They had a Dodge Dakota in the driveway, and the front license plate said “Dakota.”
I was always good with directions, and at the age of three, I believe I could have told you exactly how to get from my house in Irvine to my Nanny and Papaw’s house in Danville. It was a forty-five minute drive, and I never recall complaining about the trip, even though we traveled there a lot. Along the way, my sister and I always pointed out two sights in particular: the pink farmhouse that looked like our Barbie house and the trailer park where our great-great aunt Unkie lived. No matter how many times we visited Nanny and Papaw, there was always a sense of excitement as we turned onto Erskine Drive. The first thing I always noticed was Papaw’s red and white Dodge Dakota; it was an older truck, and its condition never changed. Nanny had a champagne Chrysler Shadow, and it was just as unchanging as Papaw’s Dakota. Both vehicles had front license plates that told what type of car they were. This was always odd to me, but I never mentioned it to anyone. Our trip up the driveway and through the carport always smelled the same: gasoline.
They had a storm door, complete with extra creaks.
Hailey and I would wait as Mom would go to knock on the door. Opening their storm door was so noisy that she didn’t really need to knock, but she did anyway. It never took long for Nanny to get to the door. Even in her old age, she was spry and full of energy.
“Oh, my sweet girls! How are you? Ohhh, I’ve missed you. Come on in.”
We were met with hugs and showered in kisses. But only by Nanny. Across the kitchen, Papaw would be relaxing in the den, and it never failed that he would be wearing the same exact outfit that he had worn the last time we had visited: a long sleeved chambray button-up shirt and blue jeans. Denim on denim.
They had two recliners in the den.
Papaw had his chair, as all men do, and he rarely moved from it. The recliner on the left was his seat of choice. I always preferred the small leather sofa on the far wall. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it had great lines and a mid-century modern shape. Sitting there made me feel kind of chic. Our visits always started out in the den. We would sit and talk a little, and I would always make a note of the unchanging décor. The pictures on the shelves were black and white photos of my Poppi when he was a kid and old baby pictures of my cousins and me. On the back wall hung a Garfield puzzle that my Uncle Brent had completed as a child. Above Papaw’s chair was a picture of a house that my Aunt Stacy had quilted out of vibrant fabrics. It was homey and a showcase of their family, just the way a den should be.
They had two bedrooms.
After a quick chat in the den, Nanny would always take just the girls to her bedroom to give us something to take home or to show off her latest sewing project. The one Nanny always took us to looked like a young girl’s room. It was bright with white furniture and an iron day bed. Her church clothes always hung on the back of the door. I always just assumed this was Nanny’s bedroom. While she was in there letting Mom take a look at her latest quilting endeavor, I would often sneak into the other bedroom. This room was much more serious. There was a black iron bed and a stark dresser and a vanity that was covered in jewelry. The jewelry was the only source of chaos in this room, and otherwise, everything was in its place. I always just assumed that this was Papaw’s bedroom. I never asked their sleeping arrangements, and I don’t know why I assumed they slept in separate rooms. I guess I just figured that’s what old people did.
They had a blue bathroom and an amber living room.
Usually, I would dart to the bathroom as soon as we arrived at Nanny and Papaw’s, and it was never any less of a shock to me. Their bathroom was blue, and when I say blue, I don’t just mean the walls were blue. So were the tiles, the toilet, the pedestal sink, the bathtub, the rugs, the curtains, the towels, the shower curtain, the toilet water. Everything. The same shade of blue. Their toothbrushes might have even been blue. That much of one color would normally be an assault on the eyes, but there was something about it that I liked. Blue porcelain was almost exotic to me in the late nineties, and the thought of something being completely submerged in the same aquatic hue was surreal, at best.
Their bathroom was blue, but their living room was a complimentary and much more subdued shade of amber. Nanny collected things made of amber, so I guess she found that decorating her living room around this collection was a logical idea. Her golden glass pieces were the centerpiece as they sat on a table between two chairs by the window. I was often mesmerized by the way the light would pass through the various objects: several vases, a little basket, a small shoe. I was also intrigued by other things in the living room. On the side table were wedding photos from each of their grandchildren’s weddings. I would always stop and look at my aunts and uncles all dressed up in the crazy wedding styles of the mid-eighties: big hair and big sleeves for the women; cheesy mustaches for the men. The couch in the living room was covered in a bizarre forest-themed fabric full of orange birds and wood. It always felt good, silky and cold, so I liked it despite the hideous pattern.
They had a kitchen table that took up the entire room.
My fondest memory from visits at Nanny and Papaw’s involved the kitchen. At some point during all the adult chatter, Nanny would come over to me.
“I have something for you in the kitchen,” she would whisper. And I always knew exactly what it was as I followed her into the other room.
“Now, don’t tell your mom I’m giving you this,” she would tell me as she placed a giant brownie and an equally massive scoop of vanilla ice cream into a bowl. I always liked thinking that this was a big secret between Nanny and me. But, of course, my mom always knew what was happening. This special secret must have ended when I was around five or six years old because I never remember Hailey being involved. It wouldn’t have been like Nanny to leave her out.
This kitchen was also where I learned to drink unsweet tea at the age of four. At Nanny’s, you almost had to drink the unsweet tea. Her sweet tea was so full of sugar that it would leave a film on your teeth that was the consistency of maple syrup. I liked sugar, but never that much. I also learned that I liked bran muffins, or I at least liked Nanny’s bran muffins. She always had a Tupperware container full of them on her washing machine in the kitchen. And I always ate one or at least took some home to enjoy later. I remember they were really, really moist.
They had a Japanese maple and a red wooden swing in the backyard.
Our visits always ended in the backyard. Hailey and I would run around and play on the swing by the Japanese maple. Nanny’s house was where I ended up falling in love with the deep fuchsia and maroon shades of a Japanese maple’s rubbery leaves. I would always catch myself gazing at it during our young girl games. While we were letting off some energy, Nanny would show Mom her latest gardening ventures. She loved to garden. So did Papaw. Sometimes he would come over and show Hailey and me his tomato plants, but usually he would just come outside and wait for us to leave while he sat in his designated chair on the carport. Nanny’s flowerbed was always full of black-eyed susans, tulips, and primroses. This mish-mash of colors and textures grew wild and beautiful in their contained space. She always tried to dig up some flowers for Mom to take home, and even though Mom doesn’t really tend to her garden that much, those primroses from Nanny still bloom every year.
Saying goodbye was never the fun part, but luckily for us, it always meant more hugs and kisses. As we walked to the car, Nanny and Papaw would stand in the carport telling us how much they loved us. As we drove away, they would continue to wave until we were out of sight.
Every visit to Nanny and Papaw’s house feels exactly the same in my memory. Seventeen years of visits. So many summer Saturdays. Each and every one exactly the same. Always.
In the summer of 2005, Nanny and Papaw died in a car accident. You aren’t supposed to lose your great-grandparents in such a tragic and sudden way, but part of me is somewhat glad that I did. Because of the wreck, I never had to visit Nanny and Papaw in the hospital. I never had to watch their health slowly deteriorate. I never had to see them suffer.
My last visit to their house was the last time I saw them. And my memories of them will always remain positive and unchanging. The sun will be shining, and the primroses will always be in bloom. Papaw will always be in his designated chair in every room. Nanny’s church clothes will always be hanging on the back of the bedroom door. The bathroom will always be blue, and I will always taste that unsweet tea. In my mind, my last memory of Nanny and Papaw will always consist of a visit full of love and a long wave goodbye in the driveway that continued until we were out of sight.