My brother and I used to fly alone. Those were the long forgotten times when a parent could walk right up to the gate, hand their children over to a stewardess, and wave goodbye as their little heads grew smaller down the jet-way. I was the older child, so to me the stewardess was bonus; the weight of responsibility over my brother was mine to carry. His entertainment, me. His wellbeing, my reward for being trustworthy, dependable and older.
What awaited me at the other end of adventure, over 400 miles of airspace, was a home that never changed. My Mema and Papa owned that home; they were the delight of any and all wee sojourners. I remember the cringe of anxiety as we touched down after minutes of rapid bubble-gum chewing. Would they be there on the other side? What if we were stranded on the other side of the world? They were always there and if not, a trusted Uncle or Aunt would be a welcome surprise on the quest to the house that never changes.
For me, the house was a mansion all because of the fact that it had stairs. The red brick rose high above my petite stature and I always loved the window which lay at ground level. This was because the first floor sank down into the earth, a kind of hidey-hole with a ground-level look out. This window made it impossible to sneak up on its inhabitants, especially their little pet bird, Danny Boy, who gleefully announced any and all arrivals. Even the daily mail was a special ritual celebration for the bird who twittered and paraded in ecstasy at the postman who was merely conducting the mundane task of delivering letters to the front door mailbox.
The house had bars on many of the windows, which drove my imagination wild. Obviously, they were put there to keep out the million and two burglars who frequented the area intent on breaking in late at night to rob little boys and girls of something special, or at the very least their sleep. Amarillo, Texas must be the den of criminal activity! Though it was also the place where I was able to play out front with reckless abandon. No other home in the neighborhood had bars on their windows. This was a special fortress, a safe house; it would be the last to go down should the enemy attempt to take over the neighborhood.
To say the house was magical would not be far from the truth. There were always fudge bars in the deep freeze. Sometimes, since we were playing so hard, they were all you could eat, because the Schwann truck, an entity I had never known from elsewhere, would appear out of thin air to bring another shipment and load up the freezer.
This special mansion was the place of cereal before bed; always the brand that you loved, because you loved it last time, and it somehow appeared every time you were there. It was also the location of the family art gallery. A whole room was dedicated to the drawings and paintings that lingered there from previous visits and which recorded the numerous visits from all my cousins!
My drawings hung next to those of the truly talented cousin artists, somehow mine had an un-recognizable beauty even though they paled in comparison. Even so, they were displayed, so they must have been gallery-quality. A flower among other flowers; never a thorn among roses. I was only ever an artist in that house.
I would spend hours drawing, painting, and creating. Many times there were trips to get a coloring roll, a poster wrapped up like a scroll. A picture with such exquisite detail provided an inherent challenge to complete the masterpiece in the mere two weeks that I was there. They were pictures of knights and castles, dragons and mythical worlds all wrapped up for a kid who was already in a magical world, in a place where time stood still for artistry and wonder and mystery.
Along the driveway to the house was the perfect hideout. A mote of pebbles and rocks of all shapes and sizes separated the trees from all concrete, cars, and modernity. We used to walk on the pebbles with bare feet, hide in the trees and bushes, and carve out secret passageways until the neighbor’s house intruded. We never knew who lived in that house; in and of itself, that mystery brought countless hours of play and speculation. Why were their windows forever darkened? Whose car was in the driveway? Did you ever see anyone enter or exit? Were the people ever able to escape once inside? What if one of us were to get captured and never get away? Would they hear our muffled cries; which cousin would be the bravest to come rescue us from the grips of death itself?
I learned to whittle there. My Papa had a vice grip in the garage where we could saw off pieces of wood. My older second cousins had pocket knives and we were allowed to use them. I never could whittle anything that resembled much more than a piece of sculpted wood, but I sure spent a lot of time scraping and making the thing come to life. I knew what it was like to whittle time away and to talk and to sing and to work with my hands to create something out of nothing.
Since Amarillo, Texas would from time to time get tornadoes, there was a tornado shelter beneath the garage. It was dark and cold. I worried constantly that someone might lock me in it and throw away the key. I would run in and run out nary a second spent inspecting its contents. However, I was sure should a tornado come, that I’d find myself there living out the rest of my feeble existence in a room without windows under a house that might blow away. Yet, a house that never changes never blows away.
As I grew older and visited year to year, I slowly became impressed by how the house never changed. The same closet that my cousin and I commandeered as our clubhouse one summer held the same clothes and smelled of the same moth balls. The pictures on the walls rarely changed. They were all of family. We could each find a baby picture of ourselves. I was enthralled at the pictures of my mom and her siblings. They looked so much older as teenagers with their 60’s and 70’s hairstyles. I knew I had surpassed their ages, but there they were timeless in their classic poses and ruddy lips.
I sat on the same chair, the same couch, near the same clock that made the same bird noises upon the hour and studied sleeve upon sleeve of family photographs – the 80’s Polaroids with dates scrawled along the bottom, snap-shots with names and ages written in pen along the back in case we were unsure of who was who and when was when.
My Mema used an exotic word for the couch – a divan; she used a Bissell to clean the floors which were covered in intricate flower patterns, her hot water heater moaned and clicked at times at the foot of the stairs, and toast was always made on broil in the oven, never in a toaster.
The 2nd floor creaked as you walked down the hall, which made me ever desire to sleep on the 1st floor. I could always hear what happened on the top floor down below, nestled into the comfiest bed I had ever known. Not sure why, but its sheets were always fresh and chilly. Every bed was always made perfectly in that home, with throw pillows, sheets and blankets prepared in advance for your arrival.
In the house were the stairs that we had climbed on, that my parents had climbed on, that my children have climbed on. My Mema kept a basket at the foot of the stairs of items that needed to be carried between floors at night. They were the stairs that we slid down, perilously hung from ledges upon, and probably each and every one of us had bumped or bruised ourselves or been scolded in anticipation of doing so upon them from time to time.
We didn’t drink that dirty Amarillo water, but watched bubbles explode from a huge water bottle that rested on a pedestal. The water bottle that many a grown man was prompted to go fetch from the garage. The garage where there was also Dr. Pepper beyond the heavy iron door that I could never figure out how to unlock. We drank from the small plastic kids cups in dark orange and yellow and brown before we graduated to the more adult glasses that were always neatly loaded into the dishwasher before bed around 1 or 2am.
This was the house of “Pennies from Heaven,” a family card game that everyone and exclusively, it seemed to our family, knew how to play. We heard stories of Mema’s dad who would ‘turn the table over’ if anyone went ‘out’ before he got his ‘pennies.’ Mema might hold her 7’s or wild cards, but she really came alive when you were unfortunate enough to discard the right card that allowed her to ‘steal the deck.’
In the house that never changed, we watched my Aunt Terrie slowly die from cancer. She walked down the stairs until she couldn’t and then she was carried. She was always so beautiful even in her fragility.
Our backs were scratched with toothpicks while our shirts were pulled over our heads by our Papa who sat in his chair. I learned gentleness from that man whose heart beat so gently in his chest that after surgery upon surgery, it finally gave out. Even years after, we could always feel close to his heart when sitting in that chair. We could always display his love by scratching our own children’s backs or sneaking them butterscotch candies.
Our children climbed the same trees that we climbed, though more delicately for they were not as accustomed to climbing trees as we were. We supervised meticulously; whereas, we had survived with little supervision the same feats of strength and agility in our youth. We told them about the rabbits, the pets of our youth, like our parents told us about the wiener dogs, the pets of theirs. Little Bo rabbit was infamous for peeing on anyone and everyone who crossed his path and we all knew of him; though now bird feeders replaced their little bunny houses and squirrels were the only ones who scampered about on little stubby legs.
There were years when we didn’t visit for quite some time but the house remained and Mema remained in it. We could imagine her awake at some ungodly hour, but sleeping in until noon. We knew her routine of uncovering little Danny bird and moving him to the table. We could see her interact with him as he strutted across the cage or bathing him in the kitchen sink as she spoke to him in baby voices. She’d feed the outside birds around day break and come in for the 6 o’clock news, maybe find a movie after that to watch on her TV that sat on the floor near the window. There was never any doubt that we would know just where she’d be in the house that never changed.
I see it now, as it stands alone – vacant. Though Mema just passed away, I know it’s just the same. I’m sure her daily ritual is carved along the patterns of the furniture. Though piece by piece everything will be removed, given and cherished by loved ones, scattered and appearing not in a house but in houses, my memory will hold every piece in its place just as its always been.
For 40 years, it has been a house that never changed and for 40 more it will be the house that changed me. A place that will never go away. Etched in my memory, formative in my identity, I am convinced of an abode more spiritual than tactile, which through seasons and generations and swiftly shifting conditions can stand constant. For consistency was made beautiful in that place. I know the reality of faithfulness, of rootedness, of home.
And in this, I know of Heaven, a place that has always been and ever will be into eternity. A place where time stands still, where we are flowers among flowers, not thorns among roses; somewhere where creativity and wonder and mystery co-exist, a refuge, a fortress that will never give way to the enemy, the abode of limitless love and stories as old as time itself. And the scroll will be rolled out in exquisite detail with every mere moment displayed as a sprawling masterpiece. For in that place, I am part of the artwork made beautiful and complete by the ultimate Artist who has a place for us in the house that never changes.