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Eternal Return by Alessandra Chiappini

Eternal Return
by Alessandra Chiappini
On the drive up here I thought how miserable this was going to be. I always enjoyed visiting Grandma's house, meeting my cousins, sitting around the dining room table, eating the family made dinner, sharing exaggerated stories about all the things that had happened to one another since the last time we met. This time it was different. When we finally arrived, my aunt and uncle greeted my parents. Together they walked into the house. I lingered, remembering all the times as a child I jumped from the car, running up the front porch stairs, shouting, "Grandma. Grandma. We're here!"

The chestnut trees still line the sidewalk, littering the ground with their autumn harvest. When I was young, I roasted them in the fireplace, just the way Nat King Cole told me to do. Each Christmas they found their way into the house onto strings decorating the walls, wishing good tidings to all whom entered.

The ivy still covers the front yard, weaving its lush, emerald carpet along the ground and up the latticework that adorns the front porch, not stopping until it reaches the top rung. Another year, a little more effort, and the woods will reclaim the porch. How filthy I would get crawling around its underside, a world of dark and moving creatures. Little boys explore the creepiest things.

The stairs groan their age under my feet. The porch needs painting, as does most of the rest of the house. A carpet covers the front hallway that takes you inside. On the left, the old desk, looking like a Chinese puzzle chest, sits in its den. Like any child, I played away the hours, sitting in front of it, exploring all its nooks and crannies. I am told it belonged to the Grandfather I never knew. To the right, the living room sits dark and empty. The shades are pulled down and the couches and chairs are covered. At the far end of the living room sits the sun porch, long ago converted to a sitting room, when the first televisions were sold. Off in the dining room I hear a voice. "I want this lamp, that picture, and the water pitcher and stand there in the corner", says a cousin, speaking out of turn. For a moment, I think I hear Grandma chuckling in the sitting room. Is she sitting in her favorite rocking chair, smoking a cigarette, watching Jack Parr? Raised voices interfere.

No one smoked a cigarette the way Grandma did. She would put it in her mouth, and there it would stay, until finished. She never took it out of her mouth, not for anything. She talked with it in her mouth, cooked with it in her mouth, cleaned with it in her mouth. Slowly, with each new breath, a little more tobacco surrendered to a little more ash, until the entire cigarette was smoked down to the filter. There it would sit in Grandma's mouth, one cigarette-length ash, waiting for proper disposal. Eventually her wheezing or coughing scattered the ash around her dress. Each year emphysema claimed a little more of Grandma's lungs. "I think your daughter is asking for too much," an aunt intrudes on my memory. The stairs to the basement take me away from the distraction.

The basement was my favorite place to hide. A good game of hide and seek deserved a good hiding place, and the basement had more than its fair share. And it was dark too. The basement ran the length and width of the house. Clotheslines ran from corner to corner, crisscrossing in the middle. You never knew what evil lurked behind a hanging blanket or sheet -- Dungeons and Dragons in a real dungeon. The coal-burning furnace sits against the wall that runs along the driveway. The shovel and coal in the coal bin still stand at the ready to keep the cold night out. My mother never could keep me clean in that house. During the day the sun shines down the coal shoot, bathing that small section of the basement in light. I shovel coal into the furnace one last time.

In the corner stands the washing machine that hasn't worked since before I can remember. It's so old and different that it looks alien. In the rear of the basement, where the sun doesn't reach, lay the nether lands, where creatures of the dark spawn from damp, dark nightmares. Broken artifacts, of an era gone by, litter the back basement floor, placed there by legendary family members. I wonder what treasures one of them will find down here before the day is out.

I return upstairs and walk into the kitchen. The men would watch football in the sitting room, while their wives hustled in and out of the pantry, retrieving this, putting away that. Grandma looked regal in front of the stove, barking orders to daughters to get this and that. Little cowboys chased little Indians through the swinging door, down the pantry stairs out into the backyard. Now my Uncle H. sits alone, bent over, cleaning his glasses. He holds them in one hand, while he rubs a tissue in ever increasing circles over a lens with the other. "Had to get away from it for a while," he says to me. I know. His daughter is the one staking the claim.

The stairs bring me to the second floor. Five bedrooms open into a lobby. Grandma's room is immediately to my right. It is adorned with baubles and trinkets acquired over a lifetime. Combs and brushes sit on the dresser alongside an ancient handheld mirror. It has captured the reflections of many generations. Once it was heavy and sturdy, made to last for more than a lifetime. Many things were made this way at one time, made to outlast their maker. Now it is old and much of the mirror has flaked off its base. I guess even the strongest whither under the influence of time. Lace curtains adorn the windows, a slight reminder of youthful femininity, long since gone. The windows distort the view on the other side. The glass is much thicker on the bottom than the top. A reminder that all things succumb to the forces of gravity, given enough time.

The next bedroom doubled as the sewing room. Needles and pins and pincushions lie all around. Thimbles standing at attention line the shelves, gathering dust like forgotten soldiers. An iron-fisted sewing machine sits on its own little table by the window. Often I'd nap on the bed, the sun's rays warming me through its panes of glass. The old phone sits on top of the bureau next to it. Often Grandma scolded me for listening to the neighbors spread town gossip over the party line. I never understood why. What good was it, if not for that?

All the rooms whisper their loneliness to me; they haven't been visited in such a long time. The whispers aren't new. I spent a little of my childhood growing up in this house. Even then I imagined whispers when I was alone. Maybe the spirits of my ancestors live on in the walls of this old house, not for the purpose to haunt, but to remind. They don't want me to forget.

The attic occupies the top floor. Like the basement, it runs the length and width of the house. The attic is not for the meek. It definitely requires a daytime visit. With eyes wide in wonder, I tended to anthropologic digs through trunks and baskets, cataloging and annotating the lives of my great-great-greats, long since gone. Letters from one family member to another were always the most revealing. Letters written in German by ancestral immigrants told of a life very different from my own. During the day the attic was filled with the hum of history. But when night fell, I closed the door to the stairs that led to it, my child's imagination running wild with ethereal creatures of the night. All kinds of scary things went on in the attic after everyone went to bed. The wind would howl, the roof would creak, and I would lay awake waiting for something to happen. Each night they teased and taunted, but never showed themselves.

I hear my name called. My father is telling me we are leaving. Silently we fill the car. No one talks as we back out of the driveway and drive down the road past new, shiny condos. As we turn onto the highway, my mother informs me that some things will be distributed among family and the rest will be sold with the house. The land is valuable and money is easier to share than memories. That's what happens when lions fight over remains. Hyenas end up with it all.

Xan Ostro is a computer programmer who spends far too much of his time writing stiflingly bureaucratic memos. His spare time is spent writing about all the other things. "Family Treasures" is his first publication. You can reach Xan at xanthrax@bellatlantic.net

Also in Song and Story:
Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography by David Bogle
Untangling Roots    Dynamic Range   
Mrs. Lambert    When They Take Your Breasts Away
From the Kitchen Window    Reflections

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