerbeds had been, on either side of the back door, extending out to the edges of the building. “Fare thee well, Esther,” I told her, though the sentiment seemed inadequate.
We walked in silence back to the car, and as I climbed back into the driver’s seat, I stared hard one last time at the house where Mama most wanted us to leave her soul. And as I watched, the layers of kudzu fell away, ungrowing like a movie running backwards. The grass under my feet became shorter, the lane more clearly defined. And right in front of the house, a gleaming green monstrosity erupted from the earth, its wheels tarry black with carefully whitewashed rims. It was the ugliest car I’d ever seen in my life. It faced the house, so I couldn’t see the grille. But I didn’t need to see that to know it was an Edsel. By the way Ainsley grabbed my hand from the passenger seat, I knew she saw it too.
A man not much older than the two of us stepped out that stubborn front door, opening it easily and closing it behind him. He stood tall, with two healthy legs, and he carried a silver wash bucket. He called something we couldn’t hear, and a girl of maybe eight years, surely no older than my youngest daughter, skittered around the corner. We couldn’t hear her, either, but her bright eyes and wide open mouth spoke laughter as she ran around to her father. The father spoke again, and the girl answered, and now we could hear her. “Pete will be home soon, Daddy,” she said. “In a year or two at the most.”
“Well that’s alright Esther,” he said. “There’s no rush.” Then he turned directly to Ainsley and I. “Come on in, girls,” he invited. “Your Grandmommy baked one of her pies last night, and I’m just getting ready to wash the car. Esther can show you around the place before you have to go back where you belong.”
Although I had been terrified when the kudzu ran backwards, the sight of that ugly old car steadied me, so that when Granddaddy spoke, I tugged my hand free of Ainsley’s and got out of the car again. She got out, too, and we joined hands once more as we walked towards the house, towards our mother’s outstretched eight year old arms.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Caitlin Durkin challenged me with “The faded and stained wallpaper was peeling and drooping grossly towards the floor in long pieces. Like a snake shedding its skin. Oh! If these walls could speak! The tales I’m sure they would tell. ” and I challenged Jay Andrew Allen with “The ocean spray was cold. I wanted warm. But I’d take what I could get on a beach in December.”
Given that last week was a disaster, and I wrote-and-wrote-and-wrote and STILL only got my IndieInk done three minutes before the Thursday deadline, I was quite surprised when this story came to me all in a piece today.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.