To Gramma’s House

Over the river and through the woods...

Our three grandchildren (including baby Henry) will be at our house this year for Christmas. It hasn’t happened before. It might not happen again. What will they carry with them for the rest of their days from their visits to Gramma’s house?

What of Grampa, by the way? Grampa’s House just doesn’t carry the same emotional ring–not that he was not present and significant, but chances are, it was more Grampa’s barn, Grampa’s garden, Grampa’s pond, forest, tractor, or some other activity or outdoor setting where he fits better than the never-forgotten house.

So this is Gramma’s house in the picture–an image that might become a Christmas gift for the girlfriend of someone with whom I’ve been corresponding who wants to surprise her with some photos from Floyd. Her family grew up here. This is her Gramma’s house, now owned by someone else, with new siding, changes in the front porch, and for certain, different in some ways from her fabled memories of the place.

But will that matter? Won’t the shape and setting of the place trigger enough memories to make it special again? It is a symbol, after all, of times and relationships, which also have morphed and moved on.

And it might have been pictures from inside the house that would have been the most powerful triggers of stories remembered–especially, I’m guessing, the kitchen.

I have other shots and renderings of course, from my fifteen minute photo shoot one cold afternoon this week. They include sepia toned vignettes, for instance, that also suggest age and time. This one shown here is a “gingerbread house” story-book way of showing the place as I play around with the images and the ideas of Gramma’s place as a pictorial project. It is the way the house might have looked in one of the story books gramma read to her long ago.

I’ll pretend for a moment it’s my Gramma’s place, because I really only had one, and she lived in tiny apartments that never really became special in the way a house with a yard (or pasture, forest, pond, creek and animals) can become. I do remember, though, the smell of her kitchen–especially this time of year. Can you conjure up the smell of gramma’s house?

That has me thinking: while everybody’s here the week of Christmas, I’ll be sure and leave some spruce needles and orange peels (and pennyroyal if I can find it) on the ash lip of the stove, to be sure there are some strong and pleasant olfactory memories of Gramma’s house this year.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I do recall a Grampa moment. I was sitting in Gramma’s house when my cousin Joyce came bouncing in with doll in hand and said “Carl, wanna see John (my Grampa) dress a chicken!?” Joyce and I were both newly turned four year olds and I could only imagine how fun it would be to see one of Grampa’s chickens all dressed up. Joyce spent a lot of time growing up on the farm and always seemed to know about the neat things going on there. I was excited about joining her on her latest adventure and I still remember the mental image I conjured up — a Sunday suit on a white chicken. Joyce and I went running out of the house and to the barn. I remember going into the barn and turning the corner into the stall. There was Grampa John. In his lap laid a limp, half naked chicken and a fist full of feathers was being flung from his hand. I did not have the words to describe what I felt, nor do I even today, but I immediately turned and left. My memory of the farm beyond that point is largely blank. I think what happened next is that later that day I was scratched by a tom cat that Joyce gave me to hold. I still bear those faint scars on my stomach. Hmmm… As I sit here I now wonder these 45+ years later if this string of events was part of a sadistic rite of passage to farmdom concocted by my dear cousin Joyce…