When I was little, my grandparents’ house was my personal wonderland. The back yard had a terraced patio with steps zagging between lush, carefully-tended beds of flowers and shrubs. A shallow drainage ditch circled the property like a moat. By the door, a mosquito zapper lamp gave off a lurid glow at dusk and sizzled like a cauldron.
Their house was a split-level 1950s ranch with teal carpeting – not exactly the stuff of gothic enchantment. But even the indoors had a fairy-tale patina. A seaside landscape mural covered one wall. The spare room housed a small hoard of aloof dolls in satiny dresses. In the basement was a tall, old-fashioned clock with shelves built into the front, holding all sorts of trinkets.
When my sister and I would stay the night, we slept down there, in a cozy room with shutters on the high windows. I’d wake to blades of light along the wall and the sounds of my grandfather making breakfast upstairs. He liked to sing hymns while he worked. Sometimes the smell and clatter of bacon frying reminds me of his voice:
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.
I liked his hymns, but I didn’t know most of the words. My grandparents were Southern Baptist, and supposedly my father once was too, but we were Catholic like my mother. The first time I went into their church, I genuflected at the pew, and somebody actually gasped. Neither one of my grandparents ever said anything about us not being quite like them, but there were signs of how they felt: kids’ prayer books with Protestant theology, invitations to Sunday school events. Later, when I got to college, I found myself mysteriously subscribed to a magazine for “America’s evangelical youth.”
I joked about one of the articles with my mom during a call home, but her voice got unexpectedly tight. She asked for the name of the magazine. The next month it disappeared from my mailbox as abruptly as it had arrived.