The other day I was back in the old neighborhood of Greentown and spent a few moments at my late great-grandmother's house. To the casual passerby, it looks like a simple, somewhat dilapidated structure, with nothing remarkable about it, save perhaps a covered porch of sorts, created by having a portion of the house jut out over the above-ground basement.
The yard has been shorn of most all of the landmarks of my youth, in an effort to make it easier to care for. The little metal gate that meets the sidewalk still stands - but the shrub row that flanked each side of it are gone. The pear tree remains and still produces fruit. There is a large side yard—a full lot, actually—consisting of nothing but grass. There is no trace of the miraculous garden that once filled the space to bursting with tomato and pepper plants and, of course, garlic.
As a kid it was my job to cut her grass. This was not hard to do, even if I did have to use one of those old push rotary motors (in other words, no engine). But the yard was so filled with vegetables and flowers that she only had a small triangle of grass—maybe 12-foot per side—that needed cutting.
Right next door to her house was the Catholic Church, now closed. In fact, now closed with a "for sale" sign out front.
So how does all this change make me feel? Sad? Sure. Nostalgic? Definitely. But if I wallow in those feelings I think I do my great-grandmother—and all my ancestors—a disservice. What did they struggle so hard for? For things to stay exactly the same? Or for their descendants to push ahead and to prosper?
The day I moved to California to go to film school, I stopped by the house to say good-bye to my great-grandmother. She was sitting on the porch swing with her daughter, my great-aunt Katie. I kissed them and said goodbye. My great-aunt was emotional at my leaving but my great-grandmother took it in stride. "Well," she said, "you gotta go where the money is. Look at me. I leave my mommy and no see her for 60 years. No see her again. That's the way it is."
That's the way it is. That's the way life is. These days when things get tough I often think about her words in that moment. Now I know, she loved me dearly but she was painfully pragmatic in the way those of us less accustomed to adversity can only hope to imitate. Her life presented many challenges and demanded tough choices and she met them head on. I can't help but look in the mirror and ask: "is any of that toughness in me?"
I looked around the yard for a moment longer and then got back in my car. It was sad, but not overly so. I learned a long time ago that it's not places that define your past, but the people who filled them.
Next up: Inside the house.