Life is a watercolor painting.
Watercolor on antique, faded wallpaper.
It is colors swirling with memories –
a brush across the canvas –
an image of a memory faded over decades.
It is gray shingles
and pink trim
and rose bushes blooming
in front of a slanting screen porch.
It is my grandma’s house.
I am from a family of keepers.
We are collectors and we have been molded by our family history to be thus. We have been surrounded by trinkets and knickknacks and mementos for as long as we can recall.
My grandma (or “gramma” as she preferred it to be spelled) had a drawer of rubber bands, an abundance of sugar packets in her purse, and baby jars filled with an assortment of items. She had a medicine cabinet of old lipsticks and tiny, glass perfume bottles. A buffet stuffed with curiosities – buttons and flash bulbs and cards and old glasses and marbles and wooden nickels and tiny plastic tiddliwinks.
What began deep in the Dirty Thirties as a fundamental need to hold on to things grew into a lifetime of keeping and chronicling time using artifacts. And this keeping was coupled with ingenuity and creativity. No room was void of something that had been crafted by my grandmother’s hands. Dressers, an armoire, clothing hooks, pretty dresses, and a variety of other handmade necessities filled this house on Delaware.
When I was small, my grandparents’ house was love. It was a place where people gathered, where Santa came to visit, and where our family memories lived and breathed. My grandfather was a stern yet warm man who smoked too much, coughed too much, and loved us in laughter and stories. I would give anything to know my grandfather as an adult – to look into his amazing blue eyes and hear his stories now, but life never asked what I wanted. My grandmother was everyone’s grandmother. All knew her to be kind and loving and witty – she was the lady on Delaware who rode her bike and waved – she was the sweet smile watching from the porch as children and families walked by – she was liked and known by all who met her. Many did not know that she was an artist. Charcoals and watercolors, landscapes and horses. My gramma was a keeper because everything was beautiful to her. She had a way of making you feel loved and beautiful with just a grin. My grandfather’s work shirt from decades long before became a regular part of my grandmother’s wardrobe after his death. It was a way for her to hold on, a comfort to keep him near. And this was how my life – at least in part – was shaped by the keeping. It was a necessary part of remembering.
Sometimes people don’t understand the keeping. Sometimes they don’t see its value. A few years after my grandmother’s death, someone decided to break in. In their eyes what we had kept was for their taking. The items left behind weren’t memories, they weren’t stories; they were an easy fix for fast cash to some stranger.
And so, on that fateful night a few years ago when thieves chose my grandparents’ lonely house as an easy target, they didn’t simply steal priceless items. Instead, they plundered our history. They didn’t steal objects that had a monetary value to us, but rather a wealth of stories and a history of keeping. We cried because we had lost connections to the past – and we cried because we were never able to pass along the stories that surrounded those objects. We didn’t get the chance to look the new owners in the eye and show them the magic of those items.
Now I suppose it is time to be honest with anyone reading this. I do have an ulterior motive for writing. It is because I know that the public understanding of our family memories and connections to this place have been almost completely lost or forgotten over time. For many years after my grandmother’s death, people would stop us and ask about the house – about her. They would pause to tell stories of barbecues and card games and dancing and laughter. But, just like any memory, the passage of time begins to smudge the details. The watercolors fade around the edges of the painting until all that remains is a muted hint of what once was.
To many in the community, this house is one of mystery and confusion. It sits on a busy street and people pass it often, sometimes they barely even notice that it’s there. And other times they slow their pace to stare and wonder. College students walk through the yard and speculate about the former occupants. And many people assume it is due to abandonment or apathy that the house continues to stand alone in the middle of a busy space. But this couldn’t be more removed from the truth. The truth is that we all care too much. We all feel the presence of this house and what once was, but collectively we have not been able to move forward for a very long time. Because what is moving forward? Would it mean destroying a history that had been built by our family’s hands over time? What would that mean and would it equate to wiping out all those eras of keeping?
The truth is that every person walks through grief and memory in a unique way. And every family holds on to emotions and history in its own way. It is easy to trivialize this process. It is easy to dismiss the emotions of another person because their path does not run parallel to our own. But it is also easy to get stuck – to not want to let go because holding on is comfortable and familiar. It is not easy to be a keeper, especially when it’s time to let go. And it is not easy to understand the keeping when someone has let go.
And so, how does a family let go of the place where all of the memories have been kept? How do we watch it fade into memory?
It is not through the walls or the floors or the murals painted inside, but rather the stories and the love and spirit that have been passed to each of us. We are all a part of this place and that will never change. But we are so much more. We are a family of loving, passionate, creative and strong individuals. We are spirited and brave and happy. We value the weight of history and allow it to carry us into the unknown future. I am from a family of keepers. Where faith and family and love are what keep us together. I am from a family of keepers. We are not defined by a place or items, but rather of how they have kept us together.
I am from a family of keepers.
927 Delaware was owned by Edward N. Mann and E. Nadeen Mann.
They raised three daughters there – Connie, Deborah and Judith.
The property has been sold to York College
and will be torn down in the upcoming weeks.
As you pass by the space today, tomorrow or in the future,
all I ask is that you take a moment to breathe.
Take a moment to say a prayer of gratitude,
to tell someone you love them,
or to look at the sky and revel in God’s beautiful world.
Life truly is a watercolor painting.