The Road to Grandma’s House

Run for 45 seconds, walk for 30. Repeat. For six miles. Go.

It was Saturday morning along the misty Allegheny river, and we were running, then walking, and running again. Blessedly, I was not in charge of the stopwatch. I was checking out a run-walk club, and our leader timed all the transitions.

“Walk for 30!” she hollered. I slowed my pace and made eye contact with the woman beside me. “I’m glad that she tells us what to do,” I said. She grinned, “Is this the first time you’ve done this?” I nodded. “Are you new to the area?”she asked. “No, I’ve been in Pittsburgh for fifteen years. And I grew up visiting my grandparents, just outside of town in Verona.” Her smile widened, “Oh, that’s where I live! Where did…”

“Run for 45!” We paused until the next break.

“Walk for 30!” We walked, and my new friend re-started the conversation. “I didn’t expect to be living in Verona,” she confessed, “But a friend of the family, an older lady who had been taking care of her brother and sister wanted to sell her house, and it’s just a few doors down from my parents. It all happened suddenly, but seemed like the right thing to do.”

At this point I almost stopped walking, nearly tripping the run-walker behind me.

“Wait, this older lady with the brother and sister, what was her name?”

And she said my grandma’s name. My grandma, who had taken care of my great-aunt and great-uncle in her house in Verona. Then the daughter of her long-time neighbors bought her house because it seemed like the right thing to do. I had heard this story before.

“That’s my grandmother’s house!” I exclaimed, and now she almost stopped (we were really annoying the people behind us). “You’re the granddaughter who lives in Pittsburgh?” she asked, astonished, as if I had just run-walked off the pages of a novel she was reading. “Yeah, that’s me,” I replied.

“Run for 45!” the command came again, and the timing was perfect.

We both needed 45 seconds to process these revelations.

* * * * *

It was an hour in the car from my hometown to grandma’s driveway, and as a child the ride seemed endless. So I counted landmarks: the Harmerville Exit off 28. The Eat n’ Park by the movie theater. The purple bridge. The Dairy Queen. The street with all the flags, and then the turn up the hill, past the Italian restaurant. A turn off the main road and then the winding suburbs of yellow and red brick houses, nearly identical except for a striped awning here, a rhododendron bush there.

“We’re almost there,” I would inform my brothers. “Doh!” one of them would inevitably respond. “Stop hitting your brother!” came the call from the front seat. But none of this mattered. We had finally arrived.

The driveway crunched under the car tires as we pulled around back. We always, always entered grandma’s house through the back door. The front door was for guests. The back door was for family.

As we piled out of the car, there were longing looks at the neighbor’s pool, and then we plunged into the cool, musty dimness of the garage and basement. Sasha and Peeko greeted us with a swish of cat tails against our legs. We paused by the piano that lived in the basement and banged on the keys, one of my parents scolding us to stop-that-horrible-racket.

We stopped. The stairs drew us forward, then up, as we announced our arrival with voices and loud clomping. The door at the top of the basement steps was closed, but soon it would swing open.

And Grandma and Grandma’s house were right behind that door.

* * * * *

After much friendly reminiscing, my run-walker friend and I exchanged e-mails. “Come and visit,” she said, “you’re always welcome.” I promised to be in touch and went to my car, calling my mom while I was still in the parking lot. “You’ll never guess who I met!” And my mom was, of course, thrilled. “Are you going to go and visit?” she asked, and I started to respond that of course I was, and did she want to join me, but then… I paused for a long time.

“Jen?” she asked. “I’m not sure,” I stammered, surprising both of us, “I’ll have to think about it.”

Suddenly, it was a lot to process. Suddenly, I felt protective of my childhood memories. Grandma’s house was grandma’s house after all, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted a dose of grown-up reality, of inevitable change, to cloud the pictures in my mind.

So much has already changed.

“I’ll have to think about it,” I told my mom on the phone, and several months later, I’m still thinking about it. Not because I’m afraid of what I’ll find there–I’m certain that the house has been well-maintained and cherished in its new life with a new family.

It’s just that I know what will be missing.

Like the old fridge with the curved corners, with chilled dishes of red jello on the bottom shelf. Or the egg-crate mattresses folded in the closet, waiting for me and my cousins and brothers to line them up for a sleepover. The familiar afghans on the orange-yellow sofa. Grandma’s neat piles of papers. Sasha and Peeko. The golf-tee triangular peg game thingee!

How can grandma’s house exist without a golf-tee triangular peg game thingee?

But mostly I know that grandma won’t be there, behind the door. She lives in Michigan now, in a lovely senior high-rise with multiple pianos, none (I assume) in the basement. I can visit her there, and we can jump golf tees together. But her house?

I’m still not sure I want to visit. My run-walker friend would probably welcome me–graciously–through the front door.


These pictures are thanks to my cousin, Mike (next to me on the couch) and I include them with much love to my all my cousins, including Mike, Melissa (shortest blonde in line-up), and Chrissy (blonde in white dress). The blonde on the far left is a neighbor named Jennifer, we think, which is likely since she was female in the 1980s. I am, as always, the tall brunette. Much love also to my un-pictured brothers whom I appreciate so much more now that we never, ever, ride in the back of a car together.

3 Thoughts.

  1. This was great Jen and I’m sure will be treasured by our family! I called Grandma and read it to her on the phone and it literally took us for a walk down “memory lane” . . . gave those memories new life in our minds and brought to mind related memories, sparked conversations, and triggered memories long tucked away in our minds. And not just with Grandma, but with your Dad, and Aunt Pat as well. And made me understand and appreciate why keeping those memories intact might be far more important than going back( perhaps out of curiosity) to see what has changed at “Grandma’s house”. But . . . the connection you made with the woman who lives there now. . . a coincidence?. . .God ordained?. . . a bringing back of memories and a connection of the past with the present(for you and for her!). . . to give you this story to tell! Thanks for writing this!

  2. That’s such a Pittsburgh connection! 🙂

    I don’t have as much connection with my Grandma Chicka’s house as with my mom’s side…and it’s still in the family and we still gather there. I would feel mighty strange if it were owned by someone else, so I can imagine the feelings you’re having. It’s odd, the context of a space as an innocent and inexperienced child is so much different than the context of being an adult touched by events and people and time. I love the way you wrote this with the backdrop of the 30/45 interval training.

    • Sometimes, as a grown-up, it’s so hard for me to accept that I can’t go back. Not to innocence. Not to lack of responsibility. And not to all the places I loved as a child because even the ones I can physically return to are changed by my grown-up perspective.

      Ed’s piece has been really helpful to me with all this. He talks about how seeing the New Jersey shoreline though his son’s eyes helped him to recover some of the magic of his own childhood. This is why, even when my own kids are older, I will continue to pay attention to how children experience the world. I think that this is one of their greatest gifts to us ‘old people.’ 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *