I Can Only Save My Grandparents’ Home by Preserving It in Fiction
Though I may lose the house and all it represents to my immigrant family, it will live on in my books
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In the bedroom of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, there’s a mural depicting a well-dressed crowd at a cocktail party pasted to the wall. Spencer’s granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, points to small black lines that outline the teeth of some in the crowd: a handful of them, chest-high or so, the only faces Shaun could reach when she “enhanced” the mural as a child. The artwork was installed to cover the random lists and thoughts that her poet grandmother habitually wrote on the wall. To get to the upper level where the family sometimes entertained, guests walked through the master bedroom; concerned about what visitors might think about the scribblings on the wall, Spencer agreed to have the mural installed. Shaun smiles as she points out the features of people in the crowd and names Harlem Renaissance figures she thinks are depicted in the painting.
Shaun speaks lovingly of her grandparents’ home, which—with its furnishings, Spencer’s favorite magazines, bed linens, toiletries, wallpaper, and letters from Harlem Renaissance writers—looks just as it did when she was a child. The poet’s house in Lynchburg, Virginia has been preserved as a museum: The Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum. To walk into the house is to step back to a time when the literary giants of the Harlem Renaissance gathered there for dinner or parties. It is to step back to a bygone era, to handwritten letters and tea sets, to the apron in the kitchen hanging in wait for the body whose shape it holds. And for me, it is to step back into another house altogether, to my paternal grandparents’ house in another town, another country. It is to hold on to a disappearing past, and ask myself over and over: What do we preserve of the ones who came before us?
On the spring afternoon when I visited the Anne Spencer Museum, the details of my grandparents’ house, which they called “Hope View,” came back to me in a rush. This relic of another era conjured Hope View for me, not because my grandparents’ home was similarly preserved, but because I feared its loss, the permanent removal of a connection to my past and the erasure of my family’s roots in Anchovy, a little town eight miles uphill from the coast of Montego Bay, Jamaica. I thought of what it meant for my grandparents—born some 70 years after the abolition of slavery in Jamaica—to own land and build a house they could pass on to future generations. Instead of restoring Hope View with care, as Shaun has done with her grandparents’ home, my family has been planning for its eventual sale.
Hope View is the house my grandparents built when they returned to Jamaica in 1931 after spending a little more than a decade as migrant workers in Cuba. As a child I didn’t know they called it Hope View, didn’t think of it as a place that embodied my grandparents’ dream of the way they wanted their children to live: in hope of something better and with a view of what is possible.
The house is built into a hillside, and looks down on a sloped piece of land where my grandparents grew a range of crops. Banana, coffee, and coco yam, among others, grew alongside towering breadfruit, coconut, and avocado trees, which shaded the lower portion of the land. To the left was a single star apple tree, long gone now. The house itself is small, built so close to a rock outcropping that it looks like it rises out of the hillside. Two concrete columns hold up a small verandah and frame the door to the cellar. To the right of the columns, a set of concrete steps rises up to the red floor of the verandah and the aqua railing that hems it in. From the living room, you walk through a small and dark middle room, where, for much of my childhood years, the wood floor dipped as if set on springs. Grandma’s curio cabinet sat in that dark middle room untouched. Bedrooms branch off from the middle and dining room. The dining room, also dark and windowless, is a step down from the middle room, and the extended kitchen another step down from there. To the rear, the kitchen backs up to a small cliff, with only a sliver of space in which ferns and moss grow.
Specific scenes are etched in my memory: my grandfather in his undershirt standing at the railing and watching his son and family climb the hill; Sunday afternoon dinners of brown stewed chicken, rice and peas, and milky carrot juice; my sisters and me running down the slight slope to the right of the house, peering under the house at the chickens or cats hiding in the crawl space, and picking ferns from the back wall; standing by the side of the house drinking coconut water and waiting for an adult to slice through the coconut so we could get at the jelly inside.
When I was growing up, there was a set of black traveling trunks in the house, which I’ve always imagined as the trunks that carried my grandparents’ belongings to Jamaica when they came back from Cuba. The trunks are gone now, perhaps thrown out after my grandparents’ deaths when my father and his siblings readied the house for tenants. Gone, too, is the kitchen cabinet with chicken wire built into the doors. Gone is the curio cabinet and the shot glasses and spoons that marked the places to which my grandparents or their children traveled. Gone are the ancient books and magazines—some transplanted to my parents’ house after my grandparents died. Chickens no longer roam the yard. The cherry tree three-quarters of the way up the hill, the naseberry tree halfway up the hill, the towering coconut trees, and the large breadfruit tree under which my father often parked have long been gone.
A few years before I visited the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, my father and his siblings began talking about selling their childhood home. My grandparents were long dead and with their children aging and descendants living primarily in America and scattered around the globe, who would take care of the house and land? Theirs was a legitimate concern, but it didn’t ease the sadness of having my grandparents’ home disappear from our lives completely. My grandparents built that house and added to it over the years as their family grew, similar to the way Anne Spencer’s husband, Edward Spencer, designed and built their house in 1903, periodically modifying it over the years to accommodate his growing family and the family’s expanding social life. He found and recycled various materials—wooden banisters, a set of red leather padded doors that were originally part of the all-black Harrison Movie Theater and remain today as the door to the side porch. At the back of the house on the edge of the poet’s garden is her writing room, a separate space her husband constructed for her to work. Throughout the studio and the house are remnants of the poet’s life: bed linens and toiletries, magazines, photos, letters from Harlem Renaissance era writers, the mural.
With my grandparents’ house empty of their things, I don’t have Shaun’s tangible memories of her ancestors. But walking away from the museum and lamenting the personal connection I soon will no longer have, I realized I had something else. As a writer, I had already held on to Hope View the only way I know how: I had preserved it in writing. I set a portion of my latest novel, Tea by the Sea, not only in Anchovy but in my grandparents’ house. When I chose Anchovy as one of the central places where the novel takes place, I had in mind Hope View as it looked years earlier after a tenant had moved out. On the verandah, just above the steps, was a sheet left behind by someone surreptitiously using the empty house—or at least the verandah—perhaps for a night-time tryst. My father had forgotten the keys so I couldn’t walk through the empty rooms, couldn’t stand in the semi-dark dining room where we sometimes ate Sunday dinner or through to the side door that led to the fern-filled and mossy rocks at the back of the house. Instead, I only had access to a single room an uncle had remodeled and converted to a small apartment, complete with a kitchenette and separate entry from the rest of the house.
When the novel begins, Lenworth is on the run and has chosen the house in Anchovy as his refuge. He doesn’t expect that anyone would find him there. By the time he comes to the house, which has been in his extended family for years, it has been abandoned, left empty for years because the family members who would have rights to own it have all migrated to distant countries, and none, it seemed, had any intention of returning to the house and its old-world charm.
The fate of the abandoned house in my novel—and that of my family—is not a unique story. It is a story most every immigrant in America can tell of family land left alone too long or lingering in limbo, of migrants who had great plans to return home but who, after years abroad, find it hard to return to a place they’ve long left, a town empty of friends and family.
The last time I visited Hope View, the grass was overgrown, so high it tickled my bare ankles and skin. Beneath the grass, the soil was muddy, slippery. There were plants hanging on the verandah, a little garden plot below the steps, and the steps—once a vivid red—were black with mildew and dirt. The house looked smaller. But it lived on in the family—saved from an imminent sale by one of my uncles who sees to its upkeep.
It is only a matter of time before the question of its fate rises again, before we hear an echo of what Lenworth thinks in Tea by the Sea when he chooses the abandoned house: “The line of children and grandchildren, who would have claim to the house and most of whom had migrated abroad, had no use for it—too small, too remote, too old, too generous with old-world charm (if it could even be called charming at all). Lenworth’s own father, who had migrated to England and never returned, had no use for it either.” Whatever happens, though, it will live on in my writing.
When I think of preserving Hope View forever in fiction, I also think of my own childhood home, a rambler on a hill. Somewhere along the way I heard that a river once ran along our street. Jamaica is mostly limestone rock, and over time the limestone weakens and the above-ground river eventually disappears underground. Sometimes I can imagine the ancient river winding its way in the valley between our house and the main road. Sometimes when the rain is sufficiently heavy, a pond forms in a flat area a half mile from our house. And I have imagined a story that incorporates this nameless river that went underground. But I haven’t found a way to incorporate my childhood home in a piece of fiction, or to accurately reflect the serenity of looking out across the valley to the main road leading into town, or looking across the eastern sky at the rain falling two towns over and guessing if or when it will reach our house. I haven’t found a way to capture the quirks of the house itself, the small nook near the front verandah built specifically for the piano I dreaded being reminded to play, the tinkle of the piano keys drifting down hill. But perhaps I won’t need to write about my childhood home. I don’t yet fear its loss.