My Grandmother’s House


My dreams are the source of poetry.

Last night I purchased my grandmother’s home. Built in 1880, it’s Victorian darkness is my heart home. Last night in dreams, I walked the rooms, pointing out in each, memorable architectural elements, evidence of the house’s provenance.

Though the front of the house was obscured by a mundane commercial facade and an insurance office crammed with desks occupied the formal rooms, traces showed. The tall radiators were still in place and the French windows onto the porch were there and I knew it was the parlor.

My vision added more volume to the house.

There were tracks in the floor where large paneled doors slid, dividing one large room into small ones. A Victorian emulation of Japanese shoji screens.

Wandering the vast spaces, I tried to determine where to place my bed, finding several suitable rooms.

The Butler’s pantry with its cubbyholes and narrow shelves and enameled counters was entirely the figment of my dream as it never existed in life. I envisioned using it to prepare pies, store groceries. Though I was confounded to learn that a renter lived in it and I could not use it.

I added a non-existent screened porch around the perimeter of the house, complete with Chinese-style fretwork trim superimposed in the field of the screens. On each rail there was a collection of miniature porcelain, reminding me of her collections. Annotations on the rails told me the items were placed there by another in tribute to her.

At last I was seated with a crowd unknown people present for a business event. They did not know who I was and did not know the house was now mine. One wondered if foul play was responsible for Mrs. Compton’s demise as she passed away in her bed at the age of 95. Speaking up, I said it was her own will. On Thanksgiving Day after turkey consumed and adult grandchildren departed she stated, “I’ll not get back up out of this bed until they carry me out feet first.” And she didn’t.

Opening my eyes I see the brilliant cut-crystal powder jar, once hers, which I cherish. Then rolling over, I looked across the room and see her former dining room mirror. Tall with a rounded top, it originally was the tilting mirror for a vanity, re-purposed, it hung on her dining room wall. It hangs today, by the same wires, upon my wall.

In my kitchen I put away dishes and my hand lingers on the blue transferware plate from which I enjoy my breakfast. And my eyes fall on the napkin holder, a painted tin container she used just as I do, its image of Raby Castle inviting me to other flights of fantasy.

These talismans of her life embedded in my own summon her to me. Her spirit suffuses each item. No haunting, more a loving. Her tender affection surrounds me and buoys my life in her death. I find her with me. And I am loved.

Charleston’s Magnolia Gardens in Spring

Magnolia Garden Path in the Spring

Like petticoats
Blossoms sweep the ground.

Charleston’s Magnolia Gardens in the spring will take your breath away. This is from a few years ago.

Fairy Houses

Fairies Live Here

Here’s the thing, as you get older, you relive parts of your life and recognize the weight of them in the shaping of you. Lying on the bed, reading a book, my arm crossing in front of my face, I see the ropiness of my thin skin, and wonder how it’s incremental changes were not apparent. Now, all of a sudden it looks like the petals of a crape myrtle that grew in rows along the perimeter of my grandmother’s Victorian manse.

Those trees swayed in the simmering summer somnambulance of the afternoon as I, an eight year old girl, sat on the scalding hot cement blocks that formed the pierced fence enclosing this tiny Southern paradise. I could not nap on the Army cot in the front room, Perhaps because it was lumpy, or perhaps because the texture of the flounced cretonne slipcover whose print of a bucolic village was rough against my face. I got up, leaving the rumpled cot behind the door of the “front room.” I carefully opened the French doors, trodding the weathered boards of the front steps, the balls of my bare feet, blistering as I descended. Then dashed out to the fence to take up my perch, and watch the heat waves shimmy in the air above the packed white sand street.

Because I was not allowed to make any noise, and because of the sweltering heat, I begin a slow walk through the grounds, poking about for a bit of cool shade. I push aside the branches of the azalea, and step down into the flower house whose foundation is sunk 3 feet into the Carolina grey soil. The moist embrace of the dank air welcomes me as the anole scurries along the window sill, abandoning his perch. I sit on the planks arrayed bleacher style against the long wall, and breathe in the familiar odors of my grandmother’s garden. In the winter, all her potted plants come to stay here just as my Mama tells me the Northerners once did in town. Now, it is empty, all it’s seasonal residents relocated to the house and the porch. Booger, my grandmother, loves her flowers and calls them each by name, the ferns are her favorites. Not that the giant magnolias growing just outside the door aren’t also significant. Their glossy, enamel-like leaves rustle in the hot breeze, stirring up a dust-devil in the dry topsoil.

Walking there I watch it swirl, and know we are in for a storm later. But for now, I pick up my “digging spoon” whose blunted bowl and eroded silver speak of better days. It is my favorite implement for digging out fairy houses. As I dig, the color of the moist soil beneath the surface goes from gray to tan. I place my foot in the hole and cover it from toes to instep with earth, carefully packing it so I can withdraw my foot, leaving behind the fairy house surrounded with a moat. The fairies need a cozy house so I line the floors with the waxy discarded petals from the magnolia, and the shed velvety outer wrappings of the buds, using just a bit of Spanish moss to complete their fairy beds.

What the fairy house needs now is a bit of frosting. If I’m not too loud, maybe I can sneak into the kitchen. Mama says it sticks out from the back of the house because that way it can’t heat up the place. But I know that I can go up the rough cement kitchen steps, carefully open the screen and get the rotary egg beaters, Lux dish soap and glass bowl with the milky interior and gold exterior and get back out to the yard without anyone hearing me. When I get back out to the yard, I run around to the faucet on the outside kitchen wall, where the maiden hair ferns grow and fill my bowl part-way with water, and then squirt in a few drops of dish soap. Now I plop down, legs akimbo, bowl between my thighs. This the fun part. I place the rotary beater into the bowl, grasp the crank and begin to turn. I like this part, the clanking whirring of the beaters sounds like music to me. Before long, I have a very dense whipped, white foam, just like the eggs when Booger makes meringues.

I go back over to the fairy house and carefully take my hands, and apply the frosting to the outside of the fairy house. It looks so pretty and smells so nice. I just hope that the wind doesn’t blow it away. Standing up, I step back to admire my handiwork. If the fairies don’t like this house, I don’t know why not. Now to fill the moat. I always leave that to last, hoping that the water will stay in the moat, but it never does. Somehow I don’t think I ever grasped the porosity of sandy soil.

I know Booger is going to get up soon, so I’d better get the bowl and beaters to the kitchen.

When she gets up we get a Coke and go out onto the side porch, which overlooks the side yard where I just built the fairy house. My bottom slides down the smooth seat of the Adirondack chair, and I rest my arms on it’s broad arms. My grandmother sits in her rocking chair with it’s untanned cowhide seat. She has on a dress and the scratchy surface doesn’t seem to itch her. I see that she has not bothered to hook up her stockings and as she sits there, I can see the rolled tops of them just beneath her knees. I think she doesn’t know that I can see them. As she sits, she rocks, wiggling the Coke bottle which she grasps between her thumb and middle finger like a vertical see-saw. Sometimes we talk and sometimes we play Parcheesi. Today, we sit and I look out at the fairy house and wonder, when will the fairies come?

This reminiscence was provoked by my reading of the incredible book, Faery Tale by Signe Pike. If you need a bit of magic in your life, I urge you to read this book.

And you can see and hear Signe speak about her experiences in this presentation that she recently made here in Charleston.

*I am the granddaughter of Mr. & Mrs. Hallie P. Compton. My grandfather established the Dorchester Coca-Cola Plant in the 1920s. He and my grandmother lived at 102 S. Hickory Street, Summerville, SC. This reminiscence takes place there. All of the 10 grandchildren called our grandmother, “Booger”. This was not a term of derision, but a term of affection. She gained the name from bouncing grandchildren on her knees, and saying, “You Little Booger” and when the first grandchild learned to talk, she called Rosa Compton, Booger.