I remember arriving at my Grandmother’s house in Kentucky late at night after a twelve-hour road trip from Michigan. I ran into the kitchen where I knew she was waiting up to show off the tiny magnifying glass I’d gotten from the Long John Silver’s treasure chest. It was about the size of my thumbnail, with a black plastic case and a tiny hinge so the plastic lens could fold away and stay protected on all of my scalawag adventures. I could see details better when I didn’t look through it, but I didn’t care. She was dutifully impressed.
We had a great Kentucky crew: my sister Joan and my cousins Rodney and Patrick, and occasionally my younger cousin Julia and my little brother Andrew would join in, if we let them. We had epic adventures together. One time we decided to be helpful and pulled all the ivy off the old chicken house where my Uncle Charlie was storing his pride and joy, a 1950-something Woodie that he always meant to rebuild but never got to. We ran in to get my Grandmother to show her and her eyes widened with what we assumed was adoration and happiness, until she told us we’d just spent two hours ripping up poison sumac and sent us go shower and change our clothes immediately.
Patrick and I hung out together all the time. Once we saw Grandad kill a milk snake because “it had come to kill the chickens.” He saw the snake in the grass and reached in his pockets for something to kill it with. All he had was this large ball bearing, the size of a shooter marble, and he strode up to the snake and threw the ball bearing at its head and killed it. I’m much more impressed with this story as an adult than I was then. I’d never seen anyone kill a snake before and I assumed hitting it in the head with a ball bearing was the standard way of doing it. I now know that I probably couldn’t stride up to an 8.5×11 sheet of paper and hit it with a ball bearing, much less a snake head the size of a quarter.
That day my cousin Pat had on these sweet new white tube socks with green and mustard stripes. My Mom bought socks for the six kids in our family from Bethesda Thrift Store and it was nearly impossible to find a matched pair of socks at my house, much less a new, white pair. My socks were already dull grey by the time I got them. I coveted his socks so much. We went into the sprinkler to cool down and he took them off and went home barefoot. I saw his socks in the yard and put them on. When he came back looking for them, I pretended that they were mine. I shrugged my shoulders lackadaisically and said I had the same ones. Which I did, but mine were grey with who cares what color stripes because they’re old, grey saggy socks. He put up a little fuss, but I held firm. A little while later I found that dead snake and was swinging it around. I hit a pole with it and its headless stump swung back round the other side like a whip and splashed snake blood all over the socks. I took them off and gave them back to Pat, telling him I remembered they weren’t mine after all.
Another time we all walked to the big pond where my grandad went fishing. He’d go out onto the dock and throw dog food into the water, baiting the catfish to the surface, then he’d shoot them with a .22 and wade out to collect them for dinner. My cousin Rodney told us that there were snakes that lived under the mud and not to let yourself sink too far down or they’d bite your feet. I made a big show of jumping as high as I could and sticking the landing, so my feet went deep into the mud. I actually believed him about the snakes, I just did it to be contrary. I was pretty certain I was going to get bitten, but it never happened.
There was also the game we made up called “Detective,” which could only be played in The Old House, which had been abandoned a decade prior when everybody moved into The New House, built by my Grandad a few yards away. Detective was basically hide-and-seek, but you had to not fall through the holes in the floor to the lower levels. There was also some sort of detective angle, apparently, from the name, but the details escape me.
We decided, on one sweltering hot day, to build a platform fort in my Grandad’s old tobacco barn. So we gathered the crew and cataloged our resources for fort making. Tobacco barns aren’t roomy and spacious on the inside like other barns. They are like giant drying racks inside, with big round parallel, horizontal beams running lengthwise across the inside, on which they hung stalks of tobacco to cure. According to my mom, this tobacco barn was built in the 1920s by the Buchanan’s, before my Grandad bought the twenty acres it sat on in 1948.
The tobacco barn had a log frame that looked like it was made by Paul Bunyan, with well-weathered wooden plank siding. There were three layers of horizontal beams inside, running left to right, with space at the top for air circulation. Since this barn hadn’t been used for curing tobacco in many years, there were strange odds and ends laying around inside–an old bicycle that looked like it could have been used by a soldier in some World War, riding from camp to camp shouting “take cover!!! INCOMING!!” before he cycled away on his squeaky iron dinosaur. There were plastic detergent buckets that my grandmother didn’t want to throw into the burn pile, wooden screen doors, old rusty car parts, pitchforks, tractor tires, and square bales of hay stacked up for Poco, the fat mean horse. All in all, the perfect place for a bunch of kids to be climbing around making a fort.
We dragged an old set of primitive but sturdy wooden stairs my Grandmother had built from the Old House and nailed them to the first tier of tobacco hanging beams so we could climb up. Then we brought in a bunch of dusty planks we found in another barn, carried them up the stairs and placed them across the beams to make the first floor. We hung out there for a day, about six feet off the ground and it was fun. The next day we decided to drag more planks over and make a second story. To access the second story, we had to walk to the edge of the first floor, grab onto the second floor and shimmy onto it on our bellies (about ten feet in the air) because we’d plumb run out of extra sets of primitive but sturdy wooden stairs. We also made a small lookout platform in front of the ventilation flap, so we could spy on people in the yard.
The next day we decided to make another level. This one was a little scary. It was maybe 14 feet off the ground, and dragging the planks up that high was no simple feat, for 10-13 year olds. We got it done, nailed the extra hefty boards in place into the 70 year old tobacco infused beams. Then we decided we needed a communication system, for when some of us left to get provisions from the woods, or to look at something with my magnifying glass. Rodney used an ax to cut open all the bales of hay so we could use the binder’s twine they were tied with to make some can phones that didn’t work. Then, with all that hay laying around, we decided to pile it up and jump into it off the top level. It was great fun until I caught my palm on a rusty nail on the way down and got a deep cut. Instead of going to get a tetanus shot, my dad made me clean it with a toothbrush, hydrogen peroxide, and the pink torturer, merthiolate. The cut brought some attention to what we were up to out there and some adults came by. That was the only time we got into any trouble with the project. Not because we were jumping fourteen feet down into a pile of hay surrounded by rusty, sharp objects, but because we’d ruined the haybales by cutting them open. That’s how things were back then. We were allowed to do some crazy, cool, super dangerous stuff.
With each passing year, as we continued to travel to Kentucky, we’d make adjustments to the fort, fixing broken boards, cleaning up raccoon poop, clearing the stairs of debris. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, pre-adolescence was over and we became teenagers. I don’t remember the first time I skipped a trip to Kentucky, but I know it happened. Conversing with the cousins became awkward as we all tried to grow into young adults. We spent our bandwidth on other important things, like drinking Boone’s Farm at parties, passing AP history, and falling in love. The Old House was torn down sometime in the ’90s never to host another game of Detective again. Grandad died a few years after that.
But everytime I did go back, I’d go out and look at the fort. It’s still there today, dusty and decaying. For a few seasons a mother vulture decided it was a great place to raise her babies. She took up residence on the third story, hatching eggs, feeding her reptilian looking chicks, and pooping all over our creation. The tobacco barn is leaning heavily to one side. I doubt it will remain standing for much longer. A hundred years is a pretty good run.
I flew back to Paducah, Kentucky this Christmas, the first time I’d been for several years. My sister, mom, and niece picked me up and we drove the last ten minutes to what once was my Grandmother’s house, but now belongs to Pat and Teena and their cute kids. My mom has built a studio on the property, and now it’s the New House and the other house is the Old New House. Once I arrived, I was shown around–the new art pieces my mom made, the tightrope that Pat put up for everyone to try, the cappuccino maker that makes perfect espresso every time. It was all different, but it was all still the same. The house looked different, updated, but it still smelled the same. I didn’t know exactly how it would feel, being in her house, with her not there. Most of the time it sort of just felt like she was in the next room at the moment. In reality, she was up the road in Possum Trot, at the Oakview Nursing Center.
We all went up there to see her a few times. She didn’t recognize us, or even really open her eyes much. I laid in her bed with her on the night of January 2nd, with my arm around her shoulders, trying to let some of my heat soak into her because she felt cold. My mom woke me up the next morning to tell me that Oakview had called and said she wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t too worried, because it had happened like that before. But just as we were pulling into the parking lot of the nursing home, my Uncle Alan texted. She’d died a few minutes before we arrived.
We went through the usual motions, I wished I’d gotten ready faster so my mom could be there with her when she went, we cleared out her closet, we called people. The woman who was caring for her that morning told us she’d whispered to my Grandmother, letting her know we were coming, but she went ahead on anyway. It’s impossible to know what she was thinking, if she was thinking at all. She’d been leaning hard to one side for a long time. But ninety-nine years is a pretty good run.