To Build a Home

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To Build a Home By: Amanda Brown Pink sheets and vomit: not exactly the best first memory in life. I was in Hum’s biggest bedroom and all I remember is looking up into a light right before throwing up all over the pink sheets on my grandma’s bed. I wonder if we still have those sheets somewhere. Hum was my grandma’s house. I still called it Hum after my mom and I moved out when I was four, even though I had long since learned to pronounce “home” correctly. I still got excited to visit my grandma’s house then. Secretly I’d say hello-Hum-how-are-you when we pulled up in front of the familiar lopsided oak tree. I don’t talk to Hum anymore. Not since last year when Hum became just another house on Leeman Avenue. *********************** “Ouchhhhhh!” I wailed, pulling my hand back with a start and a whimper. “Shhh. Don’t worry. I have the no-ouch spray” my grandma cooed. I gave her my hand tentatively; I didn’t want her to hurt it with the tweezers again. “The rail on the stairs bit me! Why did Hum hurt me?” I pouted. She smiled, put down the tweezers, and placed my hand in the sink filled with warm water. The smile struggled to remain on her lips as she massaged her cramped, swollen joints. I soaked my finger for fifteen whole minutes before I again let my grandma gently try to remove momma splinter, papa splinter, and baby splinter. Of course I eventually forgave Hum for giving me splinters. I could never stay mad at the house that tickled my nostrils with the smell of bacon and waffles to wake me up. The waffles


were my favorite part of mornings at Hum. I would watch grandma pour the waffle mix made from scratch over the little square trenches of the waffle maker. “Is the secret ingredient Cornflakes?” My grandmother shook her head side to side. “No. But that was a good guess.” I couldn’t wait to put the syrup on the way she’d taught me. After she popped a waffle onto my plate I gingerly tipped the syrup bottle, the sugar kind, not the sugar-free kind grandma had to use. Starting at one end of my waffle I dripped the syrup into each dimple until it filled exactly to the top. It was like filling an ice tray with water but more fun. I’m always afraid I’ll drop ice trays full of water. Breakfast was interrupted by shouts from outside. Words I got in trouble for saying came in through the kitchen window. Usually grandma told me to ignore the Nasty Neighbor, but this time she just sighed. The curses were muffled by the sound of crashing glass bottles and clucking chickens. “Is the Nasty Neighbor dumping garbage over the fence again? Aren’t you going to go yell at him?” “No, not right now; I have to make sure you have enough waffles in your tummy, right?” I tried to return her smile. “BASTARDS. ASSHOLES!” I flinched at the male voice from next door and the successive buckahhhh from the illegal white chickens walking the length of the brown fence that separated Hum from the Nasty Neighbor. ***********************


I was sitting in my living room in Rockville when I heard the phone chord slap against the wall. My mother took the phone into her room for privacy. I cupped my hands around my ears and pushed them forward. The girl who sat next to me in class had told me that’s how she eavesdrops on her parents in bed. My mother has an obnoxiously loud and pronounced whisper though and I felt like I looked silly so I stopped. “Yes. Yes I spoke with her earlier. Financially I think she wants to do it for all of us. Plus honestly I think she just can’t keep up with it anymore. It’s too much. No. No Adeline doesn’t know yet.” *********************** “Adeline, I have to work nights at the hospital again this weekend. Do you want to stay with grandma?” “Can’t you come too?” “It’ll be easier for me to get to work from home, otherwise I would.” I cringed when she said home. Our house in Rockville wasn’t home. It was a mess with all the old mail order catalogues mom wouldn’t throw away yet claimed she had no time to look at. The Rockville house was empty. Mom worked too many shifts in the emergency room lately and I stayed late at the after school program until she could pick me up. According to mom, paying a babysitter wasn’t “economically possible.” “Ok. Yeah. I’ll go to Hum this weekend.” My mom used to know Hum better, when she was growing up there. I don’t think they talk much anymore. When we got there and the car engine turned off I said very quietly hello-Hum-how-areyou, but I was drowned out by a plane that flew lazily overhead. The planes flew so close to


Hum that I thought if I climbed to the top of the crooked oak tree maybe I could grab onto a wing. Mom said it was because the flight paths to the nearby airport were all right over grandma’s house. She had a reason for everything. I learned a lot that weekend. A lot of things that didn’t have reasons but just were what they were. On Saturday I learned something about girl and boy praying mantises. In grandma’s flower garden I spotted two insects. I knew they were praying mantises for sure because I’d seen lots of pictures of them in books. Their bodies looked so bendy and soft, like they were moving leaves made out of Playdough. “Grandma! I found praying mantises, come see.” She clipped a nightgown on the clothesline then put down the remaining clothespins she was holding and walked over slowly. “Can I take a picture?” “Suurre.” I ran inside and checked everywhere for the disposable camera mom had given me. She refused to get a digital camera like all the other moms had; at chorus concerts at school she was the only one with a bright orange instant camera that took only 26 pictures. I asked urgently Hum-where’s-my-camera. Finally I spied it on the wooden half-moon kitchen table. I called thank-you-Hum as I snatched it up and sprinted back outside. “Don’t worry, I kept an eye on them for you.” Grandma never wanted anyone to worry. My small fingers fumbled trying to turn on the flash and snap the picture. I squatted to get a better look at the praying mantises. “Can God hear them?” “Of course God can hear them. He hears everyone that prays.”


But I’m not so sure grandma was telling the truth because when I told my mom about it a few days later she asked me if I knew that girl praying mantises eat their mates. I hadn’t known that. On Sunday Hum hugged me with the smell of waffles and I woke up and wandered downstairs. I stopped in the dining room to examine the picture collage with the old black and white photographs. I loved looking at the ones of great grandma and grandpa. Mom says the high cheek bone genes come from them. Those are the genes you want because high cheek bones make you look like European royalty. When I thought no one was looking, I’d timidly stand on the living room couch with the warm pink upholstery and look in the wide mirror above it to check if my cheek bones looked high. I heard bacon sizzling and continued into the kitchen. “Grandma? What was it like living when all pictures were taken in black and white? When great grandma and grandpa came to America?” “Well everyone worked very hard and was very excited. Great grandpa built this house you know.” “Is it true that everyone smoked cigarettes? Mom says everyone smoked cigarettes in the 1920s.” “Not everyone, but a lot of people did,” she laughed. Mom also said great grandpa died in Hum’s upstairs back room from smoking cigarettes, but I knew grandma would never tell me that. “Who is the woman in the collage with the flower pajamas?” “Your great aunt Minnie.”


“Oh. Is she the one who died in the porch?” “Why don’t you set the table Adeline? The waffles are ready,” grandma suggested cheerily. I pretended not to notice that she didn’t answer me. I knew it was aunt Minnie in the picture. She was my mom’s blind aunt who lived with my grandma when mom and her two brothers were young. I have aunt Minnie’s bean bag Snoopy stuffed animal. Apparently she really liked Snoopy. I used to imagine her lying there limp in her white nightgown with flowers on it, the one she’s wearing in the picture collage in the dining room. That’s the only picture I’ve ever seen of her. “Weren’t you born here grandma?” I started laying napkins and silverware on the semicircular table. “Yep. In the front room upstairs.” Grandma unplugged the waffle iron. It must have been nice being born at Hum. Almost silently I asked Hum do-you-remember-babies-more-or-deadpeople. “Hum’s been ours forever huh grandma?” Finally her smile cracked. “I guess so!” I hadn’t understood why her voice sounded like she hadn’t drank water in days, why she turned away and quietly started to cry. *********************** The next time I visited Hum it was Thanksgiving. Uncle Brian brought Lissy and Jack, Uncle Max brought the enormous turkey that took all day to cook, and my mom brought me. We sat around the ancient table cloth with the green and white stripes, said grace, and then each tried to get grandma to sit down and enjoy dinner.


“Can I get anyone else water? More patadas? I’ll be right in I just have to get the broccoli from the oven.” The broccoli was always overdone but my mom was the only one who ever made a face about it. Finally Uncle Brian, with his round belly, Santa Claus beard, and suspenders with swirling flames on them, bluntly roared: “Ma, siddown.” She listened. After dinner Uncle Max challenged me to the traditional game of checkers. He checked his e-mail on his fancy cellphone and pushed his oversized glasses up the bridge of his nose before we began. I never beat him. But I still experienced a surge of delight every time I got to declare “king me” and watch my uncle stack two red-stained wooden checkers on top of one another. I always wanted to be red because red moves first. As Uncle Max put the checkers away, Lissy, Jack, and I went into the kitchen. On the white patch of wall next to the toilet closet in the kitchen Lissy and her younger brother Jack and me all liked to keep track of our heights. I felt like I’d gotten taller this time. I pressed my back against the wall and stretched my neck. “Grandma! Can you come draw pencil lines?” “Suurre. Right after I take my insulin guys.” Through the kitchen window we heard doors creaking open and slamming shut. I don’t think the Nasty Neighbor is supposed to let other people rent rooms in his house but he does. I heard Uncle Max talking to grandma in the dining room while she was injecting her insulin. “It won’t matter now, the ad goes in the paper next week, but we should’ve gotten you a handicapped parking space sign a long time ago.” The Nasty Neighbor’s renters park in front of


her house after she leaves in her blue La Sabre to go to church. Grandma warned Uncle Max to be quiet and returned to the kitchen. “Ok are you all ready to see how much you’ve grown?!” She put on a pair of glasses and measured all of us, dating the thick pencil marks on the wall. I was still the tallest, but I got nervous because Lissy had started catching up. Jack snuggled beneath his dad’s beard on the pink-upholstered couch to watch a movie while Lissy and I went upstairs. “Can I give you a makeover?” “I guess so.” “I could even cut your hair. I watch my mom at the salon all the time.” “Didn’t your mom lose her job?” “Yeah. So what? She says she’s gonna get it back.” Lissy blew a bubble with the gum she was chewing. It popped loudly. At first I shrank back from the pop and the eagerness of my nine-year-old cousin. But she was almost a year older than me and always won the unspoken who-looks-better-in-their-familyChristmas-picture contest. I agreed to let her do a makeover. We stole the thick black scissors that grandma used to clip coupons out of the Pennysaver and brought them upstairs. My mom had started diligently clipping coupons that fall too. “You first, so you know it’s no big deal.” She handed me the scissors. I closed my eyes and snipped off a handful of my long hair. A feeling of power surged through me. It seemed like I could do anything I wanted. But instead of doing something big and crazy I just giggled. I let Lissy cut some of my hair but started getting angry when she attacked my caterpillar eye brows


one painful pluck at a time with the same tweezers that once removed my splinters. Then she got mascara on my eyelids and tried to put eyeliner on me. The unsharpened pencil poked the bottom of my eyes and I was blinking uncontrollably. Lissy started yelling at me. “Stay still already! You’re HOPEless!” She forced the “hope” through gritted teeth and let out a high pitched grunt. “You’re HURTing me!” I glared at her like an injured dog. Realizing yelling was only interrupting her project, Lissy tried a different strategy. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “So you know they’re selling grandma’s house right?” I swung my head around to face her with a panicked and furious stare. “What?” “Yeah.” She chewed her gum annoyingly. “They didn’t tell you?” No. No they didn’t tell me. I violently snatched the dull eyeliner pencil and left Lissy, shocked at my sudden aggression, wide-eyed and openmouthed. I locked myself in Hum’s upstairs bathroom. I stared into the mirror, fiercely yanked my bottom eyelid down, and pressed the eyeliner roughly along it in between spasms of my still-furiously-blinking eyelashes. The tears I was fighting back weren’t just from the pain of the unsharpened eyeliner tip. I whispered how-could-you-do-this-to-me-Hum-you-can’t-let-me-go. *********************** As we left Hum that night, grandma called out the door behind us. “Be careful of the tomatoes honey.” “We will Ma. Happy Thanksgiving.” When the leaves covered the ground outside Hum, rotting tomatoes had a tendency to mysteriously appear under them. Grandma suspected it was


the Nasty Neighbor’s doing, but only Hum knew for sure who put them there. Last month grandma slipped on one of the tomatoes and sprained her ankle. It still wasn’t fully healed. During the half-hour drive back to Rockville that Thanksgiving I stayed silent. When I woke up in the morning I crept into the kitchen. Mom was still asleep. I sat at the kitchen table and stared blankly into space. A car door slammed outside and my trance was broken. I looked down on the table and saw the mail from Friday. I hadn’t noticed the letter addressed to my mom from Abbott Reality before. So it was true. Lissy wasn’t just trying to scare me. *********************** Uncle Max had used his shiny black cellphone to hire the lawyer and real estate agent. A few months after that last Thanksgiving at Hum I watched them load up everything and carry it away. All the picture collages, the green and white striped table cloth, the waffle iron, the clothespins, the checkers set -- everything. It smelled different after that. Sterile. It didn’t help that they repainted all the walls white. The gigantic mirror in the living room reflected an empty room instead of the record player and the bunny ear antennae on top of the snowy television that only received seven channels. I felt like a zombie walking through someone else’s nightmare. It felt like we just went to the store or something and came home to find everything in our house had been stolen. I wanted to hunt down the thief and strangle him with my own bare hands. How dare anyone do such a thing. Where was this moving truck man anyhow? I wanted to speak with him personally. But the papers were all signed. And it wasn’t the real estate agent or the movers I was most angry at. Standing in the porch where great aunt Minnie died I fought back the water welling up in my eyes. I blinked incessantly like when I put on eyeliner for the first time, when I found out


grandma was selling Hum, found out Hum was betraying me. I heaved a sigh and let it out painfully slowly until my lungs burned with the effort. This must have been what great grandpa felt like when he was dying from cigarettes. Was I dying? Was this it? My outrageous thoughts were interrupted by a man who walked through the steel gray front door. He reminded me of uncle Brian. He didn’t have uncle Brian’s Santa Claus beard, but he definitely had his round belly and truck-driver vibe. He smelled like diesel. He saw the single droplet roll down my cheek even though I quickly wiped it away; there was nothing I could do about the involuntary sniffling. I put on the best scowl I could so he’d know I knew he was guilty. He’d never get away with stripping Hum bare because I knew it was him who’d done it. “Hey, don’t cry,” he offered as a morsel of comfort. “You’ll still see your grandma, she’s just moving a few hours away!” That was it. I’d had it. I wanted to spit on him and smash my fists into the freshly painted white walls until my blood smeared their brightness. I wanted to cry like a baby and howl wildly. I wanted to tear the new thin drapes that would never keep the draft out into shreds and throw them up in the air like chicken-feather confetti right in the Nasty Neighbor’s face. I wanted it to be autumn again so the moving man would slip on tomatoes while he was packing away our lives in neat square boxes with heavy duty packaging tape. I wanted him to get splinters from Hum’s railing while he was taking the last handful of items down the stairs -- and he wouldn’t get to use the no-ouch spray because it was packed already. I wanted to smash the mirror in the living room and screech as it crashed to the floor so that I wouldn’t have to stare at the reflection of the emptiness. Rage swelled up inside of me and I felt powerful, like I could take scissors and cut all of this man’s hair off, like I was a praying mantis that could devour him whole, like I was taller than the highest pencil mark that they painted over next to the


toilet closet. When a plane roared above us I thought for a moment it was my mind projecting a sound so deafening that the floor in the porch shook. In my mind I screamed desperately Humwhy-didn’t-you-fight-to-keep-us. And yet for all that, I barely managed to blubber out three words in response to the moving truck man’s consolation that I’d still see grandma. “Yeah. I know.” My mom suddenly came up behind me. She had just finished taking pictures of the bare house. I didn’t understand why she’d want to remember Hum like that. I looked up at her awkwardly holding a bright orange disposable camera. “You ready to go?” I wondered how she was so calm. By the time I looked back, moving truck man had vanished unharmed. I nodded. Hum’s front door felt heavier than usual when I yanked it shut. It only shut if you slammed it. The new owner wouldn’t know that at first. I turned and followed my mom down the brick and cement steps thinking about how I used to sit on them and wait for Mister Softy. Grandma always let me get vanilla and chocolate twist cones with chocolate sprinkles, even though the chocolate sprinkles cost extra. I wasn’t going to look back as we drove away. At the last minute though, I changed my mind. I would’ve forgiven Hum right then for not trying harder to keep our family together, like I forgave Hum when I got those three splinters. But when I murmured goodbye-Hum-I’ll-miss-you I didn’t know if Hum could hear me. I didn’t know if Hum even existed anymore.


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