When I was a boy my mother and I would walk about a half-mile to my grandmother's house. Entering the house, I was plunged into an atmosphere of bafflement. The words, the manners, all the things, were foreign to me. The foreignness almost seemed literal; often I didn't understand what the people in my grandmother's house were saying, and often what I said was not understood. Though she had lived in this country for decades, my grandmother never acquired fluency in English.
What do I mean by understand? There were names for things that I found unfamiliar: words for toilet, for the floor, for the kitchen. My mother used these words easily, but she didn't use them to describe anything in our house. In her mother's house, my mother knew that everything had been named long ago, once and for all.
I had trouble placing my grandmother's house. I knew it had nothing to do with America or postwar life in the late nineteen-fifties. And yet it stood at the center of the lives of her two children and my sister and I, my grandmother's only grandchildren. We knew that it had ended long before we were born; it seemed to have touched upon my mother's life before her marriage, but we weren't sure. My grandmother had lived in the same house since 1940, when the area was solidly lower-middle-class.
Each object in her house belonged to the Old World. Nothing was easy; everything required maintenance of a complicated and specialized sort. Nothing was disposable, replaceable. There were no errors of taste because there were no imaginable other choices. I was not unhappy there; each object's rightness of placement made me feel honored to be among them. Yet I was always guilty among those things, as if they knew I preferred what was in my glamorous aunt's house. She lived in the suburbs, about a forty minute drive from my grandmother's house; her husband was a commercial artist and made more money than anyone we knew. My aunt and uncle bought things easily, unlike the rest of the family, and so the house was full of new or newish objects: the stereo, the color television housed in its own room, the horizontal deep freeze, the juice-making machine, the barbecue, the waterfall in the backyard, which looked like a park. And the house was stocked with pleasurable things to eat, drink, sit on, listen to, lean against, watch, sleep in, ride, or wear. I knew these pleasures to be inferior, but I sank into them each time, stealing their luxury and fearing for my soul, as I half feared for my aunt's which I couldn't imagine to be the same, interested as she was in having a good time.
My grandmother had no interest in having a good time--that is, in doing anything that would result only in pleasure--and her house proclaimed this, as it proclaimed everything about her. Her house was her body, and like her body, was honorable, daunting, reassuring, defended, castigating, harsh, embellished, dark. I can't imagine how she lived, that is to say, how she didn't die of the endless boredom and loneliness her life entailed. It's easy to romanticize her or utterly to push her aside.
Although I wasn't happy there I did, somehow, like her house. Her garden had old-fashioned flowers, bright colored, a little wild: iris, pansy, rose, marigold. Older varieties of roses, whose petals seemed thinner than those of more recent types, more susceptible, as my soft flesh was more susceptible than those of the adults around me, to insect bites that made it horrible to the eye. I liked her garden even better than my aunt's, where the greens were deeper than the greens of any leaves or grass I'd seen anywhere else. I linked dark greenness to prosperity, as if my uncle had invested in that greenness so that we would all be more secure. My grandmother's house had no connection to prosperity; it had righteousness instead.