From old journals, notes from my last two visits to my grandmother’s house in June 2000 and April 20-22, 2001. Both are tinged with the sadness that overwhelmed me in her final year. Though they do not reflect the warmth and happiness of my years of wonderful visits to 5549 Wyalusing Avenue, they do capture place in a way that has helped me hold on to those memories.
One old exhausting voyage. My grandmother’s health is failing. My uncle is not equipped to take care of her. My father is exasperated by his inability to get either to do what they need to do.
I had a premonitory 15-minute massage in terminal D. Dreamy. Painful. …
What is the story with the landscaping at Philadelphia International? Where is the mulch? The poor young trees stand bare-ankled, save weeds. I am hardly prepared for the 50-some degree weather I encounter. The SEPTA train runs through wetlands on its trek to 30th Street Station. I can barely make them out through the window’s grime. I spot wildflowers in profusion, but cannot identify them readily. Still, behind Franklin Field, I spy spiderwort.
Mother Dear and Uncle Jesse have adopted two kittens, born to a stray they kept for a while. They appear to be perhaps seven or eight weeks old. One is white with a gray face and a few gray patches. The other — larger, bolder — is white with black ears and a black tail. They are shot out with fleas. My grandmother calls them both “Becky.” An older kitten, Beckys’ broke-down half-sibling, lurks on the front porch. Though it is a lovely black and white, it has a large head and crooked legs.
In a vacant lot near the old Super Fresh, a viney thing with purple-tinged leaves and a small, purple flower. What? It is chilly. I don’t recall Wyalusing Avenue being so desolate. And the crackheads! I had forgotten how pervasive ….
The Wyalusing Inn has a new name. After all these notorious years. Club 421 is still the same, though rode hard.
I find a photo from the 1940s that shows the shotgun house at 1109 Queen Street that my father grew up in. Out front, there is a profusion of what appear to be white petunias.
The patience of the poor. Ooo. I would not call this place — District Health Center No. 4 — chaotic, but it is as far removed from my private healthcare experience as night from day. I am joined on a row of chairs by a jittery piper who, when I come out of the conference with the nurse, demands, “What she say? What she say?,” as if we were all sitting here joning for methadone. Or whatever. The epidemic has not slowed in Philadelphia. I am so fucked up – I don’t want to sit next to anyone.
My grandmother lives in a two-story rowhouse, three-over-three. 5549 Wyalusing Avenue. At 56th Street. Girard Avenue runs a few blocks north, Haverford Avenue slants a block south. Downstairs, there is a living rom, dining room and kitchen. Upstairs, three bedrooms and a bathroom. Once, a short passage jutted into the living room behind the front door. It was gone long before I was born, but on the ceiling you can see the faint ridges left when it was torn out. Whan I was a child, Miss Sarah’s house next door still had its vestibule, which Mother Dear pronounced with an “f.” I faintly recall it lined with narrow white tile laid subway-style.
The walls and ceiling of the living room are plaster; they join in a seamless curve. The floors are hardwood, but have been painted light brown as long as I can remember. They are covered with rugs. The room’s highlight is the fireplace, which probably originally contained gas jets. All my life, the “opening” has been a solid surface, scored faintly in imitation of tile, with an ornate register cover lodged in its bottom edge. The mantel is elaborately carved.
There are two couches in this room, both much older than I. In fact, my father slept on one as a child. My grandmother has cushioned its shot-out springs with several layers of old blankets. Above the mantel hangs a yellowed reproduction of some idyllic Rhine Valley vista. It is flanked by a pair of vaguely Art Deco lamps, probably ’50s-era. On the wall: two circular plaques, their backgrounds silver glitter, featuring black silhouettes of a fairy bathing in a blossom and a swimming swan. In the corner, a floor-to-ceiling pole hung with cone-shaped adjustable lamps. (We had one of those on Carolina Street. I think my aunt still does.) The front door is original. Its top two-thirds has eight lights. There’s a mailslot below. Hanging nearby, a round mirror with roses etched at its border. One large window overlooks the porch and, beyond, the street. There are photographs of us on the wall above one couch, as well as some sort of mirrored, gilted shelf thing.
Upstairs I hear murmurs. My father is attempting to prise from my grandmother’s porous memory the whereabouts of her medicine and the money she has stashed.
The garden is a forlorn rectangle, perhaps twelve feet by seven, overrun with weeds. A hollyhock struggles to glory in one corner. A hydrangea is smothered under large clumps of something that looks mightily like miniature chrysanthemums. A clothesline depends from side to side. The bag holding clothespins is shaped like a tiny dress.
There are nine open porches going east from the bar at the corner, and then the first enclosed one. This has been the case all my life. I vaguely remember the two old white women, sisters, who lived at 5551 when I was very young. They were the last of the European immigrants, mostly Jewish, that used to dominate West Philadelphia. The rail between my grandmother’s porch and 5547 is the last of the original wooden balustrades. The rest have been replaced by rickety black wrought iron. Mother Dear’s house is faced in a fine-textured, dark reddish-brown brick. The mortar also is oxblood. There are cement steps – two, then a sort of mini-stoop, then another. The cellar window is barred. The porch floor is plywood over damaged tongue-and-groove. She has three green metal lawn chairs and one small white table. The chairs have been painted repeatedly. 5549 is painted in gold numerals on a transom above the front door. Beside the door is a small, tarnished plaque: “J.C. RICKS.” The street was once lined with mature sycamores. Perhaps 15 years ago, some sort of blight began to wipe them out, one by one. I can see a few standing down toward 55th street, but the loss here is stunning. In summer, the light and heat are unbearable. [June 6, 2000]
April 20-22. Philadelphia. The Last Time.
I love that: the demarcation between land and water. [As we fly over the Chesapeake Bay.]
Fingers, tufts of land, cut by water. Tiny patches of woodland. A river breaks free, asserts itself. [Is this Maryland?]
What appear to be solid woods, then sun reflects from water glinting beneath the trees.
A marsh, like crackled glaze.
First glimpse of Center City. Of Camden. Could I have remained here? Above the Walt Whitman Bridge, block after indistinguishable block of South Philly. Below, the drydocks of the Naval Yard, where Uncle Lucian left his lungs.
Being in Mother Dear’s house was not as overwhelming as I’d expected. Her spirit was already so far gone from the place. It was sad and shabby, but not in the grief-filled way I was expecting. I just had to let the loss of the Hoosier cabinet go [a picker had tricked my ailing uncle into selling everything of real value] and focus on the things we were able to save — letters, pictures, Bibles, bills, knick-knacks. The barber scissors, her Sweet 16 ring, the gourd. I found a letter from Mother Dear to her children, never mailed, in which she describes how she met their father. And a letter from Uncle Caswell to Aunt Sarah. [20-22 April 2001]