Monday, December 11, 2006

Grandma and Grandpa's House

My grandparents left Washington state in 1949 and moved as far as their money would take them: Alaska. Anchorage was in its infancy and was little more than a tent city; they lived in a one-room log house until Grandpa, a self-employed contractor, could build them the house which the city eventually grew up around, the same house that they live in today.

In the basement is a two-room apartment where my parents lived while they were home between college semesters. One summer my mother gave birth and that little basement became my first home. Later Grandpa built a four-plex on a third of the property for retirement income and it was successful enough that he built another apartment building with six units on the remaining third next to his immaculately organized wood shop.

When my parents were ready to settle permanently in Anchorage they lived in one of those apartments while they saved money for a house and when Andrew and I came back to Anchorage ten years ago we lived in the same apartment while we too saved for a home. Two of my children were born while we lived there.

I celebrated my fifth birthday in Grandma's garage with a long folding table and all the relatives gathered around a drooping teddy bear cake. While running in new patent leather shoes I tripped on the pebbled walkway that ran between the her house and our apartment and cut my eyebrow--my first time getting stitches. I started kindergarten during that time and each day made the two-block trek of which the highlights were feeding the neighbor's pet, Star the Reindeer, a carrot on the way to school and then visiting Grandma on the way home.

Every year at Christmas my family and my uncle's family gathered at Grandma's house for Christmas dinner and a chance to play with the cousins. When I was in high school I had to write an entrance essay and I wrote about my Grandmother's house and how she mopped her garage floor and had a fabulous Button Box, an ancient hand-cranked ringer washing machine and plastic chickens and ducks she put out in her garden every year.

But this year will be different because Grandma and Grandpa have decided that they can't take care of the apartments any more, the taxes on the place are killing them and they won't raise rents enough to cover the rising costs. Grandpa can't take care of the maintenance issues like he used to and can get dizzy when he stands for too long. They've decided that it's time to move.

Because the property is one big piece of land they can't sell the apartments separate from the house. So the whole lot is on the market and they have bought a condo in a senior retirement community. One of the brand new complexes going up around town with a swimming pool, an elevator, a garage, even a woodshop for Grandpa to putter around in. It's very safe and has all the amenities a octogenarian couple could want.

I'm glad they've found someplace comfortable that fits their needs, where they can relax from the stress of maintaining apartments, where Grandma won't break her hip while trying to shovel her front steps, but to leave the home they've known for fifty years where they've raised their three children and where at least five of their fourteen grandchildren have lived is an upheaval that hurts to watch.

Grandpa will have a shop but it won't be his shop, with his screws organized and labeled in baby food jars on the peg board and his own jar of candy by his own radio playing horrible country western music. That really twangy, Patsy Cline variety.

They're trying now to sort through fifty years of treasures, trying to figure out how to live with less--for Grandma this means giving up her empty 1976 Mason jars that she's sure must be worth too much to just give away to charity. I've taken as many as I can but I just don't do as much canning as she did.

The darkest secret is that when the land sells, and if not this time then the next time around, the value of such a prime piece of downtown property will be too much for a developer to resist and the house will be demolished--and possibly the other buildings too--to make room for the fancy town homes that are mushrooming around town. Someone will knock down a $60,000 house and replace it rows of condos that will sell for $600,000 apiece. I don't think I want to be here to see that. I hope it doesn't happen in Grandma and Grandpa's remaining time.


Anonymous said...

Wow....what a story!
What a family!
Yeah my grandfather and his wife are moving from their home of over 50 years to an EVEN BIGGER home....but on Vancouver Island.
Fifty years of stuff to pack at the age of 90.
And the house will be pulled down.

And yeah..hands grabbing those foamy things....ick!!!!

Anonymous said...

That's a great post.
I hope your grandparents enjoy their new life. I wish for you to maintain those memories for your children and keep that home alive for many more years to come.

Belle said...

That is so always breaks my heart to see something like that happen.

I do hope when it does happen, that it doesn't trouble your grandparents (or you or your family) too much. I know it's cliche, but hold on to the wonderful memories you all have of the place.

Jenny said...

This story brought me to tears.

Thanks you for sharing it. So personal and beautiful.

Jeana said...

I love reading all of the memories. The change is sad, but...

My grandmother is getting married next year and I know it will be sad to say good-bye to the house my grandfather built and where I've spent every Christmas Eve since I was born; but moving her things out under these circumstances is so much happier than moving them out under the circumstances I always imagined.

What is a Button Box?

Waya said...

I love reading about other people's history and lives. I just hope they don't demolish that house during your Grandparents' time too, or ever.

Carinne said...


Anonymous said...

It's too bad you and your husband couldn't buy the land, just to keep it in the family...or if you could pool together with siblings or something. Then again, i am a sentimental freak. Not very good with the financial side of life--when it comes to this stuff anyway. I hope your grandparents enjoy their new home--sounds nice and posh!

Anonymous said...

Touching. When I was 12 my parents had to sell the family farm in Ohio. I didn't understand it then, but now it makes me so sad. My husbands family still lives in that area so I drive by occasionally. The house and barn are still there, but the land has been parceled off. I keep saying I want to take my kids and walk the property, so many memories. Maybe I will do it when we are there for the holidays.

Anonymous said...

btw I thought of you when I was hanging laundry today! :)

Dana said...

Great story. I also concur with your sentiments regarding that sort of "gentrification."

Cece said...

What a great story. I can't imagine how hard it must be for your grandparents to have to give that up. Very heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing that piece of your family with us.

J said...

Oh yeah, that's what would happen around here too. Sigh.

We had to move my grandma out of her house last year...she had been there for over 50 years, and my grandpa had physically built the structure himself, using old railway cars because lumber was short (WWII). It was really hard. She's better off where she's living now, but it really doesn't make it any easier.

scribbit said...

I know I'm sentimental about the whole thing and honestly, my husband and I looked at the idea of pooling resources with the other family members but those of us who could invest in the real estate don't have time or means to keep up apartments. They're a lot of work and I'm spending entirely too much time blogging as it it.

I know it's "just stuff" that it's just a house but I can't help but feel for them. And actually, they seem to be taking it better than I am--they're rather excited now that the papers are signed whereas I'm sniffing all over the place.

chelle said...

Wow, what an amazing time for you family. Sad and exciting at the same time. I can only imagine the treasures that will be found!

Damselfly said...

That "knock down an old house to build a bigger one" business seems to be happening everywhere. My husband's grandfather's home is in a neighborhood where a certain style of homes built in the 1920s and 1930s are slowly being forgotten because people are coming in to build McMansions that take up nearly every inch of the property. As a result, the neighborhood looks like quite a hodgepodge now: fancy behemoths with pavers and iron gates next to humble little homes that still have yards. It's really strange.