When I was little, going to my grandma’s house actually felt like the song; Over the river and through the woods. My paternal grandparents lived about an hour north of us and on holidays, we made the drive up to visit them.
There’s something dreamlike about driving off to grandma’s house to stay for a few days when you’re a kid. You pack all the necessities you think you might need in order to leave your normal life behind and become a suburban jet-setter; highway I-35 becoming your personal jet stream. Within the dream drive to a not-so-far-away land, time became suspended, the music of Nat King Cole or the Beach Boys ringing out from the cassette player, and my siblings and I would enter the land of make believe. Often, we’d pretend to be tigers, crawling around the floor and under the seats of our big blue Aerostar. We were blissfully ignorant in our make-believe dream machine, pawing and growling without our seat belts fastened, unaware that if we were in an accident, we would meet the same end as Mufasa. The thought that we might crash, be jettisoned out one of the windows and plummet to our deaths in Panther Creek never crossed our minds. We were tigers, carefree and invincible for an hour that felt stretched out like molten mozzarella.
The sliding glass door at Nana’s made a loud screeching sound as it drug along the track, but once inside, we were met by the smell of a well-worn house filled with expensive rugs. When we were very young, tiny smoke signals from the incense jar wafted around the living room, but it was the heavy red rugs which made their house smell different than ours. At my maternal grandparents’ house, the wooden floors and oaky outside made up the scent profile, but here, it was the rugs.
The house was rich in heavy colors; the walls lined with dark paintings from artists we were told were acclaimed in some way or another. On the shelves sat trinkets from Cherokee reservations while on top of the TV sat a dish of candies. Mostly, we were interested in the candy, something that didn’t sit out at our house except for at Christmastime. We didn’t know Werther’s weren’t available only at Nana’s house and that she didn’t have a secret store where she, and only she, could get them. Each time we arrived, we took a whiff of whatever was in the oven, saw what football game was on TV, snatched up some Werther’s and took our bags to our father’s old bedroom.
At the end of the long hallway that led to the bedrooms was a painting of a Native American chief who presided over that part of the house. Lit from above, his aged stare and stony demeanor scared the shit out of us. We’d often bring our tiger-filled land of make believe into the house and while the adults watched football, we would crawl on the long rug in the hallway, growling while trying not to anger the chief who loomed above us.
But as much as Nana’s house felt like a museum, it was child’s play compared to my great grandfather’s house, a place I only remember from visits to his and my great grandmother’s funerals.
Those road trips were actually that, a road trip. The suspended hour of travel to grandma’s house was just enough to have fun, put our shoes back on and get excited to see our family. But the six-hour trip to Midland, Texas was a marathon of complaining, bathroom breaks and oversized bags of snacks stockpiled as if we were the von Trapps taking to the mountains.
We rarely saw our relatives who lived in West Texas. Their lives and the lives of their children were grounded there like ours were in Dallas, so we only saw them at weddings and funerals—mostly funerals.
Our grandparents’ house felt comfortable to us, whereas the house in Midland felt foreign and I could never remember where the bathroom was. To those of us under four feet tall, the house felt like it sprawled out forever. The fancy furniture, the glass cases full of oil field mementos and the pricey knick-knacks made Pa-Paw’s living room feel more like a private family museum than a lived-in space. As such, we treaded lightly through the rooms, careful not to touch anything or knock over something that may be more valuable than our young lives.
The house in Midland was a different world compared to the way we lived. They drank water out of a delivered cooler and the candy dishes were absent any Werther’s. Instead, their dishes held either pale orange circus peanuts or old fashioned hard candies in the forms of rainbow-colored ribbons and cylindrical discs that looked like lemons, limes and flowers. In the West Texas heat, the hard candies would get stuck together and though I’d try to unstick them so I could eat one, I eventually lost interest. The only toy in the house was an old pillow shaped like an elephant. It was a fancy elephant not unlike the one Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor sang on in Moulin Rouge, except rather than being plush and stuffed, it was thin, flat, and firm. Perhaps it was because it was the only toy in the house, but I was infatuated with that pillow and whether or not it was an antique, I napped with my tiny arms wrapped around it.
The most identifiable quality of Pa-Paw’s house was that there was a loft. As a kid, I believed that having a second story in your house meant you’d arrived and while this was merely a loft above the garage, there was a steep wooden staircase that led to an open room with a pool table. Can you imagine? A pool table in a loft, long dark hallways in which to become imaginary spies, and a grandfather clock whose tolls echoed through the house every hour? This was, to me, the most enchanted house that ever existed.
But again, we were only privy to this enchantment when someone had died. First it was my great grandmother, a woman I only remember through photographs. Then it was my great grandfather, the patriarch of our clan. His passing signaled a shift in the hierarchy of our family and the entire extended brood arrived at the house throughout the day before the funeral.
Oil is what kept that half of the family rooted in West Texas so walking into the house the day before the funeral, we were met by mostly family members we’d never met. After cordial pleasantries, my siblings and I headed into the house to explore. Yet upon inspection, we discovered so many of our treasures had a new feature since we’d last seen them: a yellow Post-It note.
Relda, my grandfather’s sister who lived in Midland, had gone through the house before we’d arrived and placed yellow Post-It notes on anything she or members of her immediate family were laying claim to. Various knick-knacks, pocket knives, crystal dinnerware, paintings, clocks and armchairs had aggressive all over the house were covered in little yellow yield signs.
Her siblings hadn’t gone through the house and staked their claim on his possessions, so I didn’t understand why she had. I was incredibly young, clueless in the ways of the world that existed outside Charlie Brown and Garfield, but I looked at my father as he saw the Post-Its and a look of shocked disbelief darted across his face. Staking claim to your dead father’s possessions when he’s not even cold yet is, well, tacky at best. But on the other hand, that’s a wicked sight gag. My family has always excelled at dark comedy.
That evening, we children busied ourselves by exploring the yards around the house while our parents caught up with distant relatives. When I walked outside, I found my great aunt Relda sitting on a short wall alongside the driveway, chain-smoking in the dark. The glow of the backyard lights illuminated the wafts of her cigarette smoke that coiled around her and she looked like Cruella De Vil’s younger sister, gangly arms and legs with a long cigarette sticking out of her red lips. Her saccharine sweet personality contrasted nicely with her bumpy voice. She’d smoked for so long that her speaking voice sounded like she’d gargled gravel instead of salt water. Her deep Texan sensibility cut through the cigarette smoke as she told us how tall and handsome we’d become since she’d seen us last. She always looked the same to me. Her blonde hair was always coifed and frothed and she dressed in tailored skirt suits like she was ready for a business meeting with J.R. from Dallas. I liked her.
Around 15 years later, Relda and I shared an unexpected connection. I’d become the editor of the Baylor University yearbook, something that ended up being the single best job I could’ve ever imagined while in grad school. I worked with the best people and worked for the single best boss I’ve ever had in my life. She challenged and guided me in more ways than she’d ever know. I’d been on yearbook staffs since the seventh grade and now, this yearbook would be my last. Graduation was on the horizon and I’d no longer be a classroom student, only a learner of real life. The year of my editorship, Baylor was to celebrate quite a few milestone anniversaries, the most pronounced of which was the 100th anniversary of the first Homecoming.
Baylor holds the distinction of being the first university to ever hold a Homecoming weekend. Today, homecomings are as common as the chickenpox, but in 1909, it was only at Baylor. Because the university took a few years off from celebrating during the war, Baylor doesn’t hold the distinction of the oldest continual Homecoming, but it was the first. That lineage of history and tradition became the backbone from which my yearbook sprung to life and my staff and I set to work integrating historical images from Baylor’s past into our coverage of its present.
My summer weeks before classes started were spent in the university libraries wearing white gloves and digging through history. While Homecoming was turning 100, Baylor had been around for much longer, and as I held photographs that were taken as far back as 1893, the magnitude of my school’s history became deeply engrained in me. I love that university because it gave me my friend family. I love that university because it taught me things I’d never otherwise know. I love that university because it transitioned me into adulthood and independence.
That summer, I combed through the pages of every existing yearbook, including books that were more than a century old. Off the cuff, my grandparents mentioned to me that Relda was a Baylor graduate and that I should look for her photo. They estimated when she would’ve been a student and I began flipping through yearbooks from that time period to find her. Not only did I find her senior portrait, but I found her listed as one of the members of the Baylor yearbook staff.
I don’t believe in coincidence, I believe in divine appointments, and this connection felt like it was a really cool chuck on the chin from God—like an extra dollop of icing on an already delicious cake. Through my grandparents, I set up a time to call Relda, someone I hadn’t spoken to since that funeral fifteen years prior, to talk to her about her time at Baylor and her time on the staff that I, 50 years later, now helmed.
On the phone, her voice sounded more aged and feeble than I remembered but it was recognizably her. She was in good spirits and was tickled about the situation in which we found ourselves. We were having a shared experience fifty years apart and it was a moment of living magic for us both. We discussed the differences and similarities in putting our yearbooks together—the processes that were the same far outnumbering those that were different—and she gave me some insight into what it was like to be at my university all those years ago.
“If you were a good girl, you went to Baylor,” she said, which I thought was hysterical but I muffled my laugh so I could hear her faint voice through the phone. “If you were caught by a policeman going 110 miles per hour and told him you were from Baylor and your mother wanted you to come home, you got a pass, because nice girls went to Baylor.”
She spoke of eating dinner in the dorm cafeterias on tables covered in white tablecloths and on plates made of fine china, something that seemed ludicrous to me, but the thing she said that stuck with me the most was, “When all is said and done, I took so many things from Baylor. Clearly, the spiritual is the most important. The spiritual goes a long way with me. It always has.”
Of the few memories I have of Relda from my childhood—sitting on the wall outside the house smoking and the Post-It Notes included—the memory that remains most vivid took place the next day at her father’s funeral. As we, the family, walked down the aisle to leave the service, she and I happened to walk next to one another. Looking up at her, she wiped tears off her pale skin, put her arm around my little shoulder and said, “He’s with Jesus now.” We walked a few paces with her thin, boney arm on my shoulder before going our separate ways.
It’s astonishing, the capacity for duality we have as humans. The outward-facing side of us that can appear one way and the inward-clutched part of us that can be totally different. Both of those sides may not be pleasant all the time, but they’re both real. Relda was a human person and in that moment, she’d lost her daddy and those feelings were broken. The Post-It Note wielding woman was still there, but she was also a person whose heart hurt and knew to encourage a young boy with hope.
My interview was the last time I would speak with Relda. When the spread was complete, I sent her a printed final product and was told she was thrilled with it. Not long after that, she passed away. She and I shared an unexpected connection, something none of the rest of our family shared. We shared the act of recording the history of the school that had changed and challenged us. We shared the same formative location and though it was separated by five decades, it showed that as much as time changes some things, other things remain the same. In a yearbook full of anniversaries, milestones and links to the past, none were as personal, as lasting, as divinely-appointed as me and my Great Aunt Relda and our moment of living magic.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.