My Grandparents’ House

Not so weird, really.

When I was six years old, I used to love to go over to my mom’s parents house.  Partly because they didn’t bother to supervise me, so I pretty much had the run of the place and could gorge myself silly on Wonder Bread and Dr. Pepper (10, 2, and 4–how did they always know?)  But mainly so I could look at all the weird stuff they had accumulated in their lives.

The year was 1962.  Our house in the burbs was filled with all the modern conveniences–princess phones, a color TV that got three channels, an intercom–but my grandparents seemed to have stopped buying appliances in the 1940’s.  Everything in their kitchen was made out of cast iron or steel, including the counter tops.  They had a meat grinder.  They had an ice shaver.  They had strange-looking crap whose function was a total mystery to my clueless youth.  The toaster, alone, weighed about 45 pounds and smelled like a foundry when operated.

The kitchen was the brightest room in the house.  Every other room had blackout curtains that were always shut, giving the place a gloomy, haunted air.  If it hadn’t been my grandparents, who I knew from other contexts not to be vampires, I would never have ventured in.  Every surface in their living room was a museum of Middle European tchotchkes, faithfully dusted but somehow eternally musty.  The patterns on the sofa and chairs were dark and vertigo-inducing.  It looked like it had been decorated by the Addams Family by way of David Lynch.  The heavy drapes and thick brown carpet captured every sound deep in your throat, before it could be uttered.  To my knowledge, no living soul ever set foot in there.

Their entertaining room was the den, paneled in knotty pine and floored with linoleum–what we used to call a Rumpus Room.  That’s where the TV lived, and that’s where I passed my daytime visits watching Amos & Andy and The Adventures of Superman.  When I slept over, I could stay up as late as I wanted–long after my grandparents had passed out–so I could watch Nightmare Theater, a collection of old movies designed solely to freak out children like me–alone in dark creepy houses late at night, with weird rattles and snorks coming from the chests of my sleeping grandparents.

One night, they showed “The Hypnotic Eye”.  This was probably the most terrifying movie I could have conceived of at the age of six, about an insane magician who hypnotized people into doing terrible things to themselves.  By today’s standards, it would be laughable, but at the time…well, let’s just say I didn’t look into any mirrors for a few months after that experience.

Another weird thing–the doorbell was wired to a set of chimes that hung in the back hallway, leading to my grandparents’ claustrophobic, windowless bedrooms in the rear of the house.  And the outside button was by the front door–logical enough in terms of placement, except nobody they knew used the front door.  All the friends and family came to the back door of the kitchen and rapped on it.  On those rare occasions when the chimes sounded deep in the bowels of the house, it meant that a stranger was at the front–somebody who had fallen into the trap of assuming that door was in use and would be answered.  Of course, they couldn’t see in because of the blackout curtains and the One Step Beyond living room.  So they would ring, unheeded, and eventually go away.

At the age of six, I thought: why?  Why bother having a front door that nobody answers?

Fifty years later, I know why–because I have my own front door that nobody answers.  The doorbell battery died years ago, but the button persists.  People who know, knock.  People who don’t–go away.  It’s a neat little system.

We don’t have grandchildren yet, but the odds are it could happen sometime in the next twenty years.  And if it does, I wonder if those innocent little souls are going to think the same thing I thought when my six-year-old self ventured into my grandparents’ house: these people, ostensibly a part of my own family, are also…Something Other.  Their speech is strange, their ways are old, they stopped buying things forty years ago.  If I didn’t know them, I would be making a wide circle around the place in the daylight, and after dark  I would sooner visit the house in the woods seen in the closing scenes of The Blair Witch Project.

My hypothetical grandchildren of the future will probably gaze in bewildered horror at my Rat Fink statuette, and my reproduction of Dali’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, and the tribal mask with hair and fangs rescued from a garage sale, and my wife’s collection of 1970s science fiction and alternative healing paperbacks filling the house, exhibited proudly and without a trace of irony, and think:  I know they say we’re related, but these people are…Something Other.

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