In the past, not for a couple years now but occasionally before that, my aunt or sometimes my grandma would pause in the middle of whatever we were doing and say that, really, I should be writing all this down. Jotting notes for myself, compiling observations. Saving it all, she would say, for a—well, a something. A book, maybe. By all this, my aunt or grandma invariably meant the latest antics of my family, loud and laughing, the lot of them sitting around my grandparents’ dinner table or in the living room—my family, with their too many dogs, too many jokes, and too many good stories. And my aunt and grandma went to me with this invitation because of all the already excellent storytellers in the family, I was the only one who’d made a thing of calling themselves a writer.
Remember when Grandma, a model of self-restraint, shrieked so loudly you could hear her from across the lake? Or when Grandpa scorched a roast so bad it came out looking like a shriveled football? Why don’t you write about that, Ben? And in response I’d smile sheepishly, and nod, and mutter something noncommittal.
Good as my word, I never did write anything. Eventually the invitations to do so stopped coming.
I’ve had reason to think about my namby-pamby reluctance lately, now that everything’s about to change. As I draft this post, I’m sitting for perhaps the last time in the backyard of my grandparents’ house. I’m tilted back in one of those snazzy zero-grav lawn chairs, my laptop propped against my belly, my journal open to a rough outline on a table beside me. Jes sits on the other side of that table, similarly canted, and further off, Toph is ploughing her snout through the hostas. Ordinarily, there would be more of us out here. Ordinarily, the rest of the family—my siblings and parents, as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins—would be here, too, all of them ringed in a giant half-circle on the lawn, gabbing and dozing. But because of the pandemic, it’s been months since any such a gathering has occurred, so for now it’s just Jes and I. Not even Grandpa and Grandma joined us. When we left them, they had parked themselves in the living room, looking a little stiff and tired but dutifully sorting through piles of old books and choral music. Keep or donate. Keep or donate.
At least the shade is deep out here beneath the trees. And from the lake, a breeze is drowsing in, stirring the leaves and tickling the windchimes. Earlier today, I watched as a couple of sweating sanitation workers, accompanied by a property inspector, pumped clean the house’s sceptic tank.
The day before that, it was the inspector again, roaming the hallways with the house’s prospective buyer.
What a strange thought. There have been few things as constant in my life as my grandparents’ house. I was just eleven when they had it built, a big, beautiful, all-brick affair with six bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths, and with a little stretch of beach flanked on either side by aluminum piers. My grandparents had wanted a place large enough to bring everyone together under one roof—their three children along with their spouses, as well as all six of their grandchildren—and for sixteen years, they succeeded marvelously Despite the vagaries of employment, and of moves, and of grandkids growing up, and of time wearing on and wearing down, my grandparents’ house remained a sun strangely capable of pulling our many orbits into alignment. I’ve spent I don’t know how many weekends there. I splashed with my cousins in the lake. I chatted with my aunts and uncles in the kitchen. The first time Jes spent the night there, my little sister Abby and my little cousin Caleb perched themselves on her bed in the morning and talked her ear off for a full hour.
Four years later, it was this house and this family that Jes and I visited first, newly engaged.
I don’t mean to sound maudlin. I swear I don’t. Not all the memories I have of this place are pleasant, and I also can’t ignore the fact that the good memories, which far outweigh the bad, are themselves contingent. After all, money and land made possible for me an experience of family that not many people get to enjoy. Yet my grandparents could have poured their wealth into a lot of things, instead of this house. That they did so, I think, is the only reason that I know and love my extended family as well as I do.
Out over the lake, the weather looks like it’s beginning to turn. The breeze has gotten cooler. Beside me, Jes is getting impatient. In a couple minutes now, we’ll be folding away the chairs. We’ll be going back inside. There, we’ll find Grandpa and Grandma still hard at work, the two of them far too old to be taking care of so large a house by themselves and justifiably eager for their impending downsize. They had almost given up all hope of selling it, and then, a few weeks ago, surprise!—a buyer. Now they’ve just got to transform a home back into property. Jes and I will help them with that.
It saddens me that we haven’t a better way to mark this coming move. Some last hurrah or final goodbye for this part of my family’s history. It feels incomplete without it, without everyone here. I flatter myself to think that this essay, belated as it is and coming after so very many suggestions that I write one, might provide some small measure of closure. But like so many other things these past four months, I suspect that the real closure came and went without my having realized it.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.