This is one of my favorite short stories from my last book. I hope you will read and enjoy the story......Charlie
My granddad’s house had not been opened for at least twenty years, if not more. I stood on the front porch using a tire iron from the rented car to pry loose the boards that were nailed across the front door. Once the chore was done, I used the same tool to pry open the door from it‘s hinges, as I had no idea where in the world the keys were. I soon entered the old house, and the first thing I noticed was that the stale air smelled like some old quilt too long in storage. The sunlight from the open door illuminated a swirling haze of dust that filled the air in ebbs and currents, much like a flowing river. Ceiling plaster had rained down for years and covered the floor like an early snow and the faded and blistered wallpaper was curling away from it’s seams like the skin of an over roasted turkey. There were only a few pieces of furniture left, along with discarded pieces of crockery and bric-a-brac that littered the main floor like forgotten relics. The fireplace was boarded up and all the large elongated windows were covered with an assortment of heavy unraveling drapes, all sun faded and glazed with two decades of dust. I felt like I was intruding into a forgotten tomb.
Granddad and his two brothers had built the house back in 1948 and it was to be my grandparent’s only home for the next 44 years. This was also the house that my Dad had grown up in. There had also been a younger sister back then, but, she passed away from scarlet fever in 1958, and I knew very little about her. Then grandma passed in 1992 and granddad gladly followed her during the spring of that same year. At the time, I was too busy in my senior year of college to fly all the way out to Ohio and I told dad I just couldn’t make either funeral. I loved the old folks, but my scholastic life left very little room for anything. It was a decision I would come to regret over the years. When granddad died, the house was left to my dad. After the funeral, dad stayed just long enough to resolve the estate and tie up the loose ends. He paid off what few bills there were and gave most of the furniture to a few vague relatives and all the clothing and such to theSalvation Army. Then, he paid a local man to board up the old place, like so many forgotten memories, and to keep the weeds mowed. Without giving much of a reason to mom, he decided not to sell the old house. Once his obligations there were finalized, he returned to Georgia and never went back. The old house sat there empty for the next two decades, until the passing of my dad, in 2013. With his death, I inherited the tax burden. My intentions were to simply fly to Ohio, check it out, consign the house over to some local real estate office, and then have them accept the first decent offer that come along. Sooner the better.
I roamed around the first floor for most of an hour and found nothing of great interest, nor did I find anything of consequence in the upstairs bedrooms, other than piles of decaying clutter. Then I climbed a narrow stairway leading from the upstairs landing, up to the attic. Once again I relied on the tire-iron to gain excess. The air in the dark attic was thick and solid. I quickly opened a breeze window letting the afternoon sunlight pour into the dark room like a warm tide. Granddad’s attic had not been touched when my dad had the house looted by the family and the Salvation Army. I stood in the center of the room and slowly took everything in. It wasn’t all that large of a storage area, but it did accommodate a variety of forgotten relics and discarded memories. Old tasteless lamps, assorted haberdashery and proud uniforms from various wars. Feminine hats that marked every trend and fashion for most of a century and there was also a multitude of outlivedshoes, long past their comfort. An ornate wooden baby cradle was tucked in a corner with the name “Cindy’ carved on it. The entire attic space was surrounded by a silent audience of motionless spectators. There were portraits of wise and respected ancestors, now long consumed to the elements of forgotten cemeteries and distant battlefields. Prominently bearded sires and stoic faced women, frozen in sepia toned remembrance. There was also a multitude of framed Kodak images bearing the likeness of rosy cheeked boys dressed in warrior green, adorned with resplendent medals and citations. Boxes of faded photos of faded memories. Now just clutter.
There was a ratty old violin case that laid on a pile of moldy books. It’s cheap case had slowly disintegrated with the passing of the decades and had been bound shut with an old hemp cord once used as a clothesline. Was it played at gala affairs? The holidays? Maybe it was here, at home, that it was played for family and friends on some quiet evening around the fire, so many years ago. Music forever lost. Scattered and stacked around the attic were large and small pottery crocks once used for canning, a cast Singer sewing machine from the 40’s and a large set of ancient drapes, which now served as the ancestral home for generations of small wall mice. I opened a fragmenting steamer trunk and stacked inside were bundles of old LIFE magazines with long dead heroes celebrated on it covers. National Geographic’s with enticing cover pictures of faraway continents, and molded stacks of newspapers and bundles of concluded business and documents. There were also wellplayed vinyl records of crooners and balladeers. Folk songs and Elvis 45s. No tapes or CD’s here. Dozens of books, all novels except for a few How To books. I found some loose pages of an unraveled photo album in a musty cardboard box. After gathering the loose photos and brittle pages together, I sat down on a stack of newspapers and carefully sorted through them. Most of the early pictures were when Dad and his little sister were young and several of granddad in his prime and grandma, the epitome of a southern belle. Faded and creased photos of granddad in his army uniform, his mailman uniform, his Freemason’s getup and the only tux he ever worn, for mom and dad’s wedding.
Then I found the letters. Stacks of old envelops carefully bound up in strips of faded ribbon and carefully stored in an old cookie tin. War letters. Grand dad’s from Europe during WW II, dad’s from Vietnam and even those I sent grandma while I was deployed in Kuwait. Faded envelopes that held thousands of lonely words from generations of scared and homesick soldiers. Grandma kept all of granddad’s letters, and granddad had even brought home all the letters she had sent him! The letters were now all faded with the edges now brittle and brown from being handled over the years. Granddad’s letters were all written in pencil that was now fading away and Grandma’s letters were all written with a fountain pen, whose ink was now washed out and barely legible. So many letters. The folds were split in some letters, obviously from being read over and over again. So many thoughts. So here they were now, packed away in an old attic along with so many other forgottenrelics and legacies. I took the tin box back to my hotel room that night and spread the letters out on the bed…..and I began to read. In one of her earliest letters, Grandma (Jean), was writing to tell granddad, (Earl), about her high school graduation and the sad reality of so many of the boys having dropped out of school to enlist before graduation. Earl writing about being seasick on the troop ship to England. Jean’s first real job at the Goodyear tire company helping to make jeep and truck tires for the war effort. Earl describing the French country side and the friendly people. Jean reporting on what all their friends were doing and who was where in the world. Earl trying to write about the heartache of losing buddies and the moment to moment reality of death. These letters were numerous covering many months. At first he was guarded in what he wrote, so as not to alarm Jean, but in time, he needed the release, so he became more truthful about the war.
Then there were the letters of loneness, pining and devotion. Love transmitted thousands of miles apart. Sad reflection and remorse, but at the same time a resolve to return one day and wed. The last letters became more and more a sharing of heart and soul and commitment. Promises made and plans resolved. She wrote from her small bedroom each night, while he made the effort, whenever possible, from a foxhole, burnt out barn or pup tent. Letters of assurance and possibilities. Love letters. One letter, in particular, caught my attention. It was written from Belgium, on December 20th, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. Curled up in a damp and cold foxhole, he wrote a very short letter saying that if he made it home, he would marry her, build her a beautiful house, where they would raise a family and then spend the rest of their lives calling it home.
I knew now that I could never sell the house, just as Dad knew he couldn’t. That house entombed both Jean and Earl’s souls. Their life legacy, both joyous and sad. It was them, as much as it was all of us that loved them. Sad, my son and daughter never had the chance to know them, and sadder still….I could have known them better. I returned to the house the next night, and using a flashlight, I went upstairs and laid the tin box containing all their letters on the floor of what had once been their bedroom, and then closed the door. Then, I quickly poured several gallons of gasoline throughout the old wooden structure. From the front porch, I tossed in a lit match. As the first blossoms of fire erupted, I felt as if I was protecting their memory by preventing it from ever being desecrated in some dump, or noisy flea market. The soul of the house, along with those memories, the fire would now take totally, and all at once….protected and forever sanctified.