Last night, I sat by the fire in The House on the Hill, my Grandparents’ house in Colorado Springs that overlooks Pikes Peak. I’ve been here for about a week and a half and plan to stay through the Holidays before wandering vaguely east in January. We ate grocery store sushi while I settled cross-legged on my favorite red Turkish carpet that we picked out together during a trip along the Turquoise Coast when I was 14. Their house is filled with artifacts and collections from nearly 70 years of marriage and trips to countries on 6 continents and road trips to every State capitol. Evidence of their travels is everywhere, but as much as they love to explore, they are happiest in this house.
They built T.H.O.T.H. in 1970 and have added additions every decade so they could have room for ornate bedroom sets their grandparents had in Arkansas that reach 12 feet tall, a 17 ft tall real Christmas tree and it’s many spin-offs, and a 1⁄3 scale train caboose in the backyard that boasts all the names of their grand and great grandchildren painted on the side. Everywhere you look, there is a treasure that tells a story or sparks a memory. It is wonderful.
And it is overwhelming.
If there ever was a metaphor for a life well-lived, it would be this house. The original had enough bedrooms for each of their four daughters but the garage was converted into another room when they took in one more. The next garage was turned into my Grandmother’s office after she got her PhD and started her career as an economist. My Grandfather’s office above the most recent garage has a model train that circles around it while his collection of Coke cans from around the world and programs from sermons he gave are crammed into shelves above. Their garden is edged by rocks they carted down from the mountains, and the trees they transplanted as saplings now stand more than 80 ft tall. There are oyster and mussel shells along the paths from meals they’ve enjoyed together.
While T.H.O.T.H. has evolved and morphed over the last 50 years, it reaches backwards for generations. Few things are ever removed or replaced. Instead, they are reupholstered or repaired. They can point to a table and tell me if it came from the “Prescott House” or Espy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my ancestors were conceived on the bed where I now sit to type this. There is a room that is nearly completely full of scrapbooks. Nana and Grandpa have been extraordinary stewards of this home, but as they age, the weight of their lives and the lives they honor before theirs has become a burden. They spend their days maintaining and organizing T.H.O.T.H. and climb to the third floor on replaced knees and repaired backs every night to sleep. Each day I spend here, I have to battle with competing desires to protect and preserve it all or burn it to the ground.
I think my wanderlust was passed down to me by my Grandparents. Christmases were filled with gifts and treats they brought back from China or Russia or wherever they had been that fall, and butter was served from a ceramic dish from Italy that was too short to accommodate American butter sticks. I was given the model that your possessions would be the record of where you had been, so I eagerly began my own collections. For a time, I collected Coke bottles and Harry Potters in different languages, and amassed stacks of postcards I never planned to send. There was even a period where I collected national team soccer jerseys from different countries, and enamel pins, keychains, and magnets from National Parks. But when I packed up my apartment before leaving my job as an art teacher to wander and live out of my car for as long as I could get away with it, I stood looking at those two boxes full of Harry Potters I can’t read. This is my life. These will always be here. They are heavy. They take up too much space. A low hum of anxiety started to build and has never quite gone away. The first step I took to try and silence the hum was to start sending the postcards.
For the last 18 months, I’ve been on the move. I keep a spreadsheet that tells me where I will sleep on any given night, and I’ve paired down my life to a small suitcase and a backpack. I still collect things, but they are usually ticket stubs and wristbands that can fit inside my travel journal, and I record what I see in the pages of my sketchbooks. I also like to keep whatever is the equivalent of $5 in foreign currency from wherever I go (Sir Edmond Hillary is on the New Zealand $5) and I carry a lucky $2 bill. I have some regrets that I don’t pick up pieces of local art, but that ache is mitigated by the fact that travel inspires my own creativity. What I make will have to be my record.
The fire crackled behind me as Nana took the plates of uneaten ginger and wasabi to the kitchen, and I was left alone with my Grandfather. Since I have been back, he has had two hospital stays; the first was a planned pacemaker replacement, and the most recent was a harrowing few days to clear out an impacted intestine. During all of this, my Grandparents have chipped away a constant to-do list that includes mowing the lawn, clearing the vegetable garden, and chopping firewood. My back ached from splitting the wood so he wouldn’t try to do it the minute he returned from Memorial Central, and the fruits of my labor were what we were enjoying in the grate.
We sat together quietly while Alexa played “The Music Man”. Grandpa’s working memory has been affected by the various medications he’s on, as well as 89 years of life, so I was content to let the show tunes do the work of penetrating the fog clouding his brain. Often, when I am alone with my Grandfather and he begins to reminisce, he slips into his Preacher’s voice. His words become slow and melodic. Every syllable is deliberately paced, and certain phrases are repeated for emphasis. My own thoughts drifted to my birthday that was only a few hours away, and the sad fact that I wasn’t sure that either of them would be able to remember it. My morose musings were interrupted by Grandpa’s Preacher's voice. He told me that he and one of the nurses at the VA Hospital where he worked had always wanted to put on a production of “The Music Man”. I listened as he talked about the support groups for Vietnam Veterans’ wives he led and the framed thank yous he had from them in the stairway leading up to his office. I knew what story was coming because his voice got slower and lower. As “Shipoopi” played, he told me about a Veteran who found him at the Church and said he needed to say something. His job had been to ferry munitions up the Mekong River.
I knew this story. I could already see it building in my mind. I knew what came next. The soldier was on deck as the boat came around a bend and he spotted a mother carrying her baby along the bank. He watched her as she reached into her shirt and had a split second to react in case she was about to pull out a hand grenade. So he shot her. Grandpa told me this story because he said it was a point of pride that he never reacted in judgment, and the veteran thanked him for that. I knew the same was required of me.
Nana returned and the fire died down. My introspective slide began to pick up speed until my brother called me on FaceTime and I snapped out of my funk. He and I talk about anything. None of it matters and all of it is interesting. I also knew for a fact he doesn’t know when my birthday is and never has. As we rattled on about about blood types and how surprisingly easy it is to understand the Wiki article about blood when it is translated to Occitan, I had the reminder I needed that life for me is best lived in the moment connecting with people I love and ignoring the burdens of the past or anxieties about the future. In my 37th year, I’ll do my best to remember that.
I still collect Coke bottles, though.