Putting Home on the “What-Not Shelf”

This year’s pilgrimage to my Grandparent’s house brought sadness that surpassed the dire feelings from when it was destroyed once before by a tornado.


That year the local news and USA TODAY broadcast pictures of the house on Wolfe Street. It had been lifted entirely off the foundation and turned 90 degrees in what looked like a thumb in the face of the neighborhood. Inside, my Granddaddy S.L. and middle sister, huddled, screamed and fretted out the freak storm. Water spewed out of the broken pipes at the rear of the house. The small porch hung like a ball cap toward the neighbor’s window. Outside, the wind raced thru the canyon of backyards but only touched, for twenty seconds, the little house at 3310.

The house was saved and rebuilt with Government Relief funds to nearly new. The reporter’s came back and the neighbor’s wondered aloud just why it was the only one saved…the only new house on the block. New trees were planted as well, but someone came in the night and pulled the saplings out of the ground. Maybe in private protest for a good thing that did not carry over to their untouched dwelling. Maybe, just hating.

Two years ago Granddaddy S.L. carried his greatest stories to the grave. A year or less before he passed I had driven down and spent a weekend with him at 3310 S. Wolfe Street. The house was a shadow of itself when I arrived and found the screen door ajar and sagging on the hinge. Before entering or knocking, I retrieved my tool box, tightened screws and stapled down the fraying screen. He emerged from the kitchen to the sounds of those repairs and gave a joyous grin. He was once photographed and used in a Carnation Milk advertisement while young and living the life in St. Louis. As kids we loved seeing that picture on the What-Not Shelf, along with the tokens and trinkets of our lives, in the parlor. Here it was again.

It was a good visit for the both of us. No one bothered us for those two days and we sat and talked and laughed and lied until we nodded asleep on that familiar porch in the setting evening light. We awoke to actual lightening bugs, went inside, and did the same a few minutes later, sitting in the parlor.

He remembered that on Music Nights during Summer visits  I always picked the 45 RPM by Wilson Picket: “634-5789“. The stereo still played. All of those vinyl records were still there after forty years. We played the music and talked about those Summer vacations with spent taking turns playing the records and napping on the heavy quilt pallets with siblings and cousins. We talked about fishing and all the dreams that he and MaDear had for us. Then, he told me something that made looking at this house right now from the curb such a hard pill to swallow. He said, “James Chris, Luevenia always said that you could make this house laugh like nobody else. You can still do that, Son”.

From the curb that little, pale green house at 3310 South Wolfe is padlocked and dark around the edges. After Granddaddy S.L.’s death my Aunt tried to live there but returned to public housing a year ago with her very ill and diabetes-blinded husband. Her son has taken on the task of slowly recovering and repairing the house, but he is in the richness of his career with travels and seminars and his star rising. We are all gone back to Texas, just like at the end of Summer vacation. Our children never knew the slam of that screen door or the sounds of early R&B, old gut-bucket Blues or the lilting cajoles of Minnie Ripperton from the stereo in the parlor with the plastic covered, white couch. It all seems ridiculous to them with their mobile-minded world in our houses that make this one look like a garage.

Putting my car into gear and preparing to drive away I am struck by a thought of that over-burdened What-Not (to touch) shelf from the parlor above the box stereo. I left the engine idling and walked down from the curb for a look through the uncurtained, front window to see that it still hung there. Along the top shelf are the fading Polaroids of the dwellings that we had called home over the years. Everyone sent home snapshots whenever a new home was purchased. Right there, just behind the paling images of those house photos, is the age-browned corner of the old USA TODAY banner. There is no electricity, but at that moment a burst of afternoon sunlight races into the house from the barren windows, then faltered slowly and darkness reclaims the dust particles like wayward children.

I got back to the car, staring at the familiarity of this forever changed place that has always stilled my heart. I smiled knowing that it’s going to be alright. That paper has to be from the Tornado story. The story of how this old house, the people and everything in it, has been turned around…once  already.

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