You think of abandoned buildings as growing colder as they become more empty, but the house felt warmer—a stuffy heat since the window unit and fans had been shut off and packed up. The bare windows let in more sun, bringing a reminder of the old shade trees cut down the summer before. The space was open and light bounced off the walls, but it still smelled like summer, the way it always had.
Of course, we spent time during the other seasons there too, but even on Thanksgiving, when the air was thick with turkey and homemade pies, the whole house smelled like a mixture of antique store and river rock—old and earthen. There were late nights, after events nearer to home, and early mornings, being dropped off during deer season, when my father carried us in after we fell asleep on the drive. Past the windmill and the lumberjack statue, down the curvy road and the gravel road. All to visit and play, to help cook and eat, to visit Grandma and Grandpa.
Only now the house was becoming empty. Grandpa was old and sick, and the country house was too much for Grandma to manage on her own. Everyone was here to help with the move. The few things moving to the new place were loaded or moved, and the rest was in the unfinished basement for sale.
The house was empty, which was ok, but it was quiet, which. . . well, wasn’t.
Even during nap time, which happened almost every day, there was some sound—fans, or snoring, or whispers from my sisters and I as we talked while Grandma and Grandpa dozed.
Now? Now I had stolen a moment when no one else was in the house, to walk through imagining where everything had been before. I remembered the little hallway table where the ceramic Christmas tree sat every year next to the candy dish of butterscotch or circus peanuts; the bedroom with the window to the back porch where my sisters and I played; the dining table in the living room where we spent nights playing Uno with Grandma while listening to the baseball game on the radio—Grandpa sitting outside counting airplanes as the flew overhead. . . I wonder if he dreamed about where the people were going, or if he was just grumpy about the sky being littered with blinking, moving lights.
The front door opened and my Aunt Juanita came. “Ah, there you are, nephew.”
“Just giving the place one last look.”
“I good thing, lots of memories here, lots of love.”
“Aunt Nita? I saw the cookie jar is still here. Aren’t they taking it with them?”
“Ah, no. They didn’t think they had room for it, and no one’s claimed it, so it’ll go in the auction.”
“You’re mom said they’re ready to go. Better get out there before she gets upset.”
My aunt turned toward the kitchen and a moment later I could hear her footsteps on the old wooden stairs to the basement. I took one last look around, poking my head in the kitchen one last time too before I left the house forever.
The afternoon was busy. The apartment was crowded. It was easy for a young teenager to get lost, or worse, in the way, but most of the time was filled with stories and laughter as we transplanted the heart of my grandparent’s house into their new place. Making it home.
We’d still have several years of holidays and gatherings in this place before Grandpa was moved into a home. We were all ignorant of the plaques forming on Grandma’s brain, the disease beginning to chew her up, making her final years worse, but making Grandpa’s demented state easier for her to handle at the time.
We didn’t know any of that then. We knew we needed to make this place home for Grandma, as Grandpa grumped nearby.
The big furniture was easy to place. The paintings from generations of twice-removed relatives were hung too. Then the china cabinet, bookshelves, and counters were carefully laden with the sacred and special. Purchases and gifts—souvenirs, both bought and built, from over 50 years of living. Reminders of those living that they loved, and those that lived only in quickly fading memories.
Things settled as everything found its rightful place in the new home, including my siblings, cousins, and I as we sat on the floor, distracted by some animated movie on TV and lazy rounds of Sorry!
My Uncle Larry leaned out from the stubby hallway to the spare bedroom and called, “Jamie, you got a minute?”
I got up and followed him into the room where Aunt Nita and Auntie Joyce were waiting for me.
Uncle Larry closed the door behind me “Jamie, we were all talking before we left the old house and we agreed that you should have this. . .” Auntie Joyce pulled out a large wad of tissue paper. She unwrapped it to reveal the cookie jar.
“Your grandma always loved making sweet things for you and her other grandkids, and we thought it would be best if you kept the cookie jar to remember the old house.”
I felt a catch in my throat and the warmth of tears forming in my eyes. I hugged my Auntie Joyce and choked out “thank you” before taking the cookie jar from her. When I returned home, I set the cookie jar on top of my dresser. It became a bank for me, but every time I looked at it I thought of my grandmother and their old house.
Years later, I sat at her funeral. Her brain had deteriorated years before to the point where should couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat, and I had not seen her for a very long time. I sat with my now grown siblings and cousins and my wife, and I thought about that cookie jar, and what it meant to me. . . what it meant to all of us.
As the funeral came to a close, my Uncle Jim asked if anyone else wanted to say anything else about Grace. . . no one stood up and no one looked like they would. The silence reminded me of the house of the last day I was there—silence where there should be sound.
I stood up, and said “I’d like to say something.”
With the family watching me, I told that story of the cookie jar. How it sat on the shallow counter just inside the kitchen at their old country house; how my aunts and uncle had rescued it for me; how it still sat in my home as a reminded of the sweet things my grandmother had made for me. . . for all of us.
“Because that’s what grandmas are for. Giving the sweet things in life. And that’s how we’ll always remember her.”