Home Away From Home

I believe much of what a writer writes about, he or she experiences before the age of 25. One of the most memorable experiences I had before 25 was attending high school as a boarding student.

Eventually, I’ll dive into that delicate “coming of age” genre, but until I’m ready to disclose some dark secrets and explore that boarding school territory, I’ll leave it to the likes of Tobias Wolff (Old School) or John Knowles (A Separate Peace).

Looking back, high school wasn’t always about the classroom or the dormitory. Being away during those years gave me an opportunity to grow close to a grandmother and a grandfather, even though I never met one of them.

***

When I was fourteen I left Houston to attend boarding school in San Antonio and while the cities are only about three hours apart, leaving home was still “leaving home” and not an easy step to take.

Both of my grandmothers lived in San Antonio when I was there and my mother’s mother still lived in the same three-bedroom two-story house that she and her two sisters had grown up in. When we visited as children, my sister and I spent hours scampering up and down the stairs, eating Sara Lee pound cake, banging on an old upright piano and swinging on an indoor back porch swing. Black and white photographs of my mom and her family were all over the house, in silver frames on dressers, or hanging on walls. But the pictures with my mom and aunts where they appeared to be high school and college-aged and older, always lacked my grandfather. He died when my mom was nineteen.

According to a picture that hung midway up the stairs in my grandmother’s house, he was a nice looking, broad-shouldered man in a suit. His perfect smile looked down at anyone walking up to the second floor. After he died, I’m sure that picture was a source of quiet comfort to everyone as they went up to sleep each night.

I spent many of my freshman and sophomore weekends at my grandmother’s house. Her garage was cluttered with odds and ends, many things that should have been tossed in the trash years before. There were cans of paint, old aerosol sprays, tools, brown bags of nails and screws, rusted parts, and pieces of equipment that I turned over in my hands, eventually realizing I had no idea what purpose they served. All of it sat untouched for years; most of it now blanketed with a layer of dust and scattered spider webs. I cleaned it, arranged it, organized the shelves, and threw much of it away. The garage’s exterior white paint was chipped and fading. Flakes of it lay scattered in the grass so I painted it, rolling the white on thick to cover the cracks. Those Saturdays were long and I sometimes felt like Tom Sawyer as I worked my brush up and down, hoping I could sucker some unsuspecting neighbor into helping me out. My grandfather had probably been the last one to clean that garage and I’m sure he was the last one to paint it.

When I was a junior, I removed a foot-high tree stump from the corner of the front yard. It had been there for years and its roots spread outward like solid, thick wooden fingers. Armed with picks, a crowbar and shovels, a couple of friends and I spent most of a Saturday and Sunday working to get it out of the ground. Afterwards, my grandmother told me she couldn’t remember when that tree had been chopped down but that my grandfather had always hated it.

On fall weekends I cleaned out the gutters. I’d climb a rickety wooden ladder and sit on the edge of the roof, staring out at the neighboring houses and yards. Next door lived a retired Army Colonel and behind him, the man who mowed many of the neighborhood lawns. I dangled my legs over the side while I slid on a pair of gloves. At the end of the backyard, wisteria spiraled its way through the telephone wires, along a fence and into the depths of another neighbor’s yard.

The leaves were always damp and caked with silt and mud and I’d scoop them out of the rusty gutter by the handfuls and toss them onto the patio. They would splatter below, some of them separating as they flipped and flapped in the wind like tiny spinnakers on their way down. The design on the flagstones was a muted black and brown mixture of all shapes and sizes, a Jackson Pollock drip painting with no ending or beginning.

I used to think that if my grandfather were alive, he would have been below looking up, guiding me along the edge, maybe leaning on a broom as he waited for the next group to fall. When I finished, we’d fill plastic bags, shake them down to fit more leaves and carry them to the curb for the next trash pickup. I like to think that had I known my grandfather, he would have invited me over on weekends and we would have kicked around town for a Saturday. Maybe he would have picked me up from the dormitory on Friday and we would have gone fishing for the weekend.

By the time I was a senior, I didn’t make it to my grandmother’s house that often. I had made friends at school and spent most of my free time with them on weekends. When I graduated and left San Antonio, I realized that the amount of time that I was close to my grandmother was priceless, and something I’ll always look back on as a special gift. Her positive outlook and gratitude for what she had is something I’ll always remember.

Even though I was away from home during those boarding school years, it was nice to know that family was never that far away. I’m sure I would have gotten along very well with the grandfather I never knew. And I think he would have liked what I did with the place.

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One Response to “Home Away From Home”

  1. Liza Says:

    🙂

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