My Grandfather's House
My grandfather bought a house and moved it across town. Two houses, actually. The two-bedroom, one-bath homes were transported on the back of a flatbed truck up the streets of Daly City, California, and dropped on an open plot of land in front of the home he shared with my grandmother. Every summer he told me the story. I stared at the nub of his index finger—an accident from the days when he worked in a logging camp—as he traced the route the structures took from John Daly Boulevard up Mission Street to Frankfort Avenue. The moving houses must have creaked when they took the sharp right onto his street. It was an almost unbelievable feat of engineering and expense to a girl living in rented apartments with my mom and sister. He had three homes and we had none. Part of the mystery was accepting that this was the same man who refused to pay for a full fish, making fish chowder from the cheapest heads and tails he could find. All of his clothes, even his underwear, were from thrift stores. He didn’t open his billfold easily.
My grandmother was—and I am—from the Karuk Tribe in Northern California. Karuk people traditionally lived in plank houses made of cedar. Low to the ground, they are wide with no windows and have gently tilting roofs. Wood on wood on wood. I have only ever seen tiny replicas in dioramas at museums. Tiny brown figures with no facial features stand frozen outside. There was no door, only an oval entrance that had to crawled through; an ingenious design to discourage bears from surprise visits. At the center of each home was a dug-out area for a fire. The smoke escaped out the top and the earth held in the heat, keeping the heart of the building warm. When my grandmother was born in 1913, most Karuk people lived in what I was taught to picture when I thought of a home; front door, porch, steps, and two windows like eyes. I only learned later that a home can take on many shapes and have different meanings.
My grandfather spent his childhood traveling and working on farms with his mother and seven siblings. They were Irish, Scottish, and a mix of other backgrounds that was never clear—but mostly they were poor and itinerant. Like thousands of others looking for a place to live and work, the family ended up in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. My grandfather must have looked like the messy-haired kids in Dorothea Lange’s famous black and white photo of the migrant mother and her children. Did those years of movement and no permanent residence make my grandfather want to settle down? Two not-quite-finished homes sitting in the front yard made a good excuse not to leave. To me, they were permanent structures, wedged tightly in between homes on either side. But my mom remembered a time when they weren’t there. She watched my grandfather clear the lot to make room for the buildings, moving the sandy dirt one truckload at a time.
Daly City sits south of San Francisco, on the strip of land between the bay and the ocean. On a clear day, after the fog blew away, I could see both the Bay Bridge and the ocean from my grandparent’s kitchen window. From my tiptoes, I watched the BART train rush back and forth as it moved passengers, pretending this was a trolley carrying kings and animals in my personal Land of Make-Believe. The area was settled by a dairy farmer, John Daly, for his cows and milk processing. Refugees fleeing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake came to the area and many decided to stay. My grandparents moved there in the 1940s before many of the streets were even paved. Daly City grew rapidly and by the early 1970s, the city leaders decided to widen the boulevard named after the famous dairyman. Everything in the way of the expansion had to be moved or destroyed. The buildings were auctioned off quickly and, knowing my grandfather, cheaply.
My grandfather held my little-girl hand when we walked the streets of Daly City. He squeezed if he wanted me to look at something on the street. One squeeze for a dog wearing a sweater. Three squeezes for a black man and white woman walking together. He wouldn’t say anything, only point his chin in their direction. This confused me because he was a white man married to a Native American woman. “That’s different,” he probably would have said.
My mother, my little sister and I moved around Oregon and Washington State throughout my childhood. We changed homes every two years. We lived in duplexes, apartments, A-frames without plumbing, and a white three-story owned by a couple going through a divorce. We moved for better-paying jobs, or at the beginning and end of my mother’s relationships, or when she couldn’t afford the rent. It was a mobile life, but it wasn’t unstable. My grandfather’s houses were always waiting for us in Daly City. Every Christmas, summer vacation, spring break, and long weekend my mother took us back there. If we left after school on Friday I could be eating sourdough waffles with my grandparents on Saturday morning. I always thought my mother took me there so I could be close to my grandparents. Now I wonder if she was going for herself.
Each year that the homes sat empty, the likelihood of them getting finished decreased. The garage door of one would open like an inverse drawbridge and expose the piles of thrift store treasures that sprouted like mushrooms in between thick wooden beams holding up the structure. My grandfather’s old black truck, a boat covered in a dusty tarp, and stacks of sinks he had rescued from the dump crowded the space. The clutter was spooky and fascinating. By high school, I was ashamed of the hulking buildings even if, truthfully, I couldn’t wait to get back to them. None of my friends lived in homes that were surrounded by empty half-habitable buildings. As a teenager, when he told me stories about the flatbed truck and John Daly Boulevard, I snuck my headphones on and nodded occasionally to pretend I was listening. When he watched the news at night I either left the room or argued with him when he complained about “the blacks over in Oakland.”
From the outside, the two structures looked worn but normal although no one lived inside. When I was a teenager, my grandfather showed me the blueprints of a comfortable modern home for him and my grandmother to retire in and another simple home to rent. But a protracted legal battle with the neighbor about the property line sapped his energy and money. He was thinner and paler each time we visited. Eventually, the lawsuit was settled in his favor but by then he was in his seventies, and although he couldn’t do the work himself, he refused to hire anyone to complete the remodel.
The first house my mother bought was a motel room. Or rather, a former motel room converted into a small house. I was in college by then and only had to stay there during breaks. The bathroom was so small I could only turn to the left, not to the right. Inside it was dark with fake wood paneling. She was proud to have bought her own place, no matter how small and dark. The winter I was a college junior the pipes froze while we were visiting my grandparents. My mother and I returned to find cold water gushing over the shaggy brown carpet. I hated that place and felt it was a step backward for us as a family.
While my grandfather’s houses sat empty, unplumbed and cold, my grandparents remained in their old house on the hill above the street. Their floors were covered in linoleum the color of soot, and the dimly-lit shower required constant vigilance for the Black Widow spiders lurking in the rotting walls. But there was a tiny gas heater in the kitchen that kept it warm enough to help my grandfather’s sourdough starter come to life. Cancer found a home in his body. When my mother called to tell me grandpa Floyd had died, there was sadness but also a relief because of the pain he has been in for years. “Who’s going to finish those houses now?” was my next thought.
My mother and her sisters helped my grandmother apply for a low-interest loan from the city to finally complete the remodel. The summer of my junior year of college, before the remodel was completed, I brought my boyfriend to stay with me at grandma’s. Returning from a night out, he and I lingered inside the empty building. He had a soft voice, skin the color of an almond, and irresistible bright eyes that twinkled even in the darkness. We made love on the landing above the soon-to-be-built stairs. It felt romantic and rebellious partly because I knew my grandfather wouldn’t have approved of me dating a Mexican boy. When the remodel was finished, I walked through the new rooms and was underwhelmed. The insides were unspectacular; two bedrooms, one bath, under a low ceiling. I pictured my grandfather shaking his head, saying, “tsk, tsk,” like he used to do, hating that his lifelong project had been completed quickly by strangers. All the years of passing through the cluttered garage seemed to have been forgotten. In a few months, my grandmother’s address went from the hidden old house on the hill to the nicest, newest home on the street. Years later when my grandmother was living there, I would look at the spot where we had made love and blush with the memory.
I have lived in the same house in Austin for over a decade. It is the only home my children know. It seemed big and beautiful when the realtor showed it to us but now all I see are cracked siding and narrow doorways. People who visit probably wonder why the walls are mostly bare. I didn’t decorate my rooms as a child growing up. Why make a room or a house reflect me when sooner or later I would be moving on? It is a one-story, two-bath, popcorn-ceilinged affair. We took a long time picking it out, making compromises on location and layout. I was pregnant and as my due date approached, the options became foggier. Eventually, I tired of looking. Did my grandfather have trouble deciding which ones to buy and move? Maybe it came down to what he could afford and where the wrecking ball was headed. My husband and I were young and I made sure we could afford it. I don’t open my billfold easily. Staying at this address has meant stability and I want that for my children. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Maybe I want it for myself. But I do miss the hope that comes with a new place. The excitement of picking which room would be mine, finding a secret door to an overgrown backyard, or being the fifth-grader with my very own wood stove (completely unsafe but thrilling).
He bought those buildings to meet his idea of what a home should be—even if he had rarely lived in one. Maybe a magazine or book showed him what homes were supposed to be. On my computer, I look at the street views of Daly City, tracing the route leading up Mission Street to their street. The new owners have painted the outside and remodeled the entryway, but the large windows facing the street make them unmistakable. I imagine winning the lottery, buying them back, and sitting in the sandy backyard on a barely warm summer afternoon. Maybe my grandfather would shake his head and call me foolish. The physical structures weren’t what was important. He was doing everything he knew to give us what he never had as a child, a permanent home, a stable foundation on which to build our lives.
House Hunters is my favorite show. I’m embarrassed to watch something so clueless about disparities in wealth and privilege but I can’t stop myself. Whenever I travel for work and have to stay in a hotel, the first thing I do is find HGTV and see when the next episode is on. Of the various models of the show, I like House Hunters International the best. The people who want something authentic but also the same as what they left in the U.S. are the funniest. Their idea of what a home should look like regardless of geography or culture is cemented into their consciousness. A home can give you what you need whether it is an apartment, a hogan, a yurt, or even an unfinished building. But I am taken in by the possibilities of all those different versions of a dwelling. River rock showers, indoor/outdoor fireplaces, or a rooftop deck with a view of the Caribbean Ocean seem like attainable fantasies. It gives me ideas. This must have been what my grandfather felt like when he looked at the blueprints for his house.
When my daughter was born, the first place I went to was my grandmother’s house in Daly City. By then she had lived in the remodeled home for twenty years. A skylight lit up the bathroom, ensuring no Black Widows hid in the corners. My husband and I took a cab up the steep street and I ran to the front door with the baby. I could barely wait to bring my daughter into the building my flawed grandfather chose sixty-five years earlier. She was my first child and I was uncertain about every choice I made from the cloth diapers we used to letting her cry it out. I felt no uncertainty about giving her this. We ate sourdough waffles and I told the story of the flatbed trucks moving the house we were standing in and everything that had happened since it was dropped in the lot. I wanted my husband to understand that this was more than a house and what made it important to me. I wanted to tell him that the house and the man who bought the house weren’t perfect but they were what I had been given and what I had to give. Each night of our visit, my grandmother sat in her afghan-covered chair and rubbed my daughter’s feet as she cooed. The cookbooks my grandfather collected from his favorite thrift store were still on the shelves and his hopes were in every corner.
Ursula Pike (Karuk) lives in Austin, Texas, and her work has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, World Literature Today, O’Dark 30, and the Ocotillo Review. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her travel memoir about living in Bolivia, An Indian Among Los Indios, will be published by Heyday Books in late 2020/Early 2021.
by Jess E. Jelsma
... We cruised toward the city with the windows down, still ten miles below the speed limit, but free of our shared burden, boundless with possibility ...
The Idiot (Excerpt)
by James Nulick
... I turned my head and saw a leg with a sock and a shoe attached to it hanging from the wall. Horrified, nearly missing the bowl, it took a moment to deduce it was an artificial leg hanging from a peg, an old postman’s shoe secured to the foot ...