Once upon a very long time ago, I walked with my grandmother down the dusty dirt road of her coastal North Carolina home place. The road was little more than a path lined by deep ditches and cattailed canals. Frogs plop-plopped from masses of lily pads into the murky water as we passed by. Beyond the ditch banks rose the woods, so thick and dark on both sides that crickets sang all day, thinking it was forever night. The sun beat down on everything, yet a breeze seemed always to be sighing, shhh ssshhhhh ssssssshhhhhh, in the dark, leafy depths of the forest. Early in my childhood, I understood that the forest is a living thing.
The old houses, however, spoke of dying. In various stages of falling down, the homes of Grandma’s neighbors spoke of times past, of living and loving over and done. The long-abandoned, dilapidated houses should have haunted me and perhaps they did, in a way. I wasn’t scared. I wanted to know about the people, what they were like, what their stories were.
Grandma knew them all. The people, the stories. That day we when stopped at the fork of the dirt road, I pointed to the lone sepia-toned house nestled in the crook and asked, “Who lived here?”
“The Rosses,” she said, launching into their history, which I didn’t hear because all I could think was I want to see inside.
“Grandma, can we go in?” I blurted.
To my surprise, she hesitated. I was pretty sure she’d just say no.
“They’ve all been gone for so long,” she said, almost to herself, staring ahead. I knew she wasn’t seeing the sad little frame leaning slightly to one side or the brown weatherboard siding. She was seeing it as it once was. The people that once were.
“We’ll go to the door and peep in, but that’s all,” she finally decided. “It’s not safe to go inside.”
So up the rickety steps we went, and, with the scrape of soft wood against soft wood, Grandma pushed open the door.
An overpowering musty, mildewy smell.
I coughed, blinked.
Stairs. Windows. A bit of old curtain, still hanging. Floorboards, some curving up at the ends, and . . .
“Letters! Look, Grandma!”
Before she could stop me, I was in the foyer, bending over a stack of dingy envelopes at the base of the staircase.
Someone had addressed the envelopes with elegant penmanship, in ink faded to the same sepia shade as the house itself. The envelopes looked to have been ivory or cream once. Now tinged and mottled brown, some still contained letters while other envelopes were empty, their creased handwritten contents scattered throughout the layers underneath.
I grabbed one and began to read: “My Dearest— oh, Grandma! Love letters!”
Grandma’s hand on my own stopped me.
“These aren’t meant for us to read,” she said. “These folks may be long gone, but this is their business, their story. Not ours.”
I put the letters down and followed her out of that silent, colorless setting back into the bright, hot sun.
That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Across the years, I’ve remembered those letters, wondered who exactly wrote them to whom, and why they were left like that in the abandoned house. Why Grandma chose to let them be, when the people are dead and past caring. Stories that are now lost to living memory, that will never be known.
Oh, to go back in . . . !
But even as I wish that, a movie scene comes to mind. Another old, sepia house with another girl. If you watch The Wizard of Oz closely, you can see exactly when the Technicolor kicks in on Dorothy’s back just she goes to open the door to a world nearly too fantastic to believe.
So, for me, the image of an aged farmhouse door forever invokes story. It’s first an invitation to examine one’s own framework, the living, loving, and breathings written on one’s own heart. The going in. And then the going out to collide with vibrant colors of everything beyond oneself, to absorb, to get a sense of infinite contours so far above and beyond what we can fully see and grasp. Endless discoveries, always, whether going in or out.
I might as well say the old wooden door is why I write.
Today the door opens on the Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, a post a day in the month of March.