Upstairs

In my grandparents’ backyard in Syracuse, NY stood the small red playhouse my grandfather had built for my mother and her sister when they were children. Tin cups and plates were strewn in a box in the “kitchen” where my siblings and I spent hours pretending to cook or eat or chat like our parents. But as much fun as we had in the kitchen, the coveted spot in the playhouse was its attic, the upstairs that you could only get in by climbing a ladder from the ground floor. There was just one rule: you couldn’t go up until you were five years old. Being the youngest of four children, I waited with anticipation for my fifth birthday so I could finally look out the attic window, roughly level with my grandfather’s head.

The first time we visited my grandparents after I turned five, I don’t even know if I went into the big house first, or if I just ran into the backyard, through the little white door, up the ladder and onto the rough wooden floor of the attic. There was barely room to sit. The low ceiling had nails still sticking through, and the small window let in just enough light for me to see how dusty it was. And yet, all I really remember was the feeling of exhilaration of finally being Up There.

It’s now been years since I’ve even seen the playhouse, much less climbed back up the ladder to sit- now rather uncomfortably, I imagine- under the nail-studded wooden planks. Both my maternal grandparents died the year I turned ten, just a few months apart. I think the last time I was in the big house was the summer afternoon of my Papa’s funeral. He had been living in a nursing home closer to my family since Mama died that March, so the house had been empty for a while.

I remember standing in the front hall, looking down past my dress and formal Funeral-Appropriate dress shoes at the smooth, shiny hardwood floor that had once been covered by a worn carpet, shadowed by corner cabinets and couches. To the right I could see the fireplace in the small living room that looked out onto the yard where the red playhouse stood a lonely jewel; to the left, the empty walls of the dining room where we’d spent a few snowy Thanksgivings I only remember for their light and warmth. Upstairs there were just two rooms: Mama’s with her curious waist-level closet built into the wall and the guest room my sister and I stayed in during our visits. We didn’t share a room at home, so the parallel twin beds were a treat. We invented games that kept us awake late into the night, jumping between the beds to avoid “monsters” in the gap until we were either too exhausted or the noise alerted the adults downstairs and we were told to be quiet.

I don’t remember quite what I felt when the suited realtor introduced us to the woman who would be buying the house. She wore a bright smile and I think a tennis outfit, and I wonder sometimes how she must have felt to meet us, serious and quiet in our formal attire.

I do remember thinking, though, that I hoped she had children who would play in the little red house.

Red playhouse

The little red playhouse, as remembered by the author

The first few years after the house sold, we would drive past every time we visited other relatives in Syracuse. Nerves would always gather as we approached, and we’d all look out the car windows. Then someone would spot the dear little peaked roof, “It’s still there!” and we’d all sigh, and lean back in our seats. It was still there. Some comfort, some lingering presence of our history in that place was preserved.

Slowly, both the visits and the remaining relatives dwindled. My siblings moved away, I went abroad for the first time, and then away to college, and we stopped driving by the house together. Yet when my family does gather- a rarity now that none of us live in the same state- reminiscing often turns to the playhouse. When was the last time we drove by? Do the current owners use it, we wonder. Have they added to it? Have they (we don’t like to think about this one too much) torn it down?

Somehow I think it may not be a bad thing that we haven’t set eyes on our playhouse in so many years. As such, it is allowed to hold an untouched, sacred place in our memories.

Perhaps sometimes we go too far in the journey To Know For Sure; maybe some things should be left untarnished. What would we gain, now, from seeing empty or rotting red-painted boards, or even from seeing the house freshly painted with little children running around it? Perhaps it is gone, or perhaps a caring family has built a tiny range and cupboards for the kitchen, placed flowers in the window, hammered down the sharp ends of all the nails in the little attic ceiling.

I never really got to know my grandparents. We lived a few hours away and only spent some holidays together, and obviously I was still pretty young when they died, but sometimes I like to imagine them around my age. Even writing this, it astonishes me to realize that I don’t know the years they were born, though I think it was sometime in the mid or late 20’s (I think Mama was a couple years younger). Both of them grew up during the Great Depression, and my grandfather served as a pilot in World War II, though I do not know where. In the early 50’s, they would maybe be a few years older than I am now, yet they would already be welcoming my mother into the world. Papa would build that playhouse for her and her sister. Did they have to wait until they were five to go into the attic, too? Was it even built by then? How many stories were created, told, forgotten inside those thin wooden walls?

Despite so many questions unanswered, so many stories yet untold and probably many that are quite simply forgotten, I am grateful for the playhouse memories I do have: for tin teacups resting on the peeling white edge of the windowsill, for sitting on Papa’s shoulders and peering in at my siblings in the attic when I was still too young to go inside, and then, of course, for sitting triumphant in my five-year-old dream- finally Upstairs under the heaven of star-studded nails and cobweb galaxies.

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Mary Miles

Mary Miles

Mary Miles

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