I haven’t been sleeping well lately – the heat and allergies have conspired together to wake me every few hours and I’ve had some strange dreams that were quickly cut off by a sneeze or an inability to breathe.
But I had a fascinating dream last night that I wanted to share, if only to express the imagery of it and how deeply ingrained some writing has gotten into my unconscious. I’ve dreamt of my grandmother’s old house in Martins Ferry – the house my father grew up in – for a decade now. It was a one-story post-war brick ranch salt box with green carpeting and white walls. It was two hours from my home in Columbus and we spent entire summers there, leaving my parents to their own devices. The kitchen floor was linoleum and there were wooden floors in the bedrooms. I remember staying up late to watch Saturday Night Live re-runs, the 1980s episodes, and listening to the house creak and settle in the heat and bottles shatter on the street outside as kids rode through the night in American muscle cars. This was 1980s rural Ohio and there wasn’t much else to do besides watch classic comedy, play Nintendo games, and drive around in the dark. I was too young to drive.
I learned to whistle in the basement while riding a bike around the central boiler in a space that once seemed large enough to play football in. Grandma Sadie had a fruit cellar down there, which stayed cool all summer, and there she kept her canned goods and jarred vegetables. We spent days down there pretending we were in a cold space ship. There was an old galvanized slop sink where we’d perform chemistry experiments. She also cooled cookies down there and that’s where I went to get my fix of chocolate chips and Buckeye candies. It was, I recall, very heaven. Sadie spoiled us in ways my parents wouldn’t or couldn’t and she had boundless time, giving us her love and attention in ways big and small, that have made search out the same things for my children.
Her home was a place that meant a lot to me. It is a place that I’m slowly coming to understand as integral in my personality. Its something I want to explore in my writing and I’m researching the stories I remember from there before it’s too late. I might write some of them here later.
When I think of her home I always think of the years just before she moved, when I was clear-headed yet still very young. When my grandfather died in my junior year of college I went to help my family clear out the old house. It was hard. The doors were too small and the furniture was old and heavy. You really didn’t have Craigslist so you moved everything and then sorted it out when you got it home. I think we sold a great deal but most of her furniture still exists in my parents house (which they are moving out of right now, incidentally, which could be another source of anxiety.)
For example, my grandfather had an old rocking chair. In my mind, in my memory, the chair was something finely wrought, carved with faces and shapes and endless, curling vines. In reality, a reality that was confirmed to me a few weeks ago when I saw it again up close, it was a simple Ethan Allen rocking chair, far smaller than I remembered it, that my grandfather sat in while he listened the baseball. That chair, that house, my grandparents, and even the surrounding town, have grown up inside me like a riotous garden and even simple confirmation – that wasn’t that fancy a rocking chair but something far more pedestrian – can’t lodge lose those memories. Which is why I dream about them.
The last dream was quite vivid. It was dusk, as it is perennially in the dreams I have of my grandmother’s house, and I was traveling for some reason in an older car, maybe one of my father’s old sedans. I was showing a group around – if I’d have to wager a guess it was a group young start-up founders who needed guidance (which is a pretty mean way for my brain to remind me of my day job in such a poignant dream) – and we came upon a mobile home.
There was a certain type of light that I remember best from Martins Ferry. The town was built on a hill. The old, cheap company housing for the single steel workers was at the bottom of the hill and we were up on North Eighth Street, in a neighborhood of nicer houses for men with families. My grandfather was a steel worker who fought in WWII and sat, probably shell-shocked, every night at the kitchen table where he got one and only one shot of Jack Daniels from my grandmother.
This light defined those times. It was the light of a sun rising overhead and setting at an angle, right into the house, casting long beams through the dust and onto the carpet. The sun was orange and rich and it cast out the gloom of the day and was a harbinger for the creaking night to come. When I dream of Martins Ferry I either dream of the cool basement or that orange light. This time I dreamt of that light.
Inside the mobile home I found my grandmother. She looked tired and hot and I touched her forehead and she had a fever, a mild one. Her hair, which had been thin and white when she died, was grey and thick, like my young daughter’s hair, and she was blind. I held her. It felt so good to hold her and I was worried she was sick. I remember that once when we were staying with her over the summer that she got so sick that she couldn’t get off the couch. I must have been ten. A neighbor called the ambulance but my grandmother was upset because she didn’t want to bother anybody. She was fighting pneumonia and my parents came to get us that afternoon. This was like that. I felt like that pneumonia was back and I was that little kid again, scared and lonely. But she recognized me as an adult, somehow, and smiled.
“They let me come back,” she said. “For a little bit.”
I woke up. I may have said something to her before I did but I don’t remember. I was crying in my dream but not in the 6am gloom of the hotel room I’m in right now. It was a jarring transition. I wish I could have stayed with her. Maybe I said “It’s so good to see you again.” I don’t remember.
But all of that, all of that light, those details, the crate of memories that the experience brought back, is part of me. And we all have it. And it comes to us when we need it, when we need to be creative or strong or when we’re bored. And it’s beautiful and useful. And that’s what all of this writing is made of, these strange feelings of tumbling between sleep and wakefulness, when the light is right and people we knew and loved come back to us and the old fears come back, too, fully-formed and potent.
I texted my wife.
Dreamt I saw grandma Sadie.
That’s a nice dream. Did you sleep better? she replied.
I guess. Still sad.
She is just worried about you she replied.
That’s beautiful and useful. I hope she is.