My grandparents’ house, there was never anything pretty about it. It was comfortable, it was a good place to hang out, but there was nothing glamorous about it. My grandparents moved, lived in three houses during my growing-up years. My grandparents’ houses were somewhere to live. Fran and Rita’s house was art.
Great Uncle Fran and Great Aunt Rita did not move. When there was a reunion, or a funeral, I stayed at their house in Omaha.
I took my grandparent for granted, I guess, that is, they must put us up, have us, and they often did, but my great aunt and uncle, that was different.
To go in the front door of Fran and Rita’s house, you were tucked between some big trees that had been preserved when the house was built. Then the whole inside alternated between cozy warrens and perfectly sized and shaped views of acres of green.
The main floor had dining room, living room, kitchen, living room, all going around, and up and down some steps. It was a wonderful house for parties. Little spaces for conversation came one after another, like train cars. Mostly, of course, people were in the kitchen, which overlooked the living room. Somehow spaces in that house were both open and private.
I was with my grandmother in one of the bedrooms that used to belong to the kids. She was staying in that room. My grandpa had just died. He was in his sixties, and although everyone thought him healthy, he fell over dead of a heart attack. My grandmother said, ‘My mouth is so dry. I don’t know why my mouth is so dry.”
That night, the night before Grandpa’s funeral, I slept on the pull-out couch in the den. The ceiling was paneled in dark wood, sloped toward the golf course. There were windows on each side, but not the end, that would face the green crudely. Just on the sides, where good light could come in.
I didn’t know what to make of the death or the funeral. I was surprised that something so sad had happened to us, as I did not think we were the sort of people who had such sad things happen to them. I didn’t know if I should ahve been sadder, or been closer to my Grandpa in some way, before he was gone, but I was not grown up, I could barely have conversations with people.
I thought other things might turn out all right. My life so far was a little confusing, but I could still make some sense of it if I squinted right. At least the house was safe, was perfect.
Uncle Fran is dying now. At a reasonable time. He is ninety.
Although I am a little under the weather, I took a long subway ride to the cathedral in Manhattan. Like most Episcopalian buildings, the cathedral pretends it is in Europe in medieval times, all pointed arches and stone. Also like Europe, the bathrooms are always grim and bare.
I stopped when I noticed a plaque on one of the buildings. It honored Madeleine L’Engle, one of my great heroes. I knew she had attended, and worked at, the cathedral. I wanted to be just like her, serious, a theater lover, a New Yorker, someone who felt deeply without blaming others or destroying herself in cowardly fashion, not prissy but self-restrained and thoughtful, a workaday artist and an observant Christian. I had no other models of such a person.
The room where we sat in a circle had long walnut beams, like the ceiling of the living room in the house I grew up in, like at Fran and Rita’s house. Behind us was a grand stone fireplace with gargoyles. Going up the steps, there was a painting of Desmond Tutu. We sat around a round table with a candle. The woman sitting next to me was also named Elizabeth. Someone played a harmonium, which breathes like an accordion, and we chanted. When I closed my eyes, I saw a firework, a rocket, at first, I thought, but no, a firework, that would burst its beauty open.