The House that Built Me

I don’t have a recipe for you today. This post.. I’ve been writing this post in my head for literally the last year and a half.

If you listen to country music, you might know where it’s going. There’s a song by Miranda Lambert called “The House that Built Me”, about her childhood home. I used to sing along to that song, loving it, but not feeling it in the depths of my soul.

Then, my grandmother died. And the process of disassembling her (and my grandfather’s) home of 30 years began. I had over a year to come to grips with the idea that the house on East Magnolia Avenue would no longer be the anchor that pulled each family member close to the other. I have to tell you, I’m still not to grips with it. Now I can’t hear that song without crying.

My grandparents were not rich, despite what the description of this house might tell you. When they bought it, it was five dilapidated apartments. They, along with my parents, spent the next three years restoring every inch of the historic home. From stripping original wood trim and doors of five layers of paint, to uncovering a stained glass window someone had covered in plywood, they slowly peeled back the secrets of this house while I was a young child, and they did it all with their own two hands.

I think work like that must leave a mark on your soul.

I like to think that my sister and I had pretty idyllic childhood summers. We moved into Nanny and Gaga’s at the beginning of every June, even though the place was only half an hour from our house. It just seemed easier on everyone, and it meant that Chellee and I spent our summers swimming with Nanny in the pool, or gallivanting off to the hardware store with Gaga – unless we were on an RV trip with them into the wilds of Arkansas, Florida, or Missouri, of course.

You have to understand that this house – it’s huge. Over 5,000 square feet and built in 1905. It has a full basement, which is unheard of in South Texas because there’s limestone six feet under the soil. In those summers, my sister and I learned every nook and cranny, every creak and groan, every hiding place a house that size can offer.

We played house in the windowless rooms of the basement, with their musty and familiar scent. Rooms so old the posts that hold up the entire house still have their bark. We ran wild in the back yard every day, usually only wearing a bathing suit and flip flops the whole day long.

We picked blackberries and onions, and ate Nanny’s fresh tomatoes straight off the vine. It was a treat to check the chlorine and pH levels in the pool, counting ever so carefully the red and yellow drops as they dripped into the test tubes.

But so much more than that, we learned the value of our family in those summers. Every weekday, my grandparents, my parents, my two uncles, and sometimes even Nan’s beloved weekly housekeeper, Clemmy, joined around the dining table to eat lunch together. The chimes of Days of Our Lives signaled the beginning of lunch preparations, of which Chellee and I were expected to help. Gaga would lament the ridiculousness of the show, and then watch intently as John and Marlena played out their will-they-won’t-they story.

We’d talk. We’d laugh. We ate the fresh tomatoes Chell and I picked that morning, and nearly every day, my grandfather would offer my dad cottage cheese and have a great big belly laugh, knowing full well my dad abhors the stuff.

As Chellee and I got older, friends, driving, and other plans took us away from those family lunches. But even at age 18, when I had a job in downtown San Antonio, it was just assumed and accepted that I would be home to Nan’s every day for lunch with the rest of the family, since my office was only 10 minutes away. I never questioned it, because – well, it was home.

I’d like to say that the house my parents owned for the first 28 years of my life left such an impression, but it didn’t. I don’t think it did on them either. When they sold it, we all said goodbye, but we didn’t miss it.

I know that each of us aches for the house on East Magnolia. Every sigh that house ever made, ever creak of the thick, solid wood front door sliding open. The feel of the terra cotta front porch tiles warm against your bare skin as you sat down for a chat, lingering over goodbyes with family and friends. Those are the moments that defined our family, tactile representations of the love we hold for each other.

It might sound silly. In fact, I know it does. But oh my, how I miss the musty smell of that basement. When I was back the year before last, my parents had just finished selling the house to a wonderful family with young children. The promise of whole new traditions to fill the house hung in the air, but they were kind enough to allow me to come and say goodbye. The family was not there at the time, only workers making updates.

At the time, I was sad not to meet them and say thank you, but later I realized it was better. You see, it’s kind of impossible to say goodbye to the house that built who you are as a person with other people watching.

As I walked through each room, listening to the creak of the stairs one last time, I remembered Nan chasing me up them with a wooden spoon (Lord knows what I did, but I’m sure I deserved it). I remembered standing on the step stool at the kitchen counter, helping Nanny make cookies for the first time, and being in charge of the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.

I stood in the master bedroom, and remembered so many mornings of climbing into bed with her and Gaga, learning to read by reading the Funnies. The sound of the ceiling fan that always wobbled, but in a comforting way that lulled us to sleep.

It wasn’t until I was standing in the basement, though, that I really mourned the loss of a building which honestly, still feels like part of my soul. As I cried on my mother’s shoulder, I know it wasn’t just the house I mourned. It’s the family structure we had for the first 25 years of my life. The assurance that I could always walk in that front door and be welcomed with a smile and something to eat. That Nan and Gaga would be sitting at the kitchen table, the news on the little TV, sharing the crossword puzzle.

Every Christmas, every birthday, every weekday lunch, was a family event in that house on East Magnolia.

It’s not an easy thing to get over.

What helps, more than anything, though, is imagining that new family in their new place. Three young girls are now learning every nook and cranny, every hiding spot, and every step that groans. My wish for that family is that they have as much joy, as much love, as much togetherness in that house as my family did over the last 30 years.

They will be stronger for it, just like we are. And able to let go when the time is right.

It finally feels right to let go. I’m starting my own family. I’m sad that my son won’t know the house on East Magnolia other than what I tell him about it. But I’m determined to create a similarly loving place for him, wherever we land.

I’ll be able to do that because I learned how in the house on East Magnolia. The house that built me.

The House that Built Me
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  1. Nichole says

    It’s everything– that house, that family, those summers– I wish for my son as he grows up. A blessing I never had, but it’s wonderful to read about.

  2. Jamie says

    Ok you have me crying. I was ok until you talked if crying on your mom’s shoulder. I remember that house. When we came down for your graduation, I remember gathering at the house before we went for brunch at the Officer’s Club. I remember your Nan walking in and standing in front of the fire place. It was like she glided in on the air of laughter and love. She lit up the room. What I remember most is your Nan, as well as the rest of your family, making us feel like family even though it was our first meeting. I also remembering not wanting to leave. I felt that if we had to live away from our family in New Orleans, why couldn’t we live closer to the love of your family.

    • says

      Jamie, I cried a lot while I wrote it. I know what you mean about living away from family. Having tried it over the last decade, I’m ready to go home and be near them. I’m glad you have such good memories of Nan.

  3. Debbie says

    What a beautiful post! I think many of us have a place that is special to us. Mine was East Beach in Charlestown, RI. When I was a kid we actually would drive down the beach which had no road and camp in a camper my dad actually built from an old bread truck. I still visit that beach and can only go so far to the parking area and then walk a bit. I would now need a 4 wheel drive vehicle to drive on it now due to changes in the laws over the years. It is about 3.5 miles of beach with no road down to the breachway. I still tear up just thinking of the time spent there over 50 years ago. This place for me is imprinted on my DNA.

    • says

      Debbie, thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment. You’ve described it perfectly. The house in that picture above is absolutely imprinted on my DNA. Funny how places can do that, isn’t it?

  4. Diane M says

    What a heart felt post I loved reading your memories !
    I have wonderful memories of times with my grandparents
    And these days work on creating memories with my own grandchildren !

  5. says

    Lovely, lovely story, Ams. No matter how sad it seems now, you’re so lucky to have a childhood and family you can remember so fondly. And I know that no matter where you end up, you’ll be able to give the same thing to Evan.

    • says

      My friend Annie reminded me of the Don Draper quote about nostalgia. Applies here, no? I know how lucky we are to have had the childhood we had. As I tell Chell all the time, it hurts in direct correlation to just how much we were loved. We’re doing our best, friend. We want him to know love more than anything else.

  6. says

    I could have written this story; it sure seems we have a similar connection with a house that will remain in my mind forever as something idyllic and heartfelt and warm and just.well, family. My father died a week ago so I’m sure that in all of my remembering your story is most poignant because I’ve gone back to those days, that house filled with my amazing, wonderful, sweet Grandma (my Grandpa too but she was the one that we all adored so much) and those family get togethers. Five kids; most of them with five kids…we had SO much fun; it was total bedlam but in a we all got along and had such fun bedlam that I don’t recall parents ever yelling at us; as long as we kept each other entertained…it was all good.

    I talked to my cousin earlier today and we reminisced about those days and our dads and that Grandma and we both laughed at our shared memory. Why I don’t know Amber but we loved to bump down a set of stairs on our butts…over and over and over. Maybe because we lived in ranch houses and those steps were somehow magical but we both remembered that same silly childhood game. As one commenter mentioned, it is sad yes, but so much more than that it is wonderful that you have those memories, that you had a family that brought everyone together and created such treasures. I can only imagine with those to help lean on just how lucky your boy will be; it’s memory making time for him now and your love for him is palpable. I would love to read him reminiscing one day!

    • says

      Thanks for your sweet comment, Barb. You have my condolences for your dad. Kids do the silliest things, and it’s those silly things that we remember a thousand years later. Chellee and I had many games like that in Nanny’s house. It’s exactly why we’re trying to move home – Evan needs memories like these. Wouldn’t it be something if he’s a writer!

  7. Paula says

    Just sold my parents house as well. Your emotional description and story put into words how I have felt for several weeks. My grandchildren will never know the fun of playing under grandmama’s house in her dirt- floored basement, but I hope to make memories for them in my home. Loved your story. Thanks.

    • says

      Paula, I’m glad this post resonated with you. I’m sure that you will make wonderful memories for your grandkids because your grandparents taught you how. Thank you for your lovely comment.

    • says

      It really is beautiful, isn’t it, Brenda? It’s over in the Monte Vista historical district near downtown. There are actually quite a few houses with basements over there, but I’m not sure why. I know the houses on either side of Nan’s had full basements, and both of those had been turned into apartments.

    • says

      Kathryn, thank you for your sweet words. I know some people prevaricate about sharing non-food things on our sites, but these are our spaces to say what we need to. I needed to say this. It makes my heart warm that no one seems to care there wasn’t a recipe!

  8. says

    I definitely just teared up reading this. You’re such a great writer.

    My grandparents both passed recently (well, within the last 6 years, and it still feel so recent), and my brother lives in their old 1940s house. I love it. Everyone loves that house. And even though it’s so tiny, it’s where everyone wants to be. My grandpa bought it brand new in the 1940s and I think it cost $36,000. Which was a fortune then for my grandpa who was an electrician and my grandma who worked at her sister’s restaurant. The house is worth somewhere around 300k today. Isn’t that crazy? They bought in this area of Dallas that ended up being a hip neighborhood. A lot of neighbors have torn down the old 1940s houses and rebuilt brand new houses, but we’ll never let that happen to our cute family craftsman home.

    Love ya.

  9. Chellee...the "official" Texas Aunt says

    Okay…so, now that I am covered in my own salty tearful and snot oozing mess after reading this post…I have to say THANK YOU sis for putting those thoughts and memories into words. It’s difficult to describe the wonderful feelings that consume me when I think of Nan & Gaga’s home, but you just nailed it! I miss them so much as well as the home. It’s so funny you brought up the chlorine testing, and how it was such a treat to help…everytime I think of building our pool out back I envision my own children getting excited about that, and I hope I can make the chores of maintaining a pool just as fun and rewarding as Nan always did for us. Some of my most favorite memories of her towards the end was when my family lived with her while building our home, and the two of us would go out to the pool to sweep it together, and we would talk and bitch about everything we could think of. Just us women…just like when we were little girls.

    • says

      Chellee, you’re welcome. I think we’ve both been feeling these things for a long time, and I just had to find a way to express it. I hope you get that pool sooner rather than later so we can teach Evan to swim in it and have those memories in YOUR pool. Love you x

  10. Tammy Foster says

    Oh Amber Honey! How wonderful and sweet…….I loved it! I always loved that amazing house and you are right, that house holds an array of LIFE! I did not have years to experience it like the family, but when I WAS there, I WAS family!! I can remember so much laughter, lots and lots of political grumblings and speculation, and in depth discussions of many kinds. I’m so glad a nice family is going to call it home and that it will not be turned into apartment living again. It needs to stay WHOLE! Please feel this great big hug I’m giving you right now ok???? xoxo

  11. Denise B says

    What a BEAUTIFUL story!! What a beautiful childhood!! I’m sure you will do the same for your son. God Bless you and your family. God has your Nanny and Gaga doing a special duty in heaven for all those to come!

  12. says

    What a Blessing Memories are and even more so, Grandparents. This was a beautiful post. I can’t imagine my life without my Nanny&Poppy and the memories we’ve all made together. I’m so sorry for you loss. I couldn’t hold back tears reading this thinking of all the BEAUTIFU memories, I too, have with my Nanny&Poppy. I just recently had My First Baby(My GREATEST dream come true) and boy does life fly once you have children. I’ve learned to make as many memories as possible & take as many pictures as possible because it goes by!

  13. says

    I loved this so much. I feel like I am about to go through a very similar thing. My parents are in the process of selling the home I grew up in, and I haven’t let go yet. I know that moving on will be good for them, but I also know that I’ll mourn the home that’s been mine for 23 years. I’ll have to go back and take pictures like you’ve doneā€¦ Thanks for sharing.

  14. Lindsay says

    With a lump in my throat, I must say this was touching. Beautifully written, and all American. Thank you for sharing these memories, I relate the song to my parents home myself, it’s a beautiful thing to have a childhood safe haven.

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