The windows were broken and the front door gaped wide open, and I stood in the middle of Elba Street, uncomprehending. An aged neighbor paused on her porch, and I marched over: “Good morning. ’Scuse me. How long has next door been empty?” “Andrews & Andrews …,” she began, and – wait, she think I want to RENT? – I up my decibels, “No, how long has it been empty?” She shrugged, “A good while. They might gon demolish it.” … Demolish?
This was my grandmother’s house. Sort of. Her great-aunt and -uncle — Sarah and Jesse Jacobs — had bought it nearly new in 1908, and my grandmother arrived as an infant three years later when her mother died. She grew up on Elba Street, and her children were – literally – born there, and there they remained until 1938, when Mama Sarah died, and several truths were revealed. One, in 1923, Papa and Mama Sarah had sold the house to his children. Second, contrary to promise and belief, my grandmother never been formally adopted. Papa’s daughters ruthlessly drove this last point home by ordering her and her children out. My father was a small boy, but remembers moving – his hat blew off as he rode away in the back of a truck. Despite the eviction, my grandmother was not done with Elba. One of Papa’s sons sold her his share in exchange for a train ticket back to New York, and the sisters were forced to pay her from the house’s sale.
This place has been gone from my family for 75 years, and yet, for me, it’s Mother Dear’s house. The stories I recorded cemented its place in my imagination – the mantel clock that struck as she rallied from pneumonia, the chiggers that had to be scalded from the walls, the little stable for Papa’s horse, the hoodoo’d peach tree….
“I’ve always wanted to see inside,” I tell the neighbor. “I’m going in.” A glance up and down to check for unwanted notice, a halloo at the threshold, and I stepped through into a small center hall, which surprised me. To either side, multi-function front rooms and, behind, a third room, a bath, and a kitchen under a shed roof, all strewn with the detritus of squatters. Of these last three rooms, only the kitchen was there in my grandmother’s day, and the only obviously original features were the mantels in the front rooms and the heart-pine floors under worn linoleum.
Soon this house will go the way of so much of abandoned east Wilson, which has never recovered from the ravages of the crack epidemic that scoured the neighborhood early and hard. There was nothing much left at 303 Elba to speak to me, but I’m glad I peeked in. It will give shape to my listening to my grandmother’s words, and that’s a gift.