The Architecture of Life: Nandaddy's House

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nandaddy's House

(Reprinted from the Summer 2003 issue of the Round Top Register.)

In my minds eye, I was back again playing on that patterned linoleum floor, the walls of the kitchen towering around me. The smell of something baking in the oven filled the room with welcome. My great-grandmother stood over the sink, the gentle clinking and clanking of the dishes gently protesting as she scoured the day's dishes.

I heard the front door open and Nandaddy lumbered into the front parlor. He saw me playing, my eyes lit with joy at his sudden appearance and his voice boomed out. "Come over here and hug my neck!" I jumped up and ran to him. He grabbed me under the arms and I flew high into the sky, laughing deliriously.

Trains would pass by and we would count the cars. In the mornings the rooster would cry and Nandaddy would let me sit on his lap and bounce me on his knee. We would eat grape nuts or shredded wheat with peaches grown in the side yard or other fruit grandmother had put up in the pantry. He would show me the mysteries of the intricate wooden puzzles he kept on the shelf with the cereal.

He would sing a simple song for me and though I did not know it then, it would echo through my mind for the rest of my life.

Ever time I go to town

the boys keep a’ kickin’

my dog around.

Makes no difference

if he is a hound.

They oughta quit kickin’

my dog around

For whatever reason, the power of those memories of my great-grandfather's house still live in my heart with a profundity that is unmatched in my childhood experience. Years spent in other childhood homes left dim images, frail by comparison. In mid life they are ghosts, but Nandaddy’s house is still alive.

There was something about that house...the porch that wrapped around three sides, the forbidding formality of the living room where I had to mind my manners, the Victrola in the middle bedroom it was such an honor to crank, the big, smooth rock, patterned like a turtle shell that propped open the front door, a rock Nandaddy had found with his foot in a pond when he was young.

The peach trees where wasps raised whelps on my forehead, the armadillos staggering into pipes under the house, the pungent smells of outhouse and chicken house, the metallic taste of rain water collected in a cistern, the century plant and its rare towering bloom, the hanging cloth that covered the pantry, hiding jars full of multi-colored buttons.

It was a house of wonder. In later years when I began to wonder about how we are all marked by deep emotional connections to our childhood surroundings, a sudden memory of that house was the key to that awareness. Nandaddy's house still lived in my memory, a house I somehow still inhabited within, a home where I felt loved and accepted. One day on a similar porch in Round Top, it came flooding back into my mind.

I visited many times, but I lived there only about six months, starting in the winter of 1952 when I was less than two years old. It was a difficult time for my mother and me. She was pregnant with her second child and without a husband.

I don't know why I have such powerful memories of that time, and of later summer visits, but every room in that house still lives inside me.

In my work I try to help my design clients come to understand how their own connections to past dwellings influence their experience of "home." I do this in order to guide them towards architecture that they will experience as nurturing and comfortable. I work with them to design external surroundings that consider what I call their "emotional architecture," their internal landscape.

For me, Nandaddy's house is the central artifact of that internal landscape...and for many years, as far as I was concerned, it no longer existed in the real world.

The house, built in 1912 near Cameron, Texas in Milam County had been sold to a neighbor after my great grandfather's death in 1960. We were told the house had been cut in two pieces and moved away. Like my nandaddy, I never saw the old farmhouse again.

My grandmother, Sinia (she would never let anyone call her grandmother), inherited her father's ready smile and determined optimism. Like my great grandfather, she was always a magical person in my life, bigger than life.

Sinia is one of those rare people who make you feel special and important whenever you are in their presence, a skill she developed in her civil service career to the point that she retired as the head of civilian personnel at a major air force base. A woman who succeed in a man's world when few could, she told me the secret to her success was that she refused to learn how to type.

She left a bitter marriage before World War II when my mother was a pre-teen, married the man I always thought of as my grandfather, and made a better life for herself.

That divorce marked my mother in many ways, and through her - me. I never lived with my father. My mother left him before I was born. My sister's father was similarly absent. The men who raised me when I was young were my step grandfather, and nandaddy... my great-grandfather.

I have often thought that perhaps the reason the short time I lived with nandaddy and grandmother so marked me was that it was one of the few times when I was a child that my mother was happy.

But she, like Sinia, was a strong woman. She survived her hard times and became a successful person, a teacher, an author, a historian and a community leader.

One day not long ago, I got an excited e-mail from my mom. She had been talking to an acquaintance who had known her grandparents. He gave her a lead on what had happened to the house. It turned out that it was owned by a black family named Wheeler. My mother had visited with a member of that family who was an aide in the very nursing home where Sinia, now ninety-four year old, faces the last hard days of her life.

All three of us became very excited. My mother and I arranged to see the old house, which sat empty on the Wheeler homestead. It turned out that the Wheeler's grandmother, Ardangia, who actually owned the house, and who everyone called "Dana," was also a resident in the rest home.

The Wheelers were kind. They welcomed our visit, and why not. We had a lot in common. The grandson who would inherit the house, like me, had spent a special part of his childhood in nandaddy's house, and grandparents we both loved faced their final days but a few rooms apart.

We drove far back in the country on dirt roads to a small settlement consisting of five or six modest houses around an old frame church. A long, narrow gravel drive wove through the Wheeler's seven acres to where the old house sat.

Ardangia's daughter-in-law met us there, unlocked the door, and I stepped into my past.

The wrap-around porches were much shallower that I remembered. They had seemed vast and deep in my mind's eye, but I immediately recognized the interior of the house. The Wheeler's furnishings and decor were different, but they had done very little to change the house. A picture window had replaced on window in a front bedroom, and the house was in need of a new roof and considerable repair...but for the most part it was the house I remembered.

I roamed through the rooms, filled with the detritus of Ardangia's Wheelers life...a collage of family pictures tacked to the wall in the front parlor, sons in uniform, family gatherings...a framed portrait of a beautiful African-American woman, all the simple clutter that is left at the end of a life.

I realized that the house had more than one story to tell. It had been central to our family, an important part of our historical story, but after it left us, it had been central to another.

Their lives had been different than ours, different people, different circumstances, different background and culture, but their memories filled the house just as mine and my mother's did.

The echoes of their past, their laughter and tears, their soft conversations and tense moments whispered like gentle breezes through those worn and cluttered rooms.

It was a house filled with voices. They leaked through the sashes of the ill-fitting windows and wafted under the doors like summer dust. They fluttered in the air, muting the light splashing through the dirty windows, and murmured in the cracks between the planks on the walls. Forgotten sounds and smells and images that lived in forgotten memories spoke from my imagination - but felt palpable and intimate and real.

I am going to try to buy that house from the Wheelers and bring it to my land in Round Top.

I may not succeed, but even if I do not, I will always have it in my heart. It is not just a house of wood after all, but a home of spirit, and memory, and dreams.

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