ooking out from the porch of my grandmother's house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, you don't see muchother small houses with honeysuckle bushes and neat, square yards; a pale rim of sky; a pair of crooked pine trees; and, on summer days, a visible shimmer of heat, almost jellylike, just above the surface of the flat paved road.
By objective standards, it's not a view full of promise or solace. Yet, several years ago, when I needed a home for a displaced child, a grieving and willful and often difficult young girl, I sent her straight to this spot. I put her directly down on this porch to consider the stolid, homely landscape and, I hoped, to learn to be consoled by it. The girl was named Mia, and the reason I could put her wherever I wanted was that I invented her. She was the main character in a novel I was trying to write.
I didn't know much about writing a novel, but it seemed like a good bet to appropriate my grandmother's house for its setting. Because I did know this placethe one constant of my own childhoodbetter than almost anywhere else.
When I was growing up, my family moved often, rarely living in the same house for more than two years. We changed neighborhoods, schools, states, sometimes even countries. But, from anywhere, you could come back here, open the car door, smell the peculiar, familiar mix of spearmint and gravel dust along the driveway, andthat fastyou would have your bearings. This was the place I counted on for the simple mystery of its being unchanging and true.
My grandmother's house, on East Burton Street, was built in the 1920s of timber logs, stained dark brown and chinked with white mortar, giving it the sort of chocolate-and-vanilla-striped look that you see on old log structures around the Southern countryside. It's something of an anomaly on this street of brick, stone, and stucco dwellings, but it shares the kind of stalwart, almost resolute, stance of its neighbors, which were all built between the world wars.
It reassured us, in summertime, to belong to such a solid place. It taught us much about who we were. The log house was apt to fill up on a July afternoon with uncles and great-aunts and second cousins once removed, sitting in the living room with the shades lowered against the heat, telling family stories, sometimes in dropped voices that made you listen all the harder. This was where I first heard the words paramour and tipsy. But also jurisprudence and civil rights, both having to do with members of our own family.
It was a house where we could climb to the attic, sit down on the straw rug in the sweet, stifling air, and read through stacks of Little Lulu or Iodine or Nancy and Sluggo comic books, their pages softened and blurred by light and heat and time. We could play with toyspuppets, soldiers, a marble shooter, a wheezing accordionthat were played with by our fathers, our uncles, and our cousins before. And it was a house filled with photographs of the people we hadn't had a chance to know. Our great-grandfather, the judge, with his full white mustache. Aunt Idalee, her cheeks tinted to a maiden's blush. Our kind-faced grandfather, who woke up one bright morning in this very house, got up from bed, and fell to the floor, dead of a heart attack at age fifty.
In all, this log house was a veritable museum of who we were, and my grandmother found her calling in being its tireless curator. She drew us there, as many of her eleven grandchildren as she could get those summers, and she taught us thingsnot just the catechism of family but also how to sew on a button and how to peel a peach. She set up a card table in her living room, and we learned to shuffle and deal like card sharks. She taught us slapjack and hearts and crazy eights. At night, we sat out in her big green porch swing, which could hold five or six of us at once, and played parlor games from her own childhood"the whole stagecoach turned over" or "button-button"until the dark really settled around us and the house cooled down enough for us to sleep.
Grandma let us drink Coca-Cola, which we weren't allowed to have at home. She bought us packs of Teaberry gum and Cracker Jacks, and each week while we were staying at her house she had a tin of fresh potato chips delivered from the Charles Chips man. She liked spoiling us, but she had certain expectations, too. In her house, we were no longer just citizens of the wide world, we were citizens of her world, where the standards were higher. Here, we had to part our hair straighter and give up nail biting. My grandmother fussed over the clothes wed brought with us, bleaching our socks whiter, tacking up droopy skirt hems. We had to be on guard against "acting ugly"telling a lie, for instance, or smacking each other. Anybody who acted ugly was handed a little paring knife and told: "Go on out now and cut a switch."
I don't remember if anybody ever actually got a switching. What I do remember is trudging alone through the steamy backyard with the little knife, considering and rejecting each thin new branch of the peach tree or the mock-orange bush, just imagining its sting. Already, I regretted whatever I'd done. Already, I'd decided I would just be good.
Murfreesboro, set in the exact geographic center of Tennessee, just at the edge of the large shadow cast by Nashville, was growing fast in the early and mid-1960s, those years we spent our summers there. New roads and entire neighborhoods materialized on treeless plots that had recently been cow pastures. The state college became the state university. The population neared twenty thousand. My grandmother didn't bemoan these changes. She liked the bigger stores and the take-out barbecue places. She admired the new houses with their brick patios, their automatic dishwashers. And she could find her way without trouble through the maze of new highway. But to us, it seemed as if she always had some private link with the true heart of the city, with the Murfreesboro where she was born and once knew every family in town.
When our socks were white enough and our fingernails clean enough, she would load us into her 1949 Plymouth and wed drive down the shady old streets, past my great-aunts house, down to the town square, dominated by the tall nineteenth-century courthouse where my great-grandfather had served as judge. We'd park the car and go into old stores with dusty floors and ceiling fans that twirled idly overhead. We'd go on to the Murfreesboro Bank, where my grandfather had worked until the day in 1945 he died. In every place, it was the same. A woman would come from behind a counter and greet my grandmother by name. "And who are all these sweet children?" the woman would ask. My grandmother would turn to look each time, as if astonished at the luck of finding us there, next to her, wearing the shoes she'd recently shined, the skirts she'd hemmed, the faces that took their noses and eyes and shy smiles from the very photographs on her walls.
"Why," she'd say, "these are my grandchildren."
It's not that we ever forgot moments like this, but as we got older and didn't count ourselves among the sweet children any longer, we didn't go back to the log house so often. We meant to, but we didn't. We moved on, in both distance and imagination, to another kind of lifenew friends, loud music, summers near a beach. Still, my grandmother never gave up on us. She sent long letters that reached us at summer jobs or college dorms or in foreign countries. They were letters full of simple family stories and weather reports and newspaper clippings, but they carried much more. Somehow, they carried the very essence of a soft Tennessee night spent in a porch swing, pressed arm to sticky arm with cousins, waiting for the thrilling peak of the game when the whole imaginary stagecoach would turn overand not understanding yet that, in all your life, you would never feel this safe again.
That's why, so many years later, I placed Mia on this porch to start her story. She was a small character in need of someplace safe. So I gave her the porch swing, and I gave her other things I knew about my grandmother's house: the thin slant of sunlight across the kitchen table, the pattern of knotholes in the pine-paneled back bedroom, the dust motes that would fly up if Mia beat her fist against the back of the scratchy red sofa in the living room. I knew the low, steady hum of the refrigerator and the chlorine taste of the water that came from the tap. Just to know these details made the story clearerand more realfor me. I began to understand what had to happen in the next chapter, and the next. I think it was only because of the log house that I was ever able to get this first book written.
I didn't give Mia everything, though. Her house was in a town called Ionia instead of Murfreesboro. She didn't get any family photographs or the marble shooter or the old comic books. Most important, her house was not built of logs. All of those things belonged to us. I could never just give away what my grandmother had held on to for so long.
And my grandmother did hold on. She held on through a time when her neighborhood changed, when the well-built small houses, long shunned for the new subdivisions, were suddenly popular with young couples again, when people would stop and knock at her door and ask if she'd like to sell her log house.
She held on when she was in her eighties and went outside early one morning to get her newspaper, tripped on her front stepping-stones, and broke her hip. She lay in the chill morning air until it was light enough for somebody to find her and call the ambulance. She went into the hospital for surgery and then into physical therapy, and, defying all the doctors' predictions, she walked and she came home. She held on until the time came, as she had undoubtedly always known it would, when we all came back, more and more often, so that our own children could spend time in the log house. She held her "sweet great-grandbabies." She rocked them in the green porch swing.
My grandmother died in her sleep a few months after her ninety-first birthday. It took another full year before any of us could stand to let the log house go. In that year, I started my novel, already reclaiming the house before it was quite gone. I don't think I would have dreamed of setting pesky Mia down on that porch while my grandmother was alive. Mia acted ugly. My grandmother would have sized her right up and sent her out to cut a switch. End of story.
The last time I went to the house was just before it was sold, a scorching-hot June day. We all arrived from Massachusetts and North Carolina and Ohio with rental trucks and vans. We took down the photographs, and we divided the furniture and all the other things. Somehow, I was too late for the marble shooter, but I got my grandmother's button box, which we'd used for those games of button-button. I can think now of how we sat night after night in a row on the porch swing, hands cupped in front of us, while my grandmother, standing, moved from child to child to child, ready to slip a thin bone button into one lucky pair of hands.
"Hold fast what I give you," she would say to each of us, touching her hands to ours. "Hold fast what I give you."
Excerpted from A Certain Somewhere by Robert Wilson. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.