In My Grandmother's Attic


It was dusty and hot in the summer and it was freezing cold in the winter. The attic had a certain smell, not unpleasant, composed of old books, wooden floorboards, and something else I can't identify. Mothballs, maybe? I wish I could smell it again. The attic was actually the unfinished upstairs of a Cape style home but that is what we always called it, "the attic", and we loved to go up there. Every time we spent the night at our grandparent's house we were sure to end up prowling around.

There were a few toys stored up there. I remember a plastic tea set and a Fisher Price Main Street but sometimes those were down cellar. Once, I remember my grandmother showing me her wedding gown with a row of little buttons up the back. In the same trunk was my grandfather's army coat. I think when I saw it was the first time I ever fully realized that he had fought in World War II. There were bits and pieces of my mom's and my aunt's lives up there as well. My sister and I played with the dolls and I spent several visits when I was small carrying around an old school lunch box. But mainly what I remember are the books. There were boxes of them, many children's books but some adult novels as well. I rarely brought books to my grandparent's house even though I brought books just about everywhere  I went because I knew all I had to do was go up in the attic and rummage through the boxes and I would have plenty of books to keep me busy.

I still remember the old hard-covers, dusty blues and oranges and greens, full of stories about girls in dresses who all seemed to have doctor fathers and big families. Girls whose problems seemed small but enthralling because it was like looking through a telescope at a time gone by. I would look at the names in the front, Marilyn and Beverly, and think of my mom and my aunt reading these same books in this same house. Maybe sitting in the same spot on the attic floor or under the apple tree. Or no, would the apple tree have been tiny then? I didn't know. The years seemed to combine and I was them as well as me.

One book I read over and over. It was about a girl who went to summer camp. She went canoeing and took swimming tests and sat around campfires. Those were all the things my mom had told me stories about, things she had done when she went to summer camp. Once again, I wasn't completely sure who was who. In my memory, my mother's stories and the stories in the book blended into one idealized version of childhood and camp. It was an experience I yearned for and yet felt I already knew.

When the heat or the cold of the attic got to be too much I would wander down to the cool of the basement. It was a finished room where we had family parties. I remember one that my aunt made into an indoor picnic complete with cutouts of ants on the checked tablecloths.  There were stacks of records we could play on the record player if we were careful; Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mitch Miller and Peter, Paul & Mary. It was old and unfamiliar music that exerted the same fascination as the books. They belonged to a life and a time I was somehow connected to even though I hadn't lived it.

There were shelves of Readers Digest Condensed Books. Even at that age, I disapproved of condensed books but I read them anyway because they were there and I read everything. I read stories about kidnapped children and the strong, silent men who rescued them. Stories about women with fatal diseases who somehow rallied just long enough to give their blessing to a new romance for their husband. Stories about medical miracles and gunslingers on stagecoaches and romantic dilemmas. I gulped it all down indiscriminately.

Then I moved on to the short stories printed in the back of Good Housekeeping magazine. I knew my mom thought I was too young for them but I read them anyway. Beautiful girls in impossible situations rescued by tall, handsome men. Totally ridiculous and totally impossible to resist.

I would wander upstairs again and listen to my parents and grandparents chatting. Eventually, I would go outside to climb the apple tree or look for garter snakes in the stone wall. I wasn't sure I liked them but if we found one my grandfather would pick it up and let it wrap around his arm. That was horrifyingly enthralling. There was a little fountain built into one section of the stone wall and my grandfather would turn it on for us. The bottom of it was cool and mossy and I loved the sound of the running water. If we went up to the top of the yard there was a shed with an old-fashioned tricycle and an old pedal car.

But somehow I always ended up back in the attic sitting on the floor by the boxes of books. Eventually, I knew them all. I had read them over and over. They were part of me and part of my memories.

So is my grandmother's attic.




8 comments

  1. I loved that, are your grandparents still alive? The house sounds very much like our old house that we moved from four years ago - it was time to pass it on to another family as we were rattling around in it on our own which I found sad. The bedrooms were freezing in winter and boiling in summer - even our cool Scottish summers. Your aunt sounds a scream, paper ants are the only sort to have!

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    1. My grandmother is. She is 92 and still going strong. I hope I have half her zest for life at that age. I still miss my grandparent's old house. There were so many fun memories there. And yes, my aunt is a lot of fun.

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  2. Ah, childhood memories. You write fabulous personal essays. I'm always looking forward to a new one.

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    1. Thank you! What a lovely thing to say.

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  3. In my childhood I sat in the attic and read the same books, admired the same wedding gown, and looked for garter snakes in the same wall. But the apple tree was too small to climb then.

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    1. Isn't the photo of the two of you with your bikes fantastic?

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  4. In the cedar chest were beautiful hair combs and long hat pins. As a youth I dreamed of living in an era when I would pile my hair high and be the belle of the ball. ...and that picture. My bike! Do you know I saved my babysitting and gift money for years to buy it myself. It cost $42. That was a fortune when babysitting paid 25 cents an hour. It had five speeds and everyone else had balloon tires. I was so proud.

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    1. I never saw the hair combs and hat pins. What a pity. And the bike! $42! What a fortune it must have been. I love the dresses too.

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