I see from the current Zillow profile of my grandparents’ former house, down the street from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, that it’s been a rental house for students for years. The whole backyard is paved over, for “TONS of parking!!!” Sky-blue vinyl siding encases the house, the kitchen screams 1990s discount makeover, and the wood floors have seen too many parties.
I remember their house as a palace. My grandparents, Luise and Richard Heusel, moved in after getting married in 1928. They’d known each other in Kirchentellinsfurt, Germany, before emigrating separately in the 1920s (they were both born in 1901). Some of their friends and relatives also came to Ann Arbor from Germany that decade, providing an instant community far from home.
Luise and Richard lived in the house on Benjamin Street for over forty years, but I spent only a week there at a conscious age. We’d made the long car trek from Southern California to Michigan when I was one and six years old, but I recall almost nothing about those trips. When I was ten, though, I couldn’t get enough of the place.
Everything about it and my grandparents’ life was exotic to me. For starters, the basement. Nobody had a basement where I lived. The cool damp air, the dim lighting, the low ceiling, and the mysterious tables, tools, and appliances titillated my curiosity like a circus funhouse. Grandma showed my sister and me how she hulled hickory nuts they collected from the nearby woods. We wanted to try it too. We used the small hammers to hit the nuts, but with much less finesse than Grandma—most of our nuts exploded into smithereens. We fished out the nutmeats from the shells with metal picks. The nuts tasted like walnuts but with a slightly bitter, wild edge. We checked out Grandpa’s workbench with its aging gear. As we left the basement each time, we’d run our fingers along the edge of the tub of Grandma’s electric clothes wringer, a machine foreign to us.
Upstairs they had two floors—that in itself was novel, because where we lived all the houses were one-story. I fell in love with my grandparents’ furniture. It looked solid and expensive to me, with tastefully carved accents in just the right places. In our house, my parents had opted for a mid-century aesthetic, which struck me as plain and cold in comparison. Our floors in California were tiled or carpeted, not elegant hardwood, like my grandparents’.
Grandma sat with us on the porch (a real porch with a swing!—not just a patio) and served us 7-Up in shot glasses. Our mom rarely gave us soda, and we’d never seen shot glasses before, though they looked a lot like the tiny Communion glasses filled with grape juice we got at church once a month. Grandma kept herself busy on the porch making crocheted doilies and lace at breakneck speed from thin cotton thread and a small steel hook.
My Grandpa fussed endlessly over his vegetable garden in the backyard (the one that’s now asphalt). Everything in Michigan that summer was green and bursting, impossibly fertile and verdant. Where we lived in California, summer was brown—winter was the green season. The garden seemed immense to me at the time, with rows of all the vegetables I could think of, including cornstalks at the back. He let us pick green beans and water the plants.
On Grandpa’s sixty-ninth birthday, some his friends sent over a big box of soft pretzels from a local bakery. The dense, chewy, yeasty, malty bread with big salt crystals was like nothing I’d tasted before. Grandma served us mostly American food during our stay, but her cakes and cookies loaded with butter and ground nuts were epiphanies to my palate.
Every day was a revelation. My ten-year-old brain took in what it could of this life my mother had left behind when she moved with her new husband to Pasadena, California, so he could enter the seminary founded by the chaplain he’d known while fighting in Korea. My parents had planned to return to Michigan after two years, but at some point decided to stay in California, settling in a small, growing “bedroom community” further to the east, Rialto.
Grandma and Grandpa took the train to Rialto when new babies were born plus a couple more times after that, and my parents drove to Michigan with their young family every four or five years. My mother and Grandma wrote to each other every week, but their letters were in German, so the rest of us learned little from them. Long-distance calls and cross-country flights were too expensive and, of course, we had no FaceTime, Skype, or Facebook. What we crammed into those brief in-person visits was all we kids really knew of our mother’s parents.
There were no more trips to Ann Arbor after I was ten because Grandma died three years later of a stroke. A couple years after that, my grandfather had a scary fall at his house and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He moved in with us and lived another three or four years in a declining state. When he came to California, my mother decided she didn’t want anything from the Ann Arbor house, so her brother sent her some silver and took the rest.
The sad thing is that I remember more about their house than about my grandparents themselves. I wasn’t smart enough to focus on them rather than all the new sensations coming at me, and I was probably intimidated by the German they spoke to each other and my mother. Still, their English was good enough that they could have told me what their life was like in Germany, why they moved to the U.S., what jobs they had in Ann Arbor in their younger years, and what our mother was like as a girl.
My memories of that time are like a virtual reality experience. As if I were wearing a high-tech headset, I can see vivid images of my grandparents’ house with 360° panoramic clarity. I can feel myself moving through the house. I can even picture Grandma bustling around the kitchen. But that’s where the virtual reality breaks down. I reach out to her and try to talk to her. But my hands touch nothing, and the image of Grandma doesn’t turn to me or answer my questions.
“What if’s” are tempting but futile. What if we’d moved back to Michigan after my sister was born? What if Grandma and Grandpa had moved to California? The space-time continuum’s iron fist blocked me from connecting with my grandparents at points in our lives when we could have related best. The closest we came was during that one week, which yielded glorious, if incomplete, memories.
The reality—true reality, not virtual—is that many people never get to meet their grandparents at all. I get to replay that week with Grandma and Grandpa in my head whenever I like, gratefully.