My father’s parents retired and moved from north Alabama to Columbus, Georgia in 1960.
I can remember going over with my parents to visit before we left for Germany. My uncle Myers, one of dad’s older brothers, was a WW II vet, and then a policeman, who lived right across the street, had cut down several huge pine trees and he had just built a general purpose “shop” building behind the house, which matched the shop building behind my grandparents’ house.
The white pine board clad house my grandparents lived in, were tiny by today’s standards, with four rooms and a bathroom, built on a crawl space, with a huge front and back yard.
We were living in Columbus in the late 1950s and visited my grandparents regularly up until we left for Germany in 1962, and again after we returned to the U.S. in 1966.
A shining light in the night
I can remember that there was always a lone bare bulb burning bright outside the kitchen entrance to their house, and we were welcome there regardless of what hour of the day or night we arrived.
Later, I realized this was an impossibly small house for a family, but very much a cozy house for two.
My grandfather modest workshop behind the house was full of tools as he had made a living as a carpenter, working at the Redstone Arsenal during the late 1940s and through the 1950s as the early space program took shape.
Granddaddy, as we called him, would let the older grandchildren make things from scraps of wood. Usually we made rubber band guns, or wooden swords with blunt tips so my mother wouldn’t be giving us the, “You’ll put your eye out with that thing,” lecture. I was fascinated by all the hand tools and the tablesaw that we could never under any circumstances touch.
When we visited my grandparents between my dad’s assignments, my brother and I would camp out in the living room on a couch that folded flat into a bed, and our sisters would sleep on a pile of quilts on the floor. We usually stayed for a week or so.
My grandfather was a man of few words, even when we had family reunions with several of my uncles and aunts, as well as cousins milling about and filling the house. As a ten-year old, I had trouble understanding his belief that man had not really set foot on the moon and that sending up all those rockets would change the weather. I was six years old in 1962 and I wanted to be an astronaut like millions of other kids my age, and I watched every space capsule launch I could.
Well, maybe he was right about the weather changes, but I feel certain there is a lot of abandoned hardware still up on the airless moon.
1970s – Ccoming home
After I graduated from Frankfurt American High School in Germany in 1974, I worked for a year and returned to Columbus in 1975, where I lived on my own for about six years. I spent most Sunday afternoons with my grandmother where we would visit and she usually treated me to chicken ‘n dumplings or some of her wonderful fried pies she made in a skillet using apples and dough.
My grandfather had spent the last few years of his life battling dymentia and died in 1978. At first it was odd to visit my grandmother, and to see his empty chair there in front of the TV in the living room. For several months after his death, I kept expecting to see him amble into the room, but he didn’t.
Grandmother Baker would tell me many of the same stories again and again, and I enjoyed hearing about my dad as a child and their family growing up on a working farm. I would come over every weekend, and she usually had a list of things she needed help with around the house or a grocery list for the Piggly Wiggly where she shopped.
When my dad retired in 1981, my mom, dad and youngest sister moved into a house across town. Dad would visit with my grandmother often, and I knew he would help her with replacing light bulbs and other little chores around the house that needed tending. I was attending Auburn University and I could only come home to visit about every third week.
After I graduated from Auburn University, I lived and worked in Atlanta, and I came home to visit about every other weekend. It was great to see my grandmother’s little house, still the same after all those years. though she finally put in a window air conditioner, which made our visits much more bearable in the summer months.
Grandmother kept threatening to cut down the giant pine trees that dwarfed her tiny house. But the pine straw and pine cones gave her neighbor some work to do and the trees remained untouched for hears to come.
When I saw my grandmother she was always so happy that her baby boy, my dad, had retired and that she could see him often. My father was the youngest of 10 children, and he was her favorite. Dad worked on his garden and shared his bounty with grandmother who would brag on the wonderful pole beans he was growing.
My father had a rough start at retirement, but landed a job at Fort Benning and finally adjusted to civilian life. It was great to see a different side of dad. I grew up seeing him as a tank commander and tough as nails drill sergeant and it was good to see in civilian clothes, working in his garden or working in the shop building I helped him to build shortly after he retired.
My father died of colon cancer in 1986. I felt sorry for my grandmother. By this time she attended the funerals for her husband and three of her children, but her faith in God and the strength of the family and her friends helped her through the tough times and she lived by herself until her early 90s.
In her last three years of life, my grandmother lived in a nursing home, and I visited her as often as I could. She was always in high spirits, talking about how her rehab was going and that she was just a few weeks away from being able to leave and return to her home. Her mind was clear and we would talk about my dad and her other children and the grandchildren.
After she passed away, my Uncle Myers remodeled my grandmother’s house, adding on more rooms and a second storage building. The three giant pine trees were removed and the first time I saw the remodeled house, I thought I was on the wrong street.
I was upset. Not about what he had done or his right to do it, but that all I had now was a picture in my mind of the tiny white house with the huge pine trees that was our surrogate “home” for so many years.
I have visited my uncle and his wife several times a year, and now I like what he has done with the house. On a recent visit he talked to me about his job in the Navy and the D-Day invasion, and while he is much taller than my grandmother was, hearing his animated voice and great sense of humor reminds me of her, and of all the great family get-togethers at the house. I have one aunt who just turned 80 and we take her down with us to visit with my uncle, and we have a great visit.
While the voices in the house are few when compared to the past, it is a house that is full of life. And if I close my eyes the image of the bare white bulb over the steps leading into the house will come to mind.
Editor’s Note: This story first was published In Military Brats Online in 2009.